Friday, March 18, 2011

An unbroken chain

Many years ago, while I was still in graduate school, pre-Eggbert, pre-Mystery, a friend of mine asked another if he was planning to have children. His response was "my ancestors for the last 4 billion years have all had children--no way I'm going to be the one to break the chain!" That statement stuck with me, long after that friend got married (to a close friend of mine who had claimed she didn't want to have children), had his two kids (an "oops," and then a second conceived on the first month trying), and drifted out of my life, as happens sometimes.

I have another family friend who is obsessed with genealogy. He's a good guy, but I cannot for the life of me understand why he thinks that non-relatives might be interested in hearing how he found his great-aunt's uncle's father's half-cousin's niece twice removed lives in Odessa, but he does, oh he does!

I myself am interested in lots of different kinds of people and places, and generally am more interested in stories that touch, move, shock, terrify, or otherwise impress me than I am in mundane stories about about family members that I don't know. It has never occurred to me to find out the names of my paternal grandmother or grandfather's siblings, and I've never been particularly interested in genealogy. It seems to me that by the time you get past grandparents, you aren't much more closely genetically related to your relatives than you are to randomly chosen strangers anyway. I have a cousin who keeps a book of information about one branch of the family, but it has never occurred to me to ask to see it.

Mystery's family tree is mostly, well, mysterious. He has a gajillion aunts and uncles, who have a quintillion children, but he doesn't even know the names of two of his grandparents, or any of his great-grandparents, and given the poor record-keeping in the Land of Mystery, he never will. So, Eggbert will know exactly where her Mysterious ancestors came from, but nothing else about them, and as for my side of the family, well, she probably won't even get that.

All of this is an introduction to admitting that for no reason that I can explain, a couple of weeks ago, after seeing a TV commercial (oh the shame!) I clicked on one of those on-line genealogy websites. I made it as far as entering my grandparents' info, and then it turned out I'd have to sign up formally (of course) to see what the place had to offer. There was a free trial, though, and I was about to click on that when I realized that I couldn't. Or shouldn't. Or just wouldn't. Because if I choose to go ahead with donor eggs, that may not be an option available to my child. Of course Eggbert wouldn't make it very far on either, but by asking around in the family, we could probably put together enough information to get her started if genealogy turns out to be one of her "things." But for a donor-conceived child, it would be Mystery's rock on one side, and a hard place on the other. Even if we used a known or identity-release donor, that doesn't guarantee the kind of access to information (birthdates, places of birth, etc.), that would allow a future adult to, at age 42, idly type into a computer and start exploring their family history. Really to me, that doesn't seem like much of a loss at all. When I realized what I was doing, I clicked away, and I can't say that it is really bugging me not to know whatever it is that I might learn if I kept clicking. But it does kind of bug me to realize that many people think that this IS important, illogical as that seems to me. (Edited: When I wrote this, I didn't mean that other people's interest in genealogy bothers me. I meant that it bothered me to realize that a future donor-conceived child might think that this is important and be unable to access their information--sorry if that wasn't clear in the original post.) Beyond pointing out that everyone's family tree can't really lead back to Charlemagne, that even if they did, there is something like a 10% rate of extra-pair paternity in most human societies, so some of those "fathers" on most family trees probably aren't really the fathers at all, and that even if you ARE descended from Charlemagne, that doesn't actually make you special, what can one do to help a donor-conceived or adopted child handle the disconnection that comes from not living with genetic relatives?

I've seen lots of different answers proposed--don't create donor-conceived children in the first place (because somehow adoption creates fewer losses?), be very open (at times to the point of pushing being donor-conceived as a central part of a child's identity), or just relax and follow the child's lead. I don't know. And I also don't know whether it's better that I don't care much about genealogy (so I can lead by example in not being too worked up about genetics), or worse (because it will make it that much harder to relate to a future child's sense of disconnection or loss about being donor-conceived.

And that's if we decide to go for it at all. So much to think about...

(PS--I've decided that I'm going to start just typing and publishing rather than rereading and editing my posts in the interest of making them actually happen. If you notice a radical decline in quality--that's why!)

I just re-read this post and can't stand how disjointed it is. I've edited just a bit, and it's definitely back to routine rereading and editing before posting for me in future posts!


Kat said...

Does family history necessarily mean a direct genetic connection? While the word 'gene' is part of 'genealogy' I think history hides a great many generic secrets. I understand your point of view, but I'm not sure I agree.

In the UK donors no longer have anonymity, so at 18 anyone born through donation can get the names of their biological parent(s). This is officially to prevent half-siblings from accidentally marrying, but it is also in place to give people information about their identity.

Sara said...

Kat--but is a name an identity? If all you have of a genetic parent is their name, does that give you any real family history at all? Typing a name alone into a search engine isn't going to give you much of anything.

I totally agree that history hides a lot of secrets--that was my point about extra-pair paternity. I don't think that anybody REALLY knows who their distant ancestors are absent detailed genetic testing. Still this stuff seems to mean a lot to people.

Lut C. said...

A very interesting post, especially since things like this are floating through my head as well.

I think genealogy is one thing, and the loss of the connection with bio parents another. Of course, if you have no info on your bio parents at all (closed adoption/anon donor) you can't research your own biological family tree.
The main difference is that genealogy is something that not everyone is interested in, whilst I suppose most people are interested (to a degree) in their bio parents.

I'm not interested in genealogy, and I only know one person who is moderately interested.

Putting myself in the shoes of someone adopted or donor-conceived, I would at least be curious about my bio parents. Would I suffer due to not knowing? Maybe, maybe a lot, maybe a little. I have no idea.

No one choses the circumstances of their birth.

It's likely we will try donor before we continue with adoption. So, if we do end up adopting, what will I say to that child? I think I'll explain that we wanted a second child very badly, and that we tried all the paths available to us. The order of the paths we take depends on many things.
In my mind, there is more loss involved in adoption than in donor conception. Perhaps not so much for the child (depends on the circumstances), but very much so for the bio parent(s). Being a donor is - usually - a good experience for the donor, no? Placing a baby for adoption is a whole different thing.

I may recycle this into a post of my own.

Bionic Baby Mama said...

i am somewhat into geneology -- not to the point of doing much of it myself, but i do love hearing the stories others have found and i do feel proud of some of my ancestors -- and here i am with a donor-conceived kid. i doubt i'll be able to stop myself filling his head with stories of the ancestors on my side -- nor do i think i'd want to; part of what i like about ancestral stories is hearing about the everyday heroism of people who didn't make it into the history books -- but i'm interested to see what he makes of stories of sugar's family (to whom he is not genetically related) as well as how he ends up feeling about the donor's side.