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The City Of Love

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The news that France passed ‘marriage for all’ was delivered with jubilant footage. Members of Parliament cheering and tearing; there was hugging. It’s tempting to see France becoming the 14th country to legalize equal marriage as inevitable. Mais bien sûr! This is a country known for being far less rigid and puritanical than America. From a vantage point of 3,000+ miles France appears to be a more vivre et laisser vivre kinda place. This perception is distilled in mental images of Josephine Baker, James Baldwin (and just about every other writer found in any decent home library) finding a more agreeable way of life in France. The French, Parisians in particular, seem impervious to race and fluid when it came to sexuality. Sexual behavior and couplings seemed more akin to the pleasures of fine dining than a naughty or shameful undertaking. But is this live and let live kinda place actually for real? Have we, from 3,000+ miles, taken bits and pieces and formed an attractive if not entirely accurate picture?

Those hugging tearing politicians are just one image among many. Have you seen the violent protests and ugly worded signs? Have you heard the (translated) rhetoric? Much of the ‘anti’ argument (that has made the journey across the Atlantic) has centered on ‘the children.’ Almost without exception anytime ‘the children’ are invoked in an argument it is code for ‘no, look over here at this bright shiny thing.’ The children. That’s right, gay and lesbian French are fighting for their equality because of ‘the children.’ Opponents of equal marriage have declared that children need a mother and a father. That certainly makes for a nice sentimental placard but what does it mean? Are there no single parents in France (she says while spitting out her latte?) That’s pretty hard to fathom in a country known for being more lax about relationships outside of marriage. Are there currently no gay and lesbian households that include children? Doubtful, as some people come to relationships having already lived a bit. Without a law protecting equal marriage and the ability for both spouses to adopt a child, gays and lesbians will still parent. The children however will have less protection. It is remarkable in this day and age, when people are regularly parenting without benefit of marriage, that anyone would even attempt to wave the ‘one mother one father’ flag. No one, not any child expert, psychologist, sociologist or anyone would ever posit that a child is better served by fewer caring adults or instability. What children need most is a secure, stable environment in which the adults are focused on the care of the child. Denying their parents the right to marry or preventing the children from being adopted is simply not in the best interest of ‘the children’. That this or any argument is being made by a country known (to us) as being far more lax seems uncharacteristic.

It’s tempting to view an entire people as being cooler, thinner and far more adept at walking in heels on cobblestones than us. We’d like to imagine an entire country that sits down when drinking coffee, and not dressing their children in cartoon festooned garb. Knowing that there’s a place in which one greets the shopkeeper and ends every request with ‘if you please’ gives us hope. But there are manners (real or perceived) and then there’s real life. In real life the French aren’t that much different than us. Yes, they can do that scarf thing, and yes there’s the accent that can turn even a craggy old fisherman into Yves Montand, but when it comes to social issues, are they really that different? It is true that people of color, particularly artists, found an accepting home in France. But was that so much about French color-blindness as it was an appreciation for the arts or dare we say, Americans? When people of color moved into France in significant numbers troubles began to simmer. The 2005 riots were the result of a people of color feeling marginalized for quite some time.

Discovering that the land in which so much seems better, where the wine and bonhomie flow all day and into the night, is really not that much different than us is jarring but incredibly inspiring. It is a sign that Americans, with our baseball cap, sippy cup toting selves, with our puritanical views of sex and our discomfort with race, we too can pass a law that states that all people are created equal.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Turning Back Time

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If you are over a certain age or have any sense of social history you may find yourself living a flashback. How in the world is reproductive freedom still up for dispute in this country? Forgetting for a moment the legality of reproductive choice; how is the subject still even a subject? Why would any person, let alone group, take up a cause that was settled decades ago? Is there a grassroots anti-prohibition movement underway somewhere? Are slogans being developed to appeal the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The common wisdom is that anti-choice supporters come at their crusade from a place of religious conviction. It certainly often looks like that, no? But the logical extension of such a premise is that these people would feel passionate about imposing all of their religious convictions upon others. It’s hard to see how or where this is happening. Even if their only religious conviction is that life (including sperm and egg) shall be preserved at any and all costs, it doesn’t seem to be happening. If it were, shouldn’t the same people protesting reproductive rights be protesting war and pollution? Shouldn’t the placards and protesters be blocking the headquarters of tobacco and gun manufacturers? Wouldn’t the crusaders be impassioned about veteran care and elder care?

The fact that there has never been any anti-choice movement that has taken up the cause of the born and at-risk reinforces the myopia of ‘the cause.’ If all the noise were really about ‘the children’ we would see a groundswell of domestic adoption of older and needier children. We would see zero-tolerance of any form of abuse or neglect of children. There would be full access to excellent health (including dental) care for every child. But almost 500,000 children languish in the foster care system. Children are abused and neglected every single day. These children might feel that being unloved is worse than being unborn.

I’ve no doubt that there are some people who consider it their one-way ticket to heaven to save even one embryo. But I also suspect that the momentum is the message. It’s appealing to belong to a group of like-minded people. It’s equally attractive to have a cause that one can brand as being on the side of ‘good.’ But there are so many crusades that fulfill these requirements. Why women’s reproductive issues? Could it possibly be that it’s ‘women’ that we’re talking about? Hmmm

If it really was about the sperm and the egg, why is there no furor over erectile dysfunction medication? Why is no one protesting the pharmaceutical transport of millions of wayward sperm? Why is there no political movement opposing artificial reproduction? Do you know how many zygotes are lost with each attempt? Has anyone calculated how many zygotes are sloughed off during implantation attempts? Do we know how many stay in the deep-freeze until the end of time (or next black-out)? Do we know how many of the little cell clusters never even make it out of the petri-dish alive? Wouldn’t it stand to reason that anti-choice advocates would be up in arms about such carnage? Isn’t it likely that the number of manufactured zygotes who do not become embryos are equal or greater to the number of abortions in this country? If you believe that life begins at conception, this should be quite troubling.

But none of those issues involve a woman’s body. Controlling a woman’s body would appear to be the only socially acceptable way to control a woman. Legally she has access to voting, employment and even some sports. Legally she must be viewed as equal, even as she earns 77 cents to every dollar a man earns. Really, the only way to stall or turn back progress would be to block her control over her own body. If this is packaged as a morality/religious issue, and if enough bright lights and pretty colors are used to distract us all from the completely illogical crusade to protect ‘life’ only once it’s inside a woman and becomes her choice; perhaps it has a chance of working. It is up to us, those of us who are scratching our heads wondering how the hell this is still an issue, to shine the spotlight on the hypocrisy. It is not enough to simply stake our claim to being pro-choice. We must not shrink from talking about biology (including how several forms of birth control do not prevent fertility but conception.) We must discuss artificial fertility and ignore fear of repercussion. We must preserve our right to determine what we do with our reproductive parts by shining a light on those who fervently desire to turn back time.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Making Babies

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Procreation has changed an awful lot in the past few decades. Do you remember Louise Brown? She was the very first ‘test tube’ baby (aka known as the result of the first successful in vitro fertilization.) Her mother’s story (splattered on every British tabloid) was an international shock. Would the child be normal? Should we be making people in a laboratory? Were eugenics far behind? What kind of person goes to such sci-fi lengths to replicate themselves? Even the Pope weighted in. Well, little Louise is 34 years old now and my have times changed. Medical advances have redefined not just how we make babies but when mothers can be made as well.

Thirty plus years ago a pregnant woman over the age of 35 raised eyebrows. The elevated eyebrows were less about impropriety and more about biology. “Geriatric pregnancy” is an actual medical term and has nothing to do with walkers or graying hair. The human body is designed to be at peak fertility and health before age 35. Specific gestational and delivery risks are more probable after this age. Medical advances have made it safer (through early detection methods) for older women to carry and deliver, but the risks still exist. Historically women over 40 have had children, often quite by surprise. It is not unusual for a woman to develop a (false) sense of infertility security at the start of menopause. But it is only in the last decade or so that women over 40, trying to become pregnant has become normative. It was as recent as 1995 that (actress) Jane Seymour made magazine covers and evoked national gasps by becoming pregnant (with twins) at 44. Public judgments were made about her vanity and sense of entitlement. “She’ll be over 60 when they graduate!” It’s rather unlikely that today such an endeavor would warrant mention let alone prompt a national discussion.

Celebrities (and regular folk) routinely become parents at an older age; often through elaborate intervention. A woman can use her eggs (if they are viable) or a donor’s eggs. She can use her own or someone else’s uterus. Sperm is easily and equally transferable. There are many means and methods of now creating people. It’s hard to imagine that any new configurations could possibly be discovered/invented. All of this progress brings its own host of issues. Medical ethicists must smack their lips and rub their hands together every time a surrogate is hired. What does it mean to create a population who may never know to whom they’re related? Will children grow up and marry their siblings? What does it mean when the eggs of a woman with cancer are frozen for future use? Do doctors have a medical (and ethical) imperative to determine any genetic component to her cancer before fertilizing the eggs? And while we have the ethicists in the room: should health insurance cover fertility expenses? Is replicating one’s genes and/or having a birth experience, medically necessary? If not, are only the wealthy then entitled to these means to parenthood?

And what of other means to parenthood? What is the (current state and) future of adoption? International adoption has become a bit trendy as a few celebrities publicize their children’s origins. But limits to these adoptions are imposed everyday. What of domestic adoptions? There was a time that celebrities regularly and publicly adopted locally out of need. Fertility, contractual obligations, marital status or state of marriage necessitated adoption. If celebrities are adopting domestically today they’re doing it quietly behind closed doors (as the surrogate signs over her rights.) There will never be a shortage in this country of children needing parents. Accidents happen, death happens, life happens; and children are left in precarious situations.

There is no one way or even right way to make a family. In fact often it’s the messiest and most complicated households that are the richest. However as we make these incredible medical advances in maternity let us not lose sight of what we want parenthood to be. Nurturing and guiding a human being is an incredibly rewarding endeavor. Giving a child solid roots and the freedom to fly is the greatest of gifts. How that child arrives into your home and life is immaterial.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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We Are Family

There are many ways to make a family and some of them involve legality. The broadest definition of a family is that of more than one person committed to building a life together. You can imagine the many variations that live within that parameter; parentless siblings, romantically connected adults, friends, one adult and children, generations of the biologically related. Within those examples are even more variations; adopted siblings, romantically connected adults of varying genders, religions, races, ages, abilities, one adult and adopted children, donor/surrogate children, foster children. Generations of the biologically related can include any or all of the categories just mentioned. That’s a whole lot of variation.

Yet for all of our ‘we are the world”liness we are not all that comfortable with uniqueness. It’s not necessarily a shortcoming on our part. We can only process so much information. We are wired to take in information quickly and make instantaneous decisions (‘is that a friendly lion coming toward our cave or a hostile hungry lion?’) We have room for subtlety and idiosyncrasy with our friends and family; but the world at large is just too large. So we look for categories, boxes, and classifications to avoid a mind that would thrill a hoarder. And it wouldn’t matter a smidge until something goes awry.

When a family breaks up there can be a lot of rubble. If the latter part of the 20th century taught us anything; it’s that families can dissolve. For better or worse (pun intended) and for the most part, people no longer need each other for survival. However, through the beauty of human nature; new families can be created. Complicated? Not really, or not until the 5th grade teacher assigns the archaic “family tree” assignment to her class. Family is what you make it and its level of fluidity is what you choose.

Lovely sentiment but what about those step-children left behind in the prior marriage? What of your child’s step-grandparent who is now not? Who gets invited to what? Who gets to see photos or updates? What if the ex-spouse has remarried and there are new steps? Do they get invited? The first step is to drop the label maker. I’m not going to get all Carol Brady and suggest that the only steps in this house are the ones in the living room. But I will offer that when it comes to determining what and who is important to us; labels only obscure. What matters is how you feel, how the children feel and how a new spouse/partner feels (and NOT necessarily in that order.) What we want for our children is for them to have the love of as many people as they possibly can. We want them to have consistent and reliable relationships with people who are not necessarily related to them. It’s one way they grow strong roots. If there has been heinous behavior (i.e., violence, or criminality) by any ex-family member it should be taken into consideration. But overall whatever works for everyone* most involved is just plain okely dokely. (By “everyone” I do not mean the child(ren) are allowed to insist their parents behave as if they never split up and spend all holidays and recitals as a unit.)

Life can be messy, chaotic and at times horrific. Having people who love you and feel obligated to take you in is what makes it all manageable. Yes, the broader we define something the more complex it gets. And no, there isn’t a greeting card to send on Mother’s Day to the woman who is now partnered with your ex-step-parent. But that’s a good thing isn’t it? Do any of us (in our heart of hearts) want to think of ourselves as able to be reduced to a mass market sentiment?

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Childhood, Marriage/Wedding, Well-Being

 

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People Let Me Tell You ‘Bout Children Of ‘Single Parents’

Periodically a new study is published about the affects of single parenting on children. The results (either pursued or emphasized) are pretty much tied to the times. Studies today often highlight the economic hardship and handicap of single parenting. When pop-psychology was king (I’m okay, you’re okay, anyone?) the happiness of the child and later social adjustment were measured. The common thread in most of these studies is; “How does the child fare later on?” Very few studies, whether looking to support the researcher’s thoughts on money and happiness or not, ever looked beyond a headcount. It is rare to see a study that takes into consideration (or has any interest in) what the actual parenting situation is for the child.

“Child of a single parent” can have multiple meanings, among them are; 1) the parent could be recently widowed and the child was raised by two parents at some point or 2) the parent might be divorced and there is a non-custodial parent very much involved in the child’s life. There are studies that might even “overlook” the fact that non-married people (of the same gender or not) are raising a child together, and consider the child to be of a single parent. Certainly many researchers reporting on the permanent scarring and emotional handicap of parents’ divorcing never discuss remarriage. “A child of divorce” could easily be raised by two parents in the home if there is a remarriage. The actual details of a child’s upbringing and parentage seem too complex for these studies. A cynic would deduce that these studies exist to reinforce a researchers’ interest in making people feel badly about their life. A less cynical person would theorize that these broad generalizations are useful to someone somewhere.

There is a recent trend of people intentionally parenting alone. Tragedy has not befallen them nor has abandonment. These people, for various reasons have pursued single parenthood. Within this category alone, are variations that might boggle the average social researcher. These single parents may be men or women of any and every socio-economic background and age. They may have adopted babies or hard to place children. They may have become pregnant (more than once) with a partner they did not marry. They may have orchestrated a pregnancy (either genetically related or not) with medical assistance. Clearly there are more meaningful factors in these child’s future outcomes than how many adults are in the home. Should the biological child of a single 16 year old parent be seen as “starting from the same place” as the adopted child of a 50 year old? Maybe.

As a culture we’ve progressed in how we define ‘family.’ At the same time marriage is becoming more inclusive it is also becoming less relevant for others. Remarriage, blended families, birth parents, and donor parents are all in the mix now. Is there a way to talk about children of single parents in any meaningful way? Is it even meaningful to try? I think we’d all agree that the more caring, consistent and attentive adults in a child’s life the better. Most of us would also agree that a child who grows up in a home with an emphasis on education will do better in school. Money will always matter, and a child whose families’ financial life is precarious will probably not do as well as one raised in a financially stable home. What more do we need to know?

 
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Posted by on July 19, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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