Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates

reviewed by Judith E. Beckett, R.N.

Mommies, Daddies, Donors

by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD
The Guilford Press, New York, 2005

Shadows and ghosts and birth others, oh, my! In her book, Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: answering tough questions and building strong families, Diane Ehrensaft will just about scare the pants off you by bringing out of the closet all the fantasies and nightmares you may have concerning “the someone else” who helped you to create your family. She describes this “fertile new world” of donor insemination, egg donation, surrogacy, gestational care, and embryo implantation as a lot scarier than you might want to think. Deep, deep within your psyche, hobgoblins lurk - guilt, fear, and longing – and they may be abiding in your child’s imagination as well.

Trust me on this. Only a shrink could have written this book and, in fact, Diane Ehrensaft is a professor of psychology and a noted developmental and clinical psychologist who has spent the last two decades working with parents and children who have come together as a family through assisted reproductive technology.

It is, she says, the separation of sexual intercourse from reproduction unique to families using a birth method other than that which creates a problem for most of us. Even a three-year-old knows you’re supposed to have a mommy and a daddy. (Ehrensaft refers to this scenario as “the birth narrative of our society”.) Wild fantasies about the “someone else” who is neither your lover nor your spouse might include “immaculate deception”, birth others as conniving kidnappers, and “shrinking the donor” (diminishing a whole human being down to a vial of sperm or a single organ like a uterus). (Ehrensaft is a genius at inventing witty reproductive terminology.)

Her point is that acknowledging our anxieties and facing up to our fears about the origins of our families – “through science not sex” - is essential to the clarity of thinking we need to grow strong, healthy families.

All well and good but it’s too bad that the book starts out so creepily because, if you’re not too exhausted to go on after you’ve wrestled all of your reproductive demons to the ground in the first one hundred pages, there’s a lot of good stuff here.

Each chapter confronts one of six issues facing women and men, gay or straight, who use assisted reproduction to start and/or grow their families. Ehrensaft provides a set of questions at the beginning of each chapter for you parents and parents-to-be to think about before reading the material and then asks you to revisit the questions afterward.

She asks you to ponder how it will be to have a child with genes from a total stranger. Do you assume that your child is more like you than your partner because you are the genetic parent? Do you think of yourself as the “real” parent?

Or, conversely: Do you feel like “a birth nobody” because you’re not genetically related to your child? Are you comfortable thinking about or talking about the donor? Who “owns” this child anyway? Tough questions indeed. Who is mommy? Who is daddy? What will you tell your child and what words will you use to do it?

Ehrensaft offers concrete concepts to help you negotiate this “geneological bewilderment”. For instance, she offers the “family matrix” as a framework that can include all the people who made the baby (could be as many as five, she reminds us) while also safely enclosing the people who will hold and raise the child.

She provides guidelines to help you frame age appropriate birth stories containing the five key elements your offspring will need to live proudly and comfortably with themselves and to share their identity with others.

And she gives us language – words like “birth otherness”, “biosocial families”, and genitor for biological father vs pater for sociological father – words you and your children will need to name all the inhabitants in your own fertile new world.

This is a good book. Go ahead and buy it if you dare.

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