How To Make a Baby, Hyperintentionally

Modern Families explores the beauty of unconventional families—and the difficult and sometimes-repellant process of creating them

Susan J. Douglas

Michael Eidelman (L) and A.J. Vincent pose with their twin children, Connor and Katherine, outside their apartment in New York. (PHOTO BY AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

As an anti­dote to the spec­ta­cle of the intol­er­ant and self-right­eous Kim Davis refus­ing to val­i­date the mar­riage licens­es of peo­ple who love each oth­er, I high­ly rec­om­mend Josh Gamson’s deeply mov­ing and smart new book, Mod­ern Fam­i­lies: Sto­ries of Extra­or­di­nary Jour­neys to Kin­ship. Gam­son, an emi­nent media soci­ol­o­gist and mar­ried gay father of two, fol­lows peo­ple who des­per­ate­ly want kids but can’t bio­log­i­cal­ly pro­duce them, as they work to con­ceive their chil­dren and their fam­i­lies. His goal is sim­ple: to des­tig­ma­tize these fam­i­lies, espe­cial­ly giv­en how much effort and care go into what he calls hyper­in­ten­tion­al” fam­i­ly for­ma­tion. He also seeks to dra­mat­i­cal­ly expand the term repro­duc­tive free­dom” to include the hero­ic efforts peo­ple go to, against bar­ri­ers and dis­crim­i­na­tion, to make families.

He writes with palpable discomfort about an egg-donor and surrogacy industry in which men like him are advised to get eggs from smart, blue-eyed college girls and then plant the embryo into the wombs of lower-middle-class women—whose eggs you are advised you don’t want, but whose uteruses you do.

What is so deft about Mod­ern Fam­i­lies is the ease with which Gam­son weaves togeth­er indi­vid­ual sto­ries about cre­at­ing fam­i­lies with aca­d­e­m­ic research about the process, from sin­gle par­ent­hood to gay par­ent­ing to repro­duc­tive technologies.

He begins with the con­vo­lut­ed jour­ney he and his hus­band took to bring their first daugh­ter into the world. Gam­son had, from child­hood, always imag­ined he’d be a dad. When he came to terms with his sex­u­al iden­ti­ty, he assumed that could nev­er hap­pen. Yet he could not let his desire for chil­dren go. And so an explo­ration began. A close female friend did not want chil­dren but did want to expe­ri­ence preg­nan­cy. Anoth­er woman donat­ed her eggs. Gam­son and his hus­band could pro­vide the sperm. Out of this kin­ship group came a child.

Gam­son is part of a net­work of pret­ty amaz­ing peo­ple who have cre­at­ed delib­er­ate­ly uncon­ven­tion­al fam­i­lies against all odds, and he describes the often heart-wrench­ing emo­tion­al and tech­no­log­i­cal lengths they had to go to. There are moments in all these accounts that will bring you to tears. The sto­ries he tells involve adop­tion, the use of sur­ro­gates and in vit­ro fer­til­iza­tion. They fea­ture gay and straight and trans­gen­der par­ents as well as sin­gle, cou­pled and mul­ti-par­ent fam­i­lies. Some entail going halfway around the world to adopt a child, and Gam­son is keen­ly sen­si­tive to the glob­al strat­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tem in which the Unit­ed States remained dom­i­nant, always a receiv­er and not a sender of adop­tive children.”

His sub­jects are alike in one way: They are all appar­ent­ly mid­dle- to upper-mid­dle-class. Gam­son, a soci­ol­o­gist, is quick to empha­size that even though his sub­jects may have been mar­gin­al­ized because of their sex­u­al­i­ty, their class priv­i­lege, finan­cial resources and social net­works enabled them to cre­ate their fam­i­lies in a way that peo­ple of less­er means sim­ply can­not. He is also sen­si­tive to the weird, gen­der-based dynam­ics at play in a realm where a gay man is seen as defi­cient because he can­not car­ry a baby and a woman as priv­i­leged because she can — but her repro­duc­tive capac­i­ty can also be exploit­ed through sur­ro­ga­cy or coer­cive adop­tion prac­tices. He writes with pal­pa­ble dis­com­fort about an egg-donor and sur­ro­ga­cy indus­try in which men like him are advised to get eggs from smart, blue-eyed col­lege girls and then plant the embryo into the wombs of low­er-mid­dle-class women — whose eggs you are advised you don’t want, but whose uterus­es you do.

Gam­son is a great sto­ry­teller, and this mat­ters, because uncon­ven­tion­al fam­i­lies need to have com­pelling ori­gin sto­ries when their chil­dren ask, Where did I come from?” or are asked, Why don’t you have a mom?” or Why do you have two?” or If you don’t have a mom, how did you get born?” Such sto­ries have pol­i­tics, Gam­son reminds us, because they are a direct chal­lenge to the faux fam­i­ly val­ues” nuclear fam­i­ly dis­course, which is actu­al­ly not the norm any­more, if it ever was.

Two strong themes, often in ten­sion, dom­i­nate this inspir­ing book. One is how expen­sive, inequitable and at times repel­lant the whole assist­ed repro­duc­tion indus­try can be, lead­ing some, like Gam­son, to explore and find sat­is­fy­ing (if com­pli­cat­ed) workarounds, like friend­ship-based sur­ro­ga­cy or mul­ti-par­ent par­ent­ing. The oth­er, though, is what this very same indus­try can make pos­si­ble: new­found, love-filled fam­i­lies who, in their increased vis­i­bil­i­ty and obvi­ous joy, slow­ly but sure­ly break down the mean-spir­it­ed bar­ri­ers the likes of Kim Davis want to impose on oth­ers who sim­ply want to share and cel­e­brate their love.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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