Joshua Gamson and his husband have two children. When the first child was just a baby, one question came up a bit too often when strangers saw the two men with her: “Where did you get her?”
It used to make the dads seethe. Gamson, though, is a sociology professor and award-winning author; he’s accustomed to thinking things through and explaining them clearly and compellingly. So he set out to answer the “Where did you get her” question by writing Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship.
The question of where the baby came from is not just relevant to pairs of men and pairs of women. Single people and transgender people who want children also face it. So do straight couples in certain circumstances, and families with more than two parents.
In successive chapters, Gamson tells in personal, moving detail stories of extraordinary journeys to kinship, including his own and those of other people he knew well or got to know deeply. They are stories of adoption, surrogacy, egg donation, sperm donation, fertilization, and many other ways of assisting reproduction. They are the stories of people so intent on parenting that they endured stigma, discrimination, legal hurdles, and unbearably painful disappointments. Some made it through years of physically and emotionally taxing medical procedures. They filled out more forms than most people complete in a lifetime, and spent unthinkable sums of money. They found people to donate vital materials and carry their child. They researched medical conditions and bureaucratic structures. They put together support systems. Some almost literally traveled to the ends of the earth.
As Gamson notes in the introduction, there are different ways to tells these kinds of stories. In one version, the stories are “personal, moving, and celebratory.” Larger institutional forces either have no place at all, or they are obstacles on the way to a heroic ending. A different version, often told by scholars, critiques issues related to race, class, gender, and commercialization. Questions include: Does surrogacy mean more opportunities for women or more exploitation? Are the bodies of poor women being used to fulfill the wishes of wealthy people? Are cross-cultural adoptions better construed as humanitarian or imperialist?
In Modern Families, Gamson offers both the personal and the critical perspectives. The stories of the journeys to kinship are beautifully rendered, novelistic page-turners. They are told, though, in the context of the overarching social forces and disparities.
The author does not spare himself from his own critiques. He worried about choosing “to turn conception and childbirth into commercial exchanges, alienating myself, my partner, and the women involved from our bodies and our babies, replacing the personal and the attached with the impersonal and detached.” Yet he was “setting out with willing collaborators, to do something beautiful.”
One of the most significant accomplishments of Modern Families is what it contributes to the dismantling of what Gamson calls the “One True Family” ideology. That’s the myth “that heterosexual coupling in marriage is the singular, correct way to make a family and that other ways of doing so don’t really count, are illegitimate or unnatural or shameful.”
Left unassailed, Gamson writes, the ideology “serves to justify the denial of equal respect, support, rights, and resources for all kinds of families.”
The “One True Family” myth is also an ideology of biological supremacy. Because of that way of thinking, children get asked who their “real” mother is, and academics who should know better use the term “fictive kin” to refer to people treated like family who are not biological relatives. The stories Gamson tells in Modern Families give new power and prominence to the “families of choice” that were so important to the LGBT community before the quest for same-sex marriage rights became the dominant narrative.
When Gamson asked others share the intimate details of their extraordinary journeys to kinship in his book, many of them balked. Most did not want their real names to be used. “More than a few freaked out,” he writes, when they saw the first draft of what Gamson had written about them.
That’s understandable. By becoming parents, the people in Modern Families felt that they had gained entrée into a prestigious club. But the way they got there — well, that was something else entirely. Gamson pointed to a sobering statistic, that “nearly three-quarters of those conceived by donor insemination remained unaware that the person they know as their mother or father is not, in fact, their genetic parent.”
His comment on that is telling: “Silence is its own kind of politic, in that it leaves it to others to make up their own story about you.”
Gamson acknowledges that “for many people, the telling of unconventional creation stories winds up being a delicate, high-risk endeavor.” He hopes that “it will become less so the more such stories are told.” So do I.
Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship
New York University Press, September 2015
Hardcover, 240 pages