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The Yale Child Study Center Guide to Understanding Your Child
By Linda C. Mayes and Donald J. Cohen
Little, BrownCopyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Decision to Become a Parent
The decision to become a parent is momentous. It will affect your life more than almost any other decision you will ever make. It will engage you in a lifelong enterprise-shepherding and nurturing one or more human beings from birth to adulthood. And it will affect how you think and feel and change who you are in both your own eyes and those of others. Yet, in making this decision, you probably didn't think of it in this way at all.
Perhaps, for you, it is the "next step," according not only to your own expectations but to those of family, friends, even the culture as a whole. It may be one decision among others that you have made that have shaped your grown-up life: what schools to attend, what kind of work to do, where to make your home, whom to commit yourself to for a long-term relationship or marriage. Or perhaps, overwhelmed by worry, depression, or poverty, or distracted by the pressures of work, you and your partner have found yourselves pregnant without seeing it as a choice.
Maybe, like many couples or single men and women, you wanted a child in order to pass on some legacy from your own lives: the strength of your relationship as a couple, a musical talent you both share, the athletic prowess of one. You want to pass on genes, values, energy. You want to share your expectations of how families and communities look out for one another, along with the traditions and stories of your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Ultimately, your children will preserve a piece of you in the world, guaranteeing a bit of immortality-as you have for those who came before you.
In these terms, the decision to have a child is the beginning of a venture with enormously high stakes and risks. In a sense, you are gambling with your genes, rolling a pair of biological dice on the chance of extending your family and yourselves. Although gambling may seem a trivial metaphor for an event as serious as having a child, luck operates as powerfully in the one as in the other. As carefully as a couple may plan a pregnancy and watch over the mother's health, no one can be absolutely sure that the baby will be healthy. Nor can anyone predict how a young child will grow and develop, through whatever crises may arise, into an adult; or guarantee that your children will share your talents or strengths-or weaknesses. The choice to have a baby is based on the future you hope for. You decide today because of what you want for yourselves and your children tomorrow. You are propelled forward by your biology and your wishes. Deciding to become a parent is, then, both conscious choice and true leap of faith.
Five Decisions for Parenthood
In the following five stories, a variety of adults-two heterosexual couples, a gay couple, a single woman, grandparents-make this choice through pregnancy, adoption, or both. Common to all five sets of parents is the wish to give something of themselves to their children and also to express through their children an aspect of their own selves as nurturing, caring adults. Common to them as well is the effort and desire to examine all their reasons for deciding to take on the care of a child.
A Planned Pregnancy: Mary and Ethan
Mary awoke with a sense of expectation. The day before, late in the afternoon, she and her husband had rushed from their respective jobs to her obstetrician to find out whether they were pregnant. Mary smiled at how she and Ethan thought of themselves as both pregnant: having a child was something they would do not just as a man and a woman but as a unit. And the doctor's news had been good: their first child was coming in the spring. They had been so relieved, happy, shocked, and worried that, in the rush of feelings, she could not quite remember leaving the doctor's office.
In her mind, Mary tried to reassemble the rest of the evening. They had walked slowly together, and she found herself looking at every woman they passed. Had she been pregnant? Mary wondered. Did she enjoy being a mother? Where are her children now? Mary had seen the image of her own mother in the older woman sitting in the coffee shop, and in the park she had imagined seeing her child. Mary smiled again. In her mind, their child was already in second grade.
Mary and Ethan had spent many a long evening together wondering about their first child. They had each surprised the other with how strong their images were. Ethan seemed always to see in his mind's eye a tall, brown-haired, brown-eyed girl. Mary had realized many months ago that she always imagined a son with brownish-blond hair, quiet but energetic, witty, gentle, and full of life. She always saw him as taller than she, looking down patiently, if not a bit puzzled. Funny how even when she wondered about the baby, he took the shape of an older child. And that thought raised a question: Would she know how to take care of the baby? Ethan seemed to pull resourcefulness from a well deeper than the earth itself. In some ways she had married him because she deeply believed he would be a good father. But could she keep up?
Ethan was awake, too, silently imagining his child to come. He thought back, feeling a little guilty, to his first real girlfriend, and how for several weeks they had played a game of imagining what their children would be like. They had come up with a large family, at least four children, in a big house in the country. He would be quickly successful in his writing, with an immediate bestseller, so he could spend his days at home where they would raise the children together. Ethan smiled at how young and naive they were. Just a few months after they had broken up, he met Mary at a baseball game-in the early spring, he recalled, right around the time of year when their baby would come.
As much as they both wanted children, Ethan and Mary also wanted to establish themselves in their work. He was working his way up in a publishing company, and the demands on his time were extraordinary. Mary, too, was just starting her career in an investment firm. For both, taking time off might mean an irrevocable setback in their dreams for themselves and for their marriage. Ethan had always thought he would be a very involved father, but now he was not sure he could be. As special as this pregnancy was, suddenly their world felt turned inside out and upside down. Yet Ethan knew, and was sure that Mary agreed, that their life before the obstetrician's announcement had felt incomplete. While there were still many uncertainties, somehow they both felt that the baby they were just now beginning to imagine would fill in their lives together.
A Single Mother Adopts: Joyce
Joyce was a successful defense attorney in her late thirties. All of her adult life had been dedicated to the goal of being a welltrained, respected, and competent lawyer. Full of energy and extraordinarily creative, she had worked long hours in volunteer organizations during law school and still managed to be on the law review. She headed a student-run advocacy group for poor families, worked in soup kitchens, and helped poor mothers complete applications for welfare and food stamps. She had even created a volunteer group of law students who served as mentors to one or two local children every year. Joyce had taken on three children and been their mentor all through her law-school years. All three had stayed in touch with her, even fourteen years later.
After law school, Joyce had received many offers to join various law firms. She had picked a prestigious firm that specialized in defending individual rights. The hard work suited Joyce's high energy. She lectured at the law school about advocacy work, supervised students in a clinic that provided pro bono services to poor families, and became involved in many volunteer organizations. Joyce had made partner in her firm when she was thirty-six, and was securely placed in her professional career. Her life was full and rewarding. Many colleagues were sure she was on the track for a judgeship.
Joyce had a circle of close friends, both from the law and from her volunteer work. She had had a number of relationships, but none developed into marriage or a long-term partnership. This was a private loneliness for Joyce. She was sure that eventually she would meet someone with whom she might share a loving, enduring life, but it had not yet happened. Meanwhile, her two younger sisters were married and, in the last four years, had three children between them. Joyce took great joy in being with her two nieces and her nephew. She had always assumed that she too would have a family and be a mother. Her own parents were teachers, a two-career family before the term was fashionable, so she had a model for combining work and family.
But time seemed to be running out. Suddenly Joyce was acutely aware that she was in her late thirties and that if she was going to be a mother, she needed to begin thinking about whether she wanted to keep waiting for the right circumstance or take action on her own. Joyce was not someone who put her faith in chance. Yet she was also not sure she was up to single motherhood. She had the financial resources, but she agonized over whether that was the kind of family she wanted to give a child. Joyce explored many options, including adoption and in vitro fertilization. She wanted very much to have a child that was of her genes, from her body, and to have the experience of being pregnant. But she also realized that she would want to conceive a child with someone she loved, not a donor.
In the end, Joyce chose to bring a baby girl into her home. She tackled the adoption process with the same thoroughness and energy that she applied to other tasks. Her contacts, her status in the community, and her work as a mentor all helped open doors for her. Before long, she was caring for a baby in her home; and after a few months, the public agency responsible for the little girl recommended that Joyce become her legal mother. As Joyce waited for the adoption to be final, she realized her whole image of herself was changing. Joyce loved the law as much as she ever had, and looked forward to telling her daughter about being a lawyer, but now she was expanding her old self-image to include the new reality of being a parent.
Two Gay Men Adopt: Jim and Stan Jim had been the first to bring up the possibility of their becoming fathers, where Stan was not so sure. But Jim had always been the more decisive of the two. He had announced his homosexuality in high school, having known since the third grade that he felt different from other boys. An only child, Jim remembered how surprised his parents had been. His mother, the town librarian, took many hours to think about her son's homosexuality and tried to see the world through his eyes. Jim's father, a businessman, had been initially angry and embarrassed to be with his son. But the anger and awkwardness wore off, and soon father and son were spending even more time fishing together at their favorite creek. Gradually, they were able to talk with more openness than before.
Stan, on the other hand, had not come out until college, after he and Jim had begun dating regularly. They had met at a seminar. Jim struck Stan as being so comfortable in his own skin-not just with being gay, but with who he was overall. Stan had always been cautious about revealing his homosexuality to others and had not had a serious relationship before Jim. Stan's parents still did not know about Jim, though he had confided in his older sister, Cindy. When Jim and Stan had begun spending time together, they visited Cindy several times. She welcomed them as a couple and enjoyed having them take care of her two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son.
After college, Jim went to law school and Stan began work in journalism. They lived in a community that offered each of them good professional opportunities and where they could imagine settling down. They were amazed their life had worked out as well as it had. They had a close group of friends-gay and straight, men and women, singles and couples. Jim eventually joined a small law firm, and Stan started to work freelance. They bought a home together. As many of their straight friends began to have children, Jim suggested they think about adopting a child.
Jim had talked often with his mother about wanting to have a child. He had even asked his father if he would teach a grandson to fish. Stan, however, was initially unsure, wondering what it would be like for two gay men to raise a child. His mind raced ahead to his having to take the child to school and to explain how he and his partner were the parents. What would they do when their son or daughter started asking them about their sexuality, or when other children teased their child about having gay parents? Was it fair to adopt a child into a household that society did not yet fully embrace? Jim knew all of these issues, but he saw himself and Stan not primarily as two gay men but as two individuals who could give a lot emotionally and materially to a child. Jim also knew that being a father would fulfill a need he felt in himself.
Ultimately, Stan came around, though his misgivings returned each time someone reminded them that their situation was "unusual." He and Jim wondered if they would improve their chances by volunteering to adopt an older child, though they both wanted to care for an infant. Finally, through a private agency, they were put in contact with a pregnant woman who wanted to put her baby up for adoption. They visited her several times, followed her through her pregnancy, and were present at the delivery. By law, only one partner could adopt the baby; legally, he was a single parent. But it was Stan and Jim together who brought their son home and introduced him to his new grandparents, aunt, and cousins.
Adoption and Pregnancy: David and Katherine
Katherine, an artist who taught painting at a local school, had had several successful small shows. David, a contractor, had taken over his family's business of remodeling and restoring historic buildings in Connecticut. On the side, he had also developed his own small woodworking shop. David always assumed he would be a father and a husband, though he had never thought deeply about it. He had dated through high school and college, but had no serious relationship. Right after college, he had taken a summer trip across the country with his closest friends. They stayed a week in New Mexico-and there David met Katherine, his friend's sister. They seemed to hit it off instantly. She was as different from anyone he had ever met as the desert landscape was from the New England shore.
Excerpted from The Yale Child Study Center Guide to Understanding Your Child by Linda C. Mayes and Donald J. Cohen Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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