As one of eight children, I frequently found myself in the position of defending my parents' choice to have a large family. Thin-lipped women in grocery stores or doughy Sunday school teachers would lean in and ask me, “But why would your parents want so many kids?”
As a product of this family, I had no idea. My answers were usually a joke (“They like sex!”) or evasive, (“We have fun.”). Only now that I’m 30 with a toddler and a husband is the answer to that question starting to take shape in my mind.
Before I got pregnant, I tried to come up with an answer to the question, “Why?” In my mind, I thought people would press me for an answer: “Why a child? Why you? Why now?” But no one did. My husband and I are white and middle class. We live in the Midwest. The only question people asked us was, “What took you so long?”
Which was good, because I didn’t have a perfect answer to the question, “Why have a baby?” My answers ranged from the selfish — I want to experience the love of a child, I want the happiness of a family — to the coldly practical — it’s part of our DNA to reproduce. But truthfully, I just wanted to reproduce myself in the most literal sense. I wanted to see that little girl again, all limbs, folded up into an arm chair, clutching a book to her stomach. I wanted to be there with her as she discovered Anne of Green Gables. I wanted to help her sew doll clothes and teach her to climb trees. The truth is prosaic. But no one wanted it anyway.
Now, as an adult, that question is again a common refrain. But this time it’s not directed toward my family. Instead, the question is being asked of gay couples: “Why do you want kids anyway?”
Why? Why would you want children if you can’t raise them with a mother and a father? Why do you want children if most of the country won’t let you adopt or have the custody security that comes with marriage? Why?
I live in Iowa, where gay couples can legally marry. But the struggle to build a family as a gay couple is still a long road riddled with social, emotional and biological obstacles. And of course, that nagging question: “Why?” When your family is a societal aberration (big or gay), people question you. They want to know why you are different. But the answer to why gay couples (or anyone) wants kids is a lot easier than you think, and of course, more complicated than you can imagine. Let me explain.
In his novel The Paternity Test, Michael Lowenthal tells the story of a gay couple, Stu and Patrick, who try to have a child through a surrogate. The story of the ensuing ramifications of that decision, and the couple's non-traditional journey to parenthood, examines the question of why we become parents in the first place, and the way that choice builds families and destroys our ideas of what we thought life would be.
Initially, Stu and Patrick want a child to save their relationship. How selfish! As I was reading, the mother and wife in me gasped, grasping my metaphorical pearls. But how could I blame them? It had occurred to me in my darkest of moments that the reason my husband and I were having a child was because we’d reached an apex in our relationship. The choice was only a matter of what we imagined as our future.
Yet as the story progresses in Lowenthal's novel, the rationales for having a child tumble against one another, until the whole structure of what each character thought they wanted is collapsed and the concept of family is redefined.
Although fictional, Lowenthal’s characters forced me to face that question of why? and realize just how lacking my answers were. Each time I heard my justifications (love, happiness, reproduction), echoed by characters in the book, I realized how flimsy they were in the face of the challenge that ultimately lay before me. But that is the point: When confronted with the realities of parenthood, of the process of creation and the exuberant tedium of childrearing, it doesn’t matter who we are (gay, straight) or what our answers are (logical, selfish, selfless). It just matters what we see before us.
At any given point in their process of having children, my parents have given answers that bordered on the sentimental (“We’ve always wanted a large family”) to the spiritual (“God’s called us”). But in the end, after eight births, one miscarriage and numerous tragedies, near deaths, and calls for bail money, each little answer to “why have a child?” has been lost to the realities of who each child has grown up to become.
The process of having a child reduced me from what I was—my pretensions about myself and my relationship—to what I really am, just a mass of quivering cells and ransacked souls. So does it really matter how we get there and why? Or just that when I hold that child, that child is loved and cared for?
Having a child stripped away all my ideas of “a normal family,” and left me with the understanding that love is the same no matter the source, and family is what you make of it, not how you conceive of it.
(photo: Adrian NiederhÃ?Â¤user/ Shutterstock)