Genetics or culture? Nature or nurture? Which is more important when it comes to defining who we are? Many scientists and psychologists now say that it’s a combination of the two, that the child’s DNA is the blueprint, but the way they are raised determines which of those blueprints comes to life, as it were.
It’s the so-called “social” parents (ie. the people who actually raise the child, the ones that I would call the “real” parents) who determine which non-physical features coded in their child’s DNA are emphasized or encouraged. In addition, in the case of a donor-conceived child whose birth mother is not the genetic mother, even the child's physical features may be influenced, as the mother's own flesh and blood actually builds the child's body, affecting the way the child’s genes are expressed, a phenomenon known as epigenetics.
My life experience has been rather normal, or so it would seem. I was raised by the parents to whom I was born, the same parents who provided the X and Y chromosomes that created my physical body and influenced my skills and preferences, strengths and weaknesses. The same mother who contributed half my DNA also affected the way those genes are expressed in me. Both my parents further brought me up to share their values and view of life. However, I was removed from my culture of origin at the age of 8 years old, when my family immigrated across the Atlantic Ocean.
Since then, my life has rolled along on a thin veil of uncertainty and confusion. Since there were no sources outside of my family and household to confirm what I was being taught at home, I had no choice but to assume that what my relatives said was representative of our entire Polish culture. Only as an adult, having met a few Polish peers, I am starting to see that my family was unique in Poland just like any family is unique in their own society. I have merged the particularities of my family with my limited knowledge of Polish culture. As such, I cannot fully say that I belong to the Polish culture, because indoctrination in a culture must involve more than just one’s parents; it must also include one’s peers.
You may think that all that this means is that I am simply not Polish; that I am American. Yet it is not so simple. Everything I have learned about being American has been through peers, the media, formal education; namely, sources outside of my family. Often times, these involved values that are at odds with what I was taught at home by my Polish family. Whenever I have embraced an American value, I have frequently been faced with the feeling – or worse, the accusation – of betraying my heritage.
On paper, I refer to myself as Polish-American. My nephew is also Polish-American, yet he falls into a different category than I do; his father is Polish, but his mother is American. He is 50% Polish, 50% American, half from each parent. I am 100% Polish by family, 100% American by peer group and culture.
Or maybe I’m also “50/50”? Only my two halves aren’t divided between parents but between family and peers? I do not feel fully Polish when I am in Poland, surrounded by other Poles, or aware of my less-than-perfect Polish language abilities. Likewise, while English is now my dominant language, and the United States is the country that I call home, I lack a familial sense of loyalty to the US. My pride in being an American was honed while I served this country in the Army. I do not share a common history with my peers, so we are often at odds when it comes to clashing expectations and experiences.
Yes, life would have been a lot easier in some ways, had my parents chosen to stay in Poland and keep me in my original culture. But they made the best decision for our family based on the information that they had at the time. And in all honesty, in spite of the challenges to my sense of identity, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wouldn’t be who I am today if we hadn’t immigrated.
Ok, ok, so what does any of this have to do with epigenetics? Nature versus nurture? Well, Alex and I will never have a biological child. I have known this for 5 years, but recent events have intensified my grief over this fact. Whenever you deal with the possibility of raising a child not genetically related to you, whether adopted or donor-conceived, the nature versus nurture debate inevitably comes up.
Parents want their children to be, well, THEIRS. They want sole claim to them, with the right and privilege of making all major decisions for them while they’re young, and counseling them in light of their own value system as they get older. Most parents don’t ever analyze that this is what parenting is, but infertile couples, especially those for whom many modern artificial reproductive technologies aren’t even an option, come across these questions as they weigh the pros and cons of the options that they do have.
Parents also want their children to feel as though they belong. No parent wants to be told, “you’re not my ‘REAL’ parent.” Yet isn’t it true that, without this convenient outlet, a frustrated adolescent will nonetheless find another way to question their parents’ authority? But infertile parents are a lot more sensitive to such questioning, because these very questions also arise in society at large. What IS a “real” parent, after all? And if I’m the child of a set of parents that don’t fall into the mainstream, whom do I belong to?
My musings over the ongoing identity crisis in my own life, in spite of being raised by my genetic parents, are meant to highlight that there are no ideals in life, and most things cannot be anticipated. The best thing we can do is to make the best decision we can based on the information we have at the time, and leave the rest up to God.
Rather than trying to anticipate every possible challenge that my future child may encounter and have a ready answer for it – a sure way to spent more time planning a life than living it – I need to embrace the fact that regardless of how my child comes into the world, she or he will be immensely loved, wanted, and appreciated. And that has to count for far more than a mere set of genes on a microscopic DNA strand.