The XX Factor

Explaining the “Twiblings”; Hoping They Won’t Have To

One of my own set of “twiblings” (we call them faux twins around here) had a massive tantrum on the ski slope in our town over break. With all the usual emotions that accompany a kid creating a huge public outcry came an unexpected sense of relief. You could draw plenty of conclusions about us at that moment: that she’s an unusually loud child, that I’m a terrible parent, or, if you’re more sympathetic, that she was tired but that I was rightly requiring that she carry her own tiny skis anyway. But in our ski suits, helmets and goggles, the one thing you couldn’t tell about us was the one thing we usually broadcast on sight to everyone we meet: that my daughter was adopted. (She has three siblings, including one only a few months younger, who were not.)

When I read Melanie Thernstrom’s NYT Magazine piece ” Meet the Twiblings ,”on how she and her husband had babies born five days apart to two surrogate mothers, using his sperm and the same egg donor, my first thought wasn’t “wow.” It certainly wasn’t, as with so many commenters to the piece on the Motherlode blog , “why didn’t they just adopt?”-“just” and “adopt” being two words that should never appear in conjunction with one another. It was “man, they’re going to get so tired of explaining that one.”

When we set out to create our families, we have a tendency to get  caught up in the mechanics. Trying to get pregnant, experiencing infertility, and adopting are all-consuming activities. A few years later the reality of the result of all that singular focus takes over. The books on the topics collect dust on the shelves; the blogs go unvisited. Just as baby milestones fade into unimportance with the passing of the years, how you form your family is at its most important when it’s happening. Once it’s done, it’s done. Meals, homework, appointments, sports-all of those things quickly push even the most complicated birth story into the background most of the time for the families involved. But in some situations, it’s the first thing about us that other people see.

Assisted reproductive technologies may be relatively new, but they’re well on their way to joining adoption in the great pantheon of “personal things about us that don’t worry most people but still may lead those around us to draw cliche’d conclusions about our lives.” Adoptees are assumed to suffer from the “primal wound” of removal from their biological mother or, at the very least, mixed emotions about their origins. “Sperm-donor kids” and their egg donor/surrogacy/combinations thereof brethren are perhaps “not all right,” in the words of Karen Clark and Elizabeth Marquardt, authors of the “My Daddy’s Name Is Donor” study and a Slate article about the same. They interpreted their study as finding that adults who were aware that reproductive technology assisted their birth were “suffering more than those who were adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated from their families” and that adult adoptees were “struggling more” than those raised by their biological parents. “Suffering.” “Struggling.” What kid wouldn’t want to wear those labels every time she walks into a classroom?

My daughter wears the complexities of her origins on her face whenever she’s with any member of her family. Thernstrom’s “twiblings” will carry theirs along to any activity where their birth dates get written on a form. Whatever baggage the people around them associate with adoption or reproductive technologies, these kids are going to be stuck with it-and that’s surely a part of why Thernstrom made her family’s story so public. “I made up my mind to be completely transparent about it,” she writes, and in doing so, she sometimes felt as though she were “inviting a Greek chorus of doleful commentary.” But what she never said was that in inviting that chorus, she must have hoped to shield her kids from it: to make their birth story (and stories like it) such common knowledge that the people around them would never give it a second thought.

That’s a fantastic goal, and hers was a beautiful, gratitude-filled expression of it. But 40-plus years of international/inter-racial adoption haven’t taken us past the point where people do a double-take when encountering a family like ours. Thernstrom has years of deflecting curiosity and assumptions ahead of her, and eventually, she and I will both have to teach our kids to do the same. Meanwhile, I wish her tolerance, a thick skin, and plenty of anonymous tantrums on ski slopes.