Friday, July 31, 2015

Religion and Cultural Appropriation

Well, I wasn't a Taoist for long.  Last night I read a great article on a Taoist approach to parenting, and that site somehow led me to an academic site which pointed out that the concept of a "Philosophical Taoism" is, well, not a thing.  This is an appropriation of the Chinese Religious Taoism by Westerners who have a desire to utilize the label without all the religious "baggage" (as I would've put it) that goes along with it.  As I read about this, I realized that I could not in good conscience use this label for myself, as it would only perpetuate colonialist and orientalist mentalities of taking something belonging to another culture and stripping it of various cultural aspects to make it "one's own".  This is simply unacceptable to me since I didn't want to use the label "Catholic" - to which I have a birthright affiliation - because I knew in good conscience that it meant something to those who actually adhere to the faith.

As I looked over my spiritual journey, I noticed that I found myself going farther and farther away from where I started, and that this actually had much greater implications for my identity.  I've been guilty of exoticising eastern culture, philosophy, and religion, and thinking it was OK because I saw it in a positive light.  But nonetheless I was othering it, and appropriating bits and pieces without valuing the whole.

I found myself saying quietly the following words to myself as I lay in bed:  It's OK that I'm a Westerner.  It's OK that I'm white.  It's OK that I'm Polish.... It's OK that I'm cisgender.  It's OK that I'm straight...  It's OK that I'm middle-class.  It's OK that I'm educated.  It's OK that I'm able-bodied. ... Essentially, It's OK that I am who I am, even if who I am is "boring".  There's the rub.  I've looked outside of myself for religious labels, for identity (I've argued against being labeled "white", saying instead that I identify with immigrants at large), for something that would make me as interesting as I saw these other groups being.  But why?  What in my experience told me that I wasn't just as OK being who I am?

As a child immigrant, I lost the community of my birth.  Being raised by immigrant parents whose personality and circumstances didn't allow a replacement community, I never felt a sense of belonging growing up.  In order not to risk having to admit that I may be rejected by any community I tried to join, I actively set myself out to be a lone wolf.  I technically complained about not having a community to belong to, but to be honest, I don't want to belong to a community.  Belonging comes at a price.  Belonging would mean adherence to a set of norms, values, priorities that benefit the group whether I personally agree or not.  Belonging meant a loss of freedom.

And so I came to realize that my spiritual journey as well as my recent desire to try to fit into some sort of ethnic community are stemming from the same place.  I was disappointed when I recently found out via a DNA test that I do not have Roma ancestry, like I had thought/hoped due to my slightly darker coloring.  I was disappointed!  I was disappointed to be who I actually am!

All my life I've sided with the underdog, rooting for those who were considered minorities in society. I let it get to a point where I started to develop an internalized hatred for those parts of me that were in common with the oppressors of these groups.  Generally, it was Christian whites.  But what if I actually applied something of the Tao to where I'm at without appropriating the label for myself? What if I just accept who I am as I am, and seek the balance within the context of my own Western identity and religion?  What if I simply find the pearls of wisdom to reflect on within the scriptures of my own Western religious tradition?

I seem to be back at square one.  My choices are: 1) call myself "nonreligious" or more specifically "Deist" and leave it at that; 2) call myself "Catholic" regardless if other Catholics would grant me the use of that label or not; 3) call myself some other religious affiliation, which would require officially joining their community (Quakers come to mind).

Why do I need a label, really?  Is it just because I grew up with a religious label and I feel naked without one?  And why am I obsessed with the label having to be perfectly lined up with what the majority of fellow adherents believe?  Am I worried about being rejected, so I try to opt out preemptively so that I don't have to deal with rejection?

What does it matter to me what other people think about how I choose to identify myself?  I can only imagine the turmoil this would cause me if I were transgender and had to hear people tell me I was confused.  In my case, yes, I am confused.  But it's my own doing.

If I call myself nonreligious and someone "accuses" me of being an atheist, I can correct them by saying I'm a Deist.  Or I can just start with that label.  Previously I thought I also needed a religously-based moral outline and spiritual practice.  But really, I don't.  I can be a Deist who bases her morality on a simple scripture quote from my very own birthright religious affiliation:  Luke 6:31 (Matthew 7:12) :  "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  It actually matches the three jewels of Taoism that I've taken to heart:  simplicity, humility, compassion.  The scripture is simple in that it's concise and easy to apply to any situation.  It follows compassion in that it forces one to consider the perspective of the other.  It serves humility in that one cannot be self-involved if one is thinking of the needs of others.  Ok, so there you have it, my moral outline, straight from my own religious tradition, without cultural appropriation or misrepresenting another religion.  

If I call myself "Catholic", it would be because of my ethnicity, my upbringing, my having received the Sacraments, the fact that I attend a Catholic church regularly, my familiarity and affinity to various Catholic traditions, my celebration of Catholic holy days and holy seasons, my familiarity with Catholic lingo, and my having symbols of Catholicism in my home.  It's true that faithful, conservative, traditional, believing Catholics would tell me these things do not make me a Catholic. But I do not need their approval.  That's the whole point!  They may think I'm fooling myself, and that's fine.  I don't believe in their version of the Truth, so I'm not worried about "reprecussions" of not "returning to the fold of believers".  If anything, I'm a bit concerned about misrepresenting the religious faith of Catholicism, but let's be honest.  The pope himself has been accused - by other Catholics! - that he's "not Catholic enough".  If Catholicism isn't about serving others, bettering ourselves, and being in awe of our Creator, then it's only a mythology, scare tactics, and rituals.  But if Catholicism is indeed about being in awe of our Creator, bettering ourselves, and serving others, then I belong to this Catholicism, and therefore have every right to call myself a Catholic.

I know some may say that I could use this same logic to just wake up one day and say that I'm Jewish, or Muslim, because these faiths at their core stand for the same things.  But the difference is that I don't have a birthright affiliation with these other faiths.  I do have a birthright affiliation with Catholicism.  And what's more, maybe that's the point - that at their core, religions are all about the same three things:  self-improvement, compassion, and reverence for God.  And if that's the case, it really doesn't matter what religious label one slaps on, if at all.

Regarding spiritual practice, I've found that I absolutely do not follow nor desire to follow any Catholic spiritual practices, perhaps with the exception of Lectio Divina and contemplative meditation (which has also been accused of not being Christian!).  But do I need to practice Catholic spirituality - and only Catholic spirituality - in order to call myself Catholic?  I say no.  I say the point of these practices is to better oneself, help others, and revere God.  If a practice - Catholic or otherwise - doesn't do this, why bother?  And if a practice - Catholic or not - does do this, I'd be a fool not to utilize it. 

The third option above - officially switching religious affiliation - is the least likely for me.  As I've mentioned, I do not desire a community, and switching affiliation would imply that I am joining a community.  I am happy to learn about other traditions but don't want to do so under duress or to the exclusion of other traditions.  If I truly believe that religion is about revering God, improving oneself, and serving others, then there's no reason to switch if I am already affiliated with my birthright religious tradition.

The path of lease resistance is to do nothing - wu-wei in the Taoist sense - and allow that to be the most fruitful path.

My spiritual life is and will continue to be as follows:  attend Catholic church, study various traditions, apply various philosophies to my life, look for the commonalities among the different paths, and when someone asks, have a label that is both informative and authentic.  I'm reminded of another scripture verse: 1 Peter 3:15 "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you."  Of course, Christians interpret this verse to mean that Jesus - and the whole salvific story - are the answer, and accordingly "Christian" is the label that sums it up.  But I stand at a crossroads where I need to take ownership of my own spirituality.  I need to stop outsourcing it to the interpretation of others.  Yes, many are much more learned than me in issues of theology.  That does not mean they have a closer grasp at the nature of God than me. Society, which values academics and formal education, would argue that it does mean that.  I choose to disagree.

Given the above description of my spiritual life, the choice remains between embracing the label of "Catholic" once again, willing to let it mean what it means to me without worrying about what it means to others, OR choosing the label "Deist", which prevents the conflict with believing Catholics at the cost of distancing myself from my birthright religious tradition.  I will need to ponder which of these options is the one that will serve me best.  My husband has opted for embracing the Catholic label without worrying about the implications.  I am tempted to join him, as it would simplify things. Then again, he still uses Christian terminology and concepts that fly in the face of his claims to be spiritually independent.  I'm tempted to actually be spiritually independent and call myself a Deist, full stop.  Time will tell.

Friday, July 24, 2015

I Stand Corrected! I Have Found My Way!

There IS a label for my spirituality, and I'm going to go out on a limb and just shout it from the rooftops that I have realized that I am a Taoist!  I just took's belief-o-matic religion quiz, which I've taken numerous times over the years, and it confirmed my recent insight: 100% Taoist!

It's funny, but soon after writing my last blog about how I've accepted that my label is "Deist" with supplementation of Quaker testimonies and Buddhist practices, I was reading on a Deist site where several members commented that they felt disillusioned with having accepted the label of Deist for themselves.  As in, "Ok, so I'm a Deist.  Now what?"  There's nothing in the way of morality and practice that comes with the philosophical standing of being a Deist. Someone mentioned in passing a comparison of their personal stance to Taoism, and a lightbulb went off.  I remember studying Taoism - why hadn't I revisited it recently?!

The first thought I had, actually, was that Deism and Taoism in terms of belief in God is essentially the same thing said with different words, which makes sense considering the drastically different cultures and timeframes each came from.  In the West, we are used to talking about God as a personal entity, and Deism's description of God is a reaction to this notion.  In Taoism, the Tao could be said to be "God".  The difference is that by not calling that ultimate reality "God", there isn't the temptation to personify it and, what naturally follows, worship it.  I think worship is meant to honor God and show our gratitude, but I think the best way to do that is through the way we live our lives, not through lipservice and gestures done ritually to make us feel religious.

The second thought I had after Taoism reentered my consciousness was to compare the three jewels of Taoism with the four testimonies of Quakerism.  I was fairly comfortable with the Quaker testimonies of peace, equality, integrity, and simplicity.  But as I reflected on the three jewels of Taoism - compassion, humility, and simplicity (or frugality) - I realized that the Taoists actually got an even more simplified version of the basic moral principles I seek to live by.

If you have compassion for others, you will automatically work towards peace and equality.  You will be truthful because it's the right thing to do and doing otherwise may harm others, thus not being compassionate.  If you cultivate humility, you will naturally lean towards compassion, and you will see others as equal to you rather than looking down on them.  You will desire peace because war only comes from a place of egotistic desires for control.  If you are humble, you will be honest with yourself and have no reason to withhold the truth from others.  And if you maintain simplicity, this ties your humility and compassion together.  Stay simple in terms of how you view yourself, don't exaggerate truth, don't complicate relationships with hierarchies or conflict, and take only what you need.  In essence, if you're compassionate, humble, and simple, you automatically live a life of peace, equality, integrity, and obviously simplicity.

The last thought I had was comparing the aim of Taoism with that of Buddhism.  Interestingly, Buddhism presupposes a negative state of being - that life is suffering - and the goal of Buddhist practice is to transcend that reality.  Taoism merely observes suffering as a balancing opposite to pleasure, embraces the reality of there being bad as well as good in the world, acknowledges that good and evil are constructs that often do not actually translate to being inherently good or bad, but rather good or bad in a certain circumstance, to a certain person, while possibly being the opposite to someone else or in another set of circumstances.

To me, Taoism is really about acceptance.  I think every other religion I've studies has found a problem to work out.  Every other religion tries to fix something, thus inevitably leading to a subconscious focus on negativity, either in ourselves or others.  Taoism is about balance.  It's the ultimate non-judgmental religion (though I hesitate to use that term, since I subscribe to the philosophical bend of Taoism, not the religious).

The most beautiful thing about realizing I'm a Taoist is that all it took for me to "become" a Taoist is to realize that I am!  To have found the label I've been looking for, to apply it to myself, and to move on to finding balance in my life with the assistance of Taoist philosophy.  I don't need external validation to confirm that indeed I am a Taoist.  Much like with being a Deist.  But unlike being a Deist, there is a moral base and a goal I can aspire to, as well as spiritual practices based on the underlying belief in the Tao.  It's a full package: belief, morality, and spiritual practice.

So hello world!  The irony of Jesus's words does not escape me.  He said "I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).  And when looked at under the layers of personifcation and taking metaphors literally, this is indeed a beautifully simple statement.  Tao = the way.  Full stop.  No interpretation follows.  No scriptural references needed.  Look around, look within, that is where the way is.  Follow it!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Maintaining Heritage, Is It Worth It?

I recently attended a Polish festival.  It was a bittersweet experience.  On one hand, I was taken back to my homeland with the savory Polish food and seeing the traditional colorful pisanki and folk dolls for sale.  I watched as Poles, Americans, Polish-Americans performed some of our traditional dances dressed in our traditional costumes.  I joined in singing Sto Lat to a dancer whose last performance was that day, before he joined a religious order of monks.  And the whole time I felt like I wanted to go off into a corner and cry.

There were all of these reminders of Poland, but this wasn't Poland.  Most of the people there didn't speak Polish, or what Polish they did speak was heavily marked with an American accent.  There were actually more non-ethnic stands than Polish ones.  One vendor was actually selling German artisan items.  It just felt like a mere attempt at reminiscing, not the real thing.

Shortly after the festival, I visited the Polish church where I received my first communion the year after I arrived in the United States.  I sat through mass, easily singing along the various parts of the mass, reciting the Lord's prayer in my native tongue, looking around at my fellow Poles and wondering if any of them felt the same disconnect that I do.  I now have the added burden of no longer identifying as Catholic, something the priest that day pointed out as an essential aspect of Polish identity.  I'm not married to a Pole, so we do not speak Polish at home.  I do speak to my daughter in Polish, but I often wonder just how long that will last, since I resort to English to express the deepest emotions and most profound thoughts that come my way.  I won't allow my relationship with my daughter to suffer because I insist on using a language I'm no longer native-fluent in.

My younger siblings were both born in the United States.  We made one family trip to Poland when they were teenagers.  My brother was motivated by the pretty Polish girls to teach himself to read and write Polish.  His outgoing personality allowed him to enjoy himself and explore his parents' hometown without worrying about how he would be perceived.  My sister spent the majority of the time with her nose in one book or another, safely tucked away in our gradnmother's house.  Whenever I see Polish-Americans, I think of my siblings.  They are proud of their Polish heritage to varying degrees, but they do not miss something that was never theirs to begin with.  They have never known a time when they weren't American.  They can't relate to my sense of loss.

My parents, on the other hand, made a conscious choice to leave Poland as adults.  They got fully socialized into being a Polish man and a Polish woman before they left. Even if they don't maintain contact with the Polonia community, they have internalized a very clear Polish identity that has essentially been fossilized inside of them.  They do not worry about comparing themselves to other Poles, other Polonia, Polish-Americans, or other Americans.  Their ethnic identity was never questioned growing up.  They cannot relate to my sense of confusion over who I am.

My husband also immigrated to the United States as a child, but from Central America.  His family settled in a largely Spanish-speaking area of Florida.  He has the added aspect of being a "visible minority", meaning people know he is Latino just by looking at him.  He doesn't have to do anything to prove it, to himself or to others.  He speaks Spanish, which is icing on the cake.  And there are a ton of Latinos, both from his native El Salvador and other Latin American countries, in the region where we live.  There's restaurants, music stations, media outlets available in Spanish.  Even government forms offer a formal nod to Spanish speakers by providing an option to fill out paperwork in Spanish.  My husband doesn't feel confused about his identity and doesn't feel like he's lost anything because his Latino identity is reinforced all around.  He doesn't relate to my immigrant experience.

I've been learning about transracial parenting, trying to educate myself on how to provide racial mirroring for my daughter, how to raise her so that she feels comfortable in a Filipino community as an adult Pinay, how to instill in her a sense of pride in her genetic heritage without making her feel that just because she can be mistaken for her dad's Hispanic heritage she should shy away from claiming her Filipino heritage.  But I wonder if I can really deliver.

How can I teach my daughter to feel comfortable about her ethnic heritage if I don't feel comfortable about my own?  I'm tempted to stop putting so much pressure on myself, stop focusing so much on the externals.  Heritage is all about the past.  It's not who we are now unless... unless other people only see our racial ancestors when looking at us, and more importantly, when such observations lead to differential treatment.  Generally this treatment is based on negative stereotypes and bias, leading to discrimination and racism.  These are issues I don't need to worry about on account of my ethnic heritage while living in a country built on white privilige.  It seems the best thing I can do for my daughter in this regard is to make sure we raise her in a racially diverse area and expose her to not only her own heritage but to the cultures of various peoples.  

The spiritual instinct in me tells me that it is important not to become stuck in the material trappings of our physical appearance.  It's important to not ignore how our race can affect the way people treat us.  But it cannot become the only - or even the main - way in which we identify ourselves.

I'm in a difficult position of having to anticipate what my daughter may need in order to feel comfortable in her own skin.  But when it comes to my own heritage, I am the mistress of how I choose to identify and what I choose to feel about that identity.  At first I thought that since my daughter is still very young, I could focus on reconnecting to the Polish community, and later apply what I learned to establishing that connection for her.  But I'm afraid that this pursuit would actually distance me from my spiritual goals, goals as a mother to raise a well-rounded daughter who can gain strength in her identity via spiritual means rather than relying on the external validation of the Filipino community or mainstream (white?) community.

While I understand the perspective of the advice-givers in my transracial parenting group, they come from adults who were transracially adopted by white parents and raised in predominantly white communities, and white adoptive parents of non-white children.  It is important not to assume that their experiences are transferable to ours.  I'm learning a lot from them, but I have to continually consider that their advice may not apply to me 100%.  Nothing, it seems, relates to me in its entirety. Story of my life, it seems.  

Monday, July 20, 2015

Letting Go of Religious Labels

I have been struggling over the past year + with how I should be identifying myself in terms of my religious views, which have changed drastically since the birth of my daughter nearly 20 months ago. I have long associated the religion of my upbringing - Catholicism - with my ethnicity and country of birth - Poland.  I spent the majority of my life so far as a cultural Catholic, but in my late teens I began a spiritual journey which eventually led me to become a revert to Catholicism, albeit only temporarily.  In the process, I brought my husband into an embrace of the Catholic faith, or at least his flavor of it.  So when I realized last year that I suddenly no longer believed what the Catholic church taught, I began to search - again - for a replacement religion.

However, I now see that I haven't been completely authentic with myself.  I have been making excuses for why I "have to" find a replacement religious label, why I "have to" belong to a worship community.  A few days ago I thought I had "finally" - for the umpteenth time - found the community I had been looking for in Buddhism.  Decades ago I already identified as a "Cabudhsit" (Catholic Buddhist).  I long held an interest in martial arts, yoga, meditation, feng shui, and various other Eastern philosophies.  But what always put the breaks on my pursuit of Buddhism was their lack of belief in God.  I may have had my doubts and disbeliefs when it came to organized religion, but to doubt the existence of God was just going too far for me.

Yet as I began to read - again - about what Buddhism was all about, I started to contemplate the usual questions: how do I become a Buddhist?  When can I officially say that I'm a Buddhist?  Where is the nearest Buddhist community I can visit?  I wasn't even going to mention this rekindled interest to my husband, since I had already nearly become a Reform Jew and a Liberal Quaker just in the last eight months alone.  But then as I kept reading, I became aware of a disappointing feeling.  It was a bit ironic, actually, as I think it was quite a Buddhist thing for me to observe my thoughts and feelings in this way.  But I realized that I didn't really want to commit to a new religion, a new community.  I didn't want the responsibility of representing something as serious as a spiritual way of life or a religion.

What's more, I noticed I missed the things I love about the Quaker tradition, and started comparing the Five Precepts with the four most common Quaker testimonies, and I thought the Quaker version resonated much better with me.  So why wasn't I becoming a Quaker then?

At first I thought it was because the Quaker tradition originated in Christianity, and I am really done with that outlook on human nature and life's purpose.  I do not believe in original sin, so I do not believe in a Savior.  It took me years to not feel guilty, like I was betraying Jesus, conspicuously looking down at me from various artwork I have around the house.  If I was being brutally honest with myself, I had to stop thinking about what I thought I wanted to believe, or what I wished that I believed, and took a hard look at what I actually believed.

What I came up with was something I had already come across and blogged about previously - spiritual independence.  But my desire for a community, or rather, the notion that I thought I needed to have a corresponding community which would validate my religious label, has finally started to subside.  Another interesting quote I read recently - "Don't be a Buddhist; Be a Buddha."  To become enlightened meant letting go - once and for all - of all the internalized expectations I had placed on myself and what I thought a spiritual life must look like.

Here's what I've come up with.  To me, religion consists of three aspects: theology, morality, and practice.  In Catholicism, the theology stems from the Creed, which I have stopped professing during Mass several months ago in an effort to stay true to my actual beliefs.  Instead, my theology is quite simple and minimal:  I believe in a Creator-God of some sort, and I see proof of "His" existence by observing nature.  I furthermore believe in life after death (eternal life), again from observing how life is fluid and merely transfers the vehicles it occupies, moving from one material body to another, from seed to tree to fruit to new seed, or from corpse to dust in the ground to nutrients for other life forms.  One way or another, I see there is a system in place that does not abruptly stop at each individual's death.  But beyond this, I believe God's nature and the details of eternal life are unknowable and not important.  I am comforted enough knowing that I come from a source into which I will be taken up again, and that when I'll be on the other side, I will experience no remorse for having left my mortal life behind.  In other words, my theology is that of a Deist.

As far as morality, I keep coming back to the Quaker testimonies, which are so simple and pure: peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity.  Sometimes community and stewardship are listed as additional testimonies, but I see these as already covered in the first four: community is peace and equality among any group of people, and stewardship is the same plus living simply such that natural resources are not abused and wasted.  Every value I hold dear, every moral goal I uphold, can be traced back to at least one of these Quaker testimonies.  I feel as though if I live my life in an effort to live out these testimonies, that is all I need as a moral compass to guide me.  

Spiritual practice is something I have struggled the most with, and probably is the reason I have held on to the desire of finding a spiritual community or religious label for so long.  Spiritual practice is at once something I haven't prioritized in my life lately and something I believe I would benefit greatly from.  In order to live a moral life as outlined in the previous paragraph, I believe that I need a spiritual practice that will help me keep these four testimonies at the forefront of my consciousness. Quaker tradition utilizes silent waiting worship to this end.  And while I've tried that, both alone and in meeting, it isn't powerful enough for me.  I guess I need something more concrete, more definable, more ..... eek!... disciplined!  Whenever I've taken the time for waiting worship, I've ended up getting lots of great insight into things that have been brewing in the back of my mind, but it always felt as thought it was only the beginning, that there's more I should be doing to apply the insights from my contemplation into daily life.

And I think this is where the practices of meditation and yoga will have to come in.  Hatha yoga in particular allows me to be in my body, to truly experience the current moment, to live the way we are meant to live.  It has the added benefit of course of increasing strength and flexibility, among other concrete health benefits.  Meditation for me likewise involves breath control and maintaining an alert but still posture.  Sitting cross-legged and counting my breaths gives me something to return to again and again when my thoughts begin to race as they often do during waiting worship.  My goal is to sit for a given amount of time.  The time spent in meditation is to be time I take out of my day in order to live more fully because I'm not thinking about the past or the future.  Again, there are added benefits to meditation, including relaxation, lessened anxiety, and groundedness. With both yoga and meditation, the end result is something I need a lot of help with - building self confidence.

And so I seem to have found the three elements of religion that resonate with me: Nature's God of Deism; Quaker Testimonies of Peace, Integrity, Equality, and Simplicity; and the Buddhist/Hindu practice of yoga and mediation.

Furthermore, when it comes to community, I started to reflect on what I was really trying to get out of a community, what sort of communities I've most enjoyed in the past, and which aspect of religious service (where the community gathers to worship together) I enjoy most in the religion of my upbringing.  Everything points me to education, teaching, learning.  Hearing wisdom and sitting with it, letting it percolate, waiting for it to naturally find its way into an application in my daily life.  That's why sub-par homilies and sermons have always been so disappointing to me.  That's why it took me several years to make my peace with the fact that my PhD program was no longer serving me.  This is why I await with great excitement homeschooling my daughter.

Deism, as luck would have it, is all about education.  Lifelong learning is really the Deist worship. Everything we learn about has the potential to point us back to God.  Deism doesn't come with a creed, moral guidelines, or a spiritual practice.  Deism is a do-it-yourself kind of religion, and because it doesn't come with a brick-and-mortar worship community, I didn't think I could officially call myself a Deist.  But Deism is exactly the umbrella term I need.  I am free to supplement Deism in whatever ways are meaningful and helpful to me.

While I thought - and hoped - that I could do so with Quakerism, something about the need for an official commitment to a specific community has kept me at bay.  I think because I'm prone to replacing aspects of religiosity instead of doing away with them altogether.  Also, as I shared at the last Quaker meeting I attended, the testimony of integrity led me to the Quakers.  And yet, I think it's the testimony of integrity that is likewise preventing me from calling myself a Quaker.  Most Quakers are Christians, and with that comes a certain morality that I do not ascribe to necessarily.  I do not want to pick and choose aspects of an established religion to fit my own fancy.  That would be disingenuous of me, to use the label "Quaker" knowing full-well that it may conjure up certain expectations regarding belief and/or practice that simply do not describe me.  I know there are plenty of Liberal Quakers who do just this and their communities welcome them to do so.  But I think That of God in me is telling me that this is not to be my journey.  I am welcome to appreciate Quaker thought and apply what fits to my own spirituality, but I must stop short of applying the label of Quaker to myself as my religion of choice.  The same applies to Buddhism.

And so, while I thought at the beginning of this post that I was making my peace with the label "Spiritual Independent", I now see that I have actually made the case to embrace the label "Deist" without a moment's hesitation.  There is nothing in Deism that I don't want to embrace, and there's nothing about Deism that tells me I can't supplement the core Deist belief with morality and practice borrowed from other traditions.

The challenge that I have shied away from until now has been the anticipated questions from others when I finally announce that I am a Deist.  What do Deists believe?  What do Deists do?  My answer must simply be, "I can't speak for all Deists, but I can tell you what I believe and how I determine in what way to live my life."  I think the Buddha would be proud of me for taking that first step of authenticity, owning my own spiritual path without depending on external validation.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Adoption, Donor Conception, Both, or Neither? (Part 3)

In summary, here is how our daughter's embryo donation conception differs and is similar to both traditional adoption and gamete donation conception.

How our daughter's embryo donation conception differs from gamete donation conception: 
1. The embryo donor conceived offspring does not share genes with either of her/his parents.
2. The nature of the embryo donor conceived offspring's conception is not marred by material gain or purposeful creation into a subpar situation.
3. The embryo donor conceived offspring has one group of genetic relatives - both donors and siblings - that if found, are found in one fell swoop.

How our daughter's embryo donation conception differs from traditional adoption:
1. There was no legal proceeding to form a familial bond between us and our daughter.  Likewise, there is no involvement of social services judging us worthy - or not - or suggesting how we ought to parent.
2. Our daughter has never bonded with any of her genetic relatives.  She was born to the woman who carried her and who is parenting her.  There was never any separation or loss of current relationship. 
3. Due to my current spiritual views, my daughter didn't come into existence until her pre-embryo implanted in my uterus.  It was my body that nourished her into life; she is quite literally made of my own flesh and blood.

That said, there are also similarities with both.

How our daughter's embryo donation conception is similar to traditional adoption:
1. She does not share DNA with us.
2. She was conceived in love by a married couple who agonized over their decision to place their remaining pre-embryos with a different family.  (Yes, I realize many birth/first parents are not married and some adoptees were sadly not conceived in love.)
3. She has a limited, manageable number of genetic relatives which she may or may not be able to locate and develop a relationship with.

How our daughter's embryo donation conception is similar to gamete donation conception:
1. She has genetic relatives "out there" that she may or may not be able to find and develop a relationship with.
2. She was born into our family.  She can easily keep her donor conception private if she so chooses because I was pregnant with her and still nurse her.  She also resembles my husband physically.  
3. She was conceived with the help of artificial reproductive technology.

Why does it matter if I consider our daughter's situation that of adoption or donor conception?  Going into embryo donation, the distinction was important to me because the Catholic church taught against any form of artificial reproductive technology and embryo donation was a sort of loop hole that I was able to accept while maintaining my religiosity.  

Now that I am no longer religious, both options are neutral to me.  So the main thing is just figuring out whose voices I need to be listening to in order to understand what my daughter needs from me regarding this unique aspect of her identity.  After looking over these comparison points, I see that it is not as simple as simply "choosing a camp" - adoption or donor conception.  Our daughter has things in common with people from both camps.  And until there is a sizable enough group of adult embryo donation conceived individuals, this is as good as it's going to get.

Adoption, Donor Conception, Both, or Neither? (Part 2)

In part one of this two-part series, I talked about how our daughter's conception via donor embryo is not quite like adoption, the way I had originally believed when first pursuing this alternative to parenthood.  Here, I cover how it's not exactly the same as sperm- or ova-donation conception either.

The first and most obvious difference is that most donor conceived individuals still share half of their genetics with one of their parents.  (Except, of course, for those families who were built via "double donor", meaning sperm donor and egg donor, neither of whom know each other or the intended recipient parents (at least not in anonymous donation). But that actually presents a still further complication when it comes to ethics, so I'll leave it alone here.)  In embryo donation, the child born to the parents shares neither of their genetics.  This is precisely why the first part of this mini-series dealt with a comparison with adoption.  Adopted individuals likewise don't share either of their adoptive parents' genetics (again, except for step-parent or kinship adoption... seems like there's always an exception to everything, isn't there?)

This lack of any genetic linkage can be good or bad, depending on ones' perspective.  From the intended parent's perspective, I couldn't imagine mixing my own DNA with that of any man other than my husband.  On some level, it felt as though I would've had a child "with" this other man, putting my husband in a sort of step-parent role.  I know not everyone sees it that way, but I do, and that's why we didn't pursue single-gamete (sperm) donation.

From the child's perspective, I did consider that it may be better to at least grow up with half of your genetic relatives rather than with none.  Yet the gulf that the resulting implication (discussed above) would have left in my husband's and my relationship would've surely had a negative impact on our child.  Furthermore, the difference of knowing some genetic relatives versus none at all may have had an unbalanced effect on the child's relationship with the genetic versus non-genetic parent.  By utilizing embryo donation, the playing field was balanced out.

Another difference between embryo donation and gamete donation - at least the kind we utilized - is that my daughter was not specifically conceived with the intent of growing up not knowing some of her genetic relatives.  She was not conceived specifically so that she would grow up in a "less than ideal" situation.  These are perspectives I'm reading from donor-conceived adults, which is how I know these are things they think about.  This process of being created on-demand, as it were, makes them feel manufactured, like a commodity.  It affects the entire sense of self worth for some.  And while there are "embryo donation" programs that are essentially double donor programs that are started before the intended parents come onto the scene, the "traditional" embryo donation is a lot more straightforward.

Our daughter's donors are a married couple who faced secondary infertility.  They turned to IVF and surrogacy to complete their family.  After three years, they decided they weren't going to transfer the remaining embryos created with their family-completion IVF in mind.  It took three years for them to place the embryos into the embryo donation program, which tells me that they must have agonized over the decision.  They didn't choose to destroy them or donate them to science, which tells me they either believed the human life present in their pre-embryos deserved a chance to fulfill their potential, or they wanted to give another family struggling with infertility a chance to grow their family, or both.  This is very different from a gamete donor providing their DNA in exchange for money.  This sort of information gets internalized by the donor conceived offspring.  How their donors came to the decision to donate effects how the offspring feel about their conception, and by extension, their self-worth.

Finally, most donor conceived offspring have many, many genetic half-siblings "out there", which creates a need for a lifetime of searching (for those curious about their genetic relatives and whose donors were anonymous).  The real risk of inadvertently meeting and marrying a genetic half-sibling grows with the more "popular" donors and/or less regulated/ethical sperm banks.  (Due to the nature of egg donation, there generally can't be more than a handful of genetic half-siblings due to egg donation.)  In embryo donation, on the one hand, all siblings are full genetic siblings, but on the other hand, there are only a very limited number of them.  If the donors had a large number of pre-embryos they donated, these may have gone to several different recipient families.  Otherwise, all pre-embryos were donated to the same recipient family, and the only genetic siblings the donor-conceived offspring has "out there" are the children of their own donors.  If they find one of them they find them both.

To sum up, embryo donation - where "left over" pre-embryos from the donor family's own IVF treatment go to a recipient family - differs from gamete (sperm or egg) donation in these three ways:

1. The embryo donor conceived offspring does not share genes with either of her/his parents.
2. The nature of the embryo donor conceived offspring's conception is not marred by material gain or purposeful creation into a subpar situation.
3. The embryo donor conceived offspring has one group of genetic relatives - both donors and siblings - that if found, are found in one fell swoop.

From what I read, donor conceived offspring's most common concerns are the ethics surrounding their creation and the sheer volume of possible genetic half-siblings, neither of which applies to my daughter.  The first difference - that she doesn't share genetics with either of us - is why I considered if her situation was more like traditional adoption.  Yet based on my reading of concerns adult adoptees often have, I don't expect her to share a lot of those concerns.

So where does that leave us?  Only she can decide for herself as she matures with which group(s) she chooses to identify, if either.  Until then, I will need to continue to listen to both adult adoptees and donor conceived adults and take to heart the issues they describe and consider if and to what degree they may affect my daughter.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Adoption, Donor Conception, Both, or Neither? (Part 1)

When we first got our infertility diagnosis, we proceeded straight to trying to adopt.  We pursued private domestic infant adoption, international adoption, adoption from foster care.... all with false starts and dashed dreams and money down the drain, but also with valuable lessons learned.  Five years after first learning of our fertility challenge, our daughter entered our lives.

We had slowly made our way from open adoption to closed adoption back to open adoption with our first donor embryo match.  Two transfers and four embryos later, we were still childless, and I was ready to embrace anonymity once again.  Coming from a strong, Catholic-inspired pro-life stance, I fully believed that the tiny embryos awaiting "adoption" were already humans.  This belief helped me reason why it was morally acceptable for me to "adopt" them even though my then-strong Catholic faith taught that anything related to artificial reproductive technologies was wrong.  I even posted here about how our EA FETs were not IVF.  So desperately I tried to fit into my faith community while still pursuing our dream of parenting a child. 

But then I got pregnant with our daughter.  And then I gave birth to her, at home.  And since then I've nursed her at my breast for over a year and a half now. Recently, I joined a transracial adoption group to try to continue my education in the area of raising a confident, well-adjusted child whose ethnicity I didn't share.  In the process, I've come to see that I actually didn't adopt my daughter.  

There was no legal adoption proceeding, no homestudy, no social worker visits, no one granting us permission to take her into our home and hearts.  No one told us where she must sleep, what she should be fed, or who is allowed to care for her when Alex or I are unavailable.  These are all issues that adoptive parents face as they are entrusted with someone else's child, and often social workers follow arbitrary guidelines as to what is appropriate and safe for a child.  

I wouldn't have been able to cosleep with my daughter had she been adopted.  Not openly, anyway.  I may not have been allowed to breastfeed her either, even if I had been able to induce lactation. Perhaps after finalization of the adoption, I would've been allowed to finally choose who can babysit her, and I'm sure homeschooling wouldn't have been an issue by the time she was old enough to start academics.  But had she been older coming to us, or had her adoption gotten delayed for some reason, these are not decisions I would've been able to make based on my mother instinct of what's good for her.  Rather, I'd constantly be second guessing myself, wondering if this or that decision could be used against me to have my daughter removed from my home.

Another reason I no longer believe that our daughter was adopted is that she simply doesn't share the same often deeply painful losses that many adoptees have.  The woman who carried her for 8 months, with whom she bonded, whose heartbeat and voice she was intimately familiar with by the time she was born - that woman was none other than me!  She was never separated from someone who was once her entire world.  She never has to deal with being rejected by her genetic family.  Her name was never changed.  Her birth certificate was never falsified or sealed. And there was probably little chance of a genetic relative being taking it upon herself to keep any resulting children in the original family by transferring the pre-embryos herself. She does still have the loss of that genetic family, to be sure.  But it is not compounded by implications of rejection. 
A third reason I now don't believe I am an adoptive mom is based on an evolution of my spiritual beliefs.  In pursuing embryo donation and undergoing three frozen embryo transfers, I was deeply interested in the early development of human beings, starting from fertilization onward.  And through this research, I concluded that while human "life" begins at fertilization, human "personhood" doesn't start until implantation. Here's why.

A blastocyst, which is what an egg fertilized 5-6 days earlier is called as its cells divide, is capable of two fascinating feats prior to implantation.  The first is that it can split into two separate blastocysts which then implant separately, growing and being born as identical twins.  One embryo --> two human beings.  Likewise, two ova that are both fertilized at about the same time can proceed to divide and develop into two blastocysts who somehow merge together into a single blastocyst just prior to implantation.  The result is a singleton baby born with two sets of DNA, also known as a chimera.  So two embryos --> one human being.  (Note that we are not talking about two embryos where one simply stops growing, or twins where one simply dies and the other continues towards birth.  We're talking about the physical, genetic merging of two sets of DNA into a single human body.)  

Because of these two phenomenon that occur in nature, I was forced to conclude that human personhood does not begin immediately upon conception, but rather once these two phenomenon have had a chance to take place.  Therefore, once a blastocyst is implanted in the uterine wall, it becomes known as an embryo, and only then does it become a unique human being, one that only needs time and a continuous supply of a healthy environment of the womb in order to grow into a fetus and then a newborn, toddler, preschooler, etc.  The same cannot be said of a zygote or morula or blastocyst (earlier stages of human development).  (See here for my post mentioning how problematic it is to use the term "embryo" for earlier stages of development."

I mentioned that my understanding of human personhood was based on a spiritual outlook.  So far I've only established the science leading up to my point.  Once an embryo is implanted, it is then that I believe God begins to work on that specific individual, forming her or him in their mother's womb. (I'm going to ignore surrogacy here for simplicity's sake, as it comes with its own set of complex considerations.)

The Biblical verses I used to refer to when thinking about how "life begins at conception" are actually more nuanced now.  Psalm 139:13, for instance, states: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb."  Until I learned about chimeras and was reminded of identical twins, I took it for granted that God's job began immediately, with sperm in one divine hand and ovum in the other.  But now I see that while I don't deny God's ongoing role in all of creation at all of its stages, it does not mean that the moment God put his hands together with the necessary gametes, a new person was created.  Rather, it is a process, much like baking, if you will.  And there is a preparation phase that, if interrupted, does not result in a fully baked cake, no matter how much time you give it and even if all the necessary ingredients were there.  You still have to mix, measure, pour, and finally put in a functioning oven.  Then and only then does the timer begin and you can say that you have a cake baking in the oven.

At any rate, adoption is nothing like this process.  Adoption takes place once a fully formed human being is born into a family that for one reason or another does not end up raising that baby.  Adoption leaves nothing to the imagination - a baby is born in one family, but another family takes the child home with them.  It is an artificial way to build a family (by which I don't mean "negative", just that it's not what was intended originally).  Which brings me to another perspective I see often missing from potential adoptive parent discourse.  

Adoption is often framed as a "loving option" or a way to "start" or "grow" your family.  The audience for this discourse is of course the potentially adoptive parent.  It's their family that is being grown through adoption.  The child's family is actually being taken away first, before being replaced by the adoptive family.  The child's first mother's family is likewise being taken away - period - and not being replaced with anything. The goal of pro-adoption terminology is to normalize adoption so that infertile parents can feel comfortable in their role as a "real" parent.  

I remember the discussion of "real" versus some other qualifier before the words "parent" and "child".  Mostly it's adoptive parents who are defensive about having someone imply that they are not a "real" parent.  Many don't like the idea of saying "adopted child" or "adoptive parent" because they feel it takes away from the parent-child relationship.  I was one of these potential adoptive parents.  Yet these same people often don't have a problem demoting the first mother to "birth mother", "bmom", or worst of all, the acronym "BM" (which if it isn't clear is also an acronym for "bowel movement", something most awful to associate any human being with, much less the woman who gave birth to one's adopted child!)

The adoption industry is biased in favor of where the money is.  Sorry, but that's the truth, a truth I already started to realize even as I still hoped to benefit from it.  It is the adopting parents - not the first parents or children - who fund the adoption industry's profit, and so it shouldn't come as a surprise that what potential adoptive parents hear from adoption agencies is precisely meant to be music to their ears, anything to help them feel good about the idea of adopting. 

You may question that potential adoptive parents actually need encouragement in this decision. Perhaps you associate adoptive parents with infertile couples whose only hope of a family is through adoption.  I was often also ignorant of the fact that there is a whole other family-building industry out there that provides an alternative to adoption and is often preferable to adopting: artificial reproductive technology, including donor conception and surrogacy.

To sum up, embryo donation differs from traditional adoption in these ways:
1. There was no legal proceeding to form a familial bond between us and our daughter.  Likewise, there is no involvement of social services judging us worthy - or not - or suggesting how we ought to parent.
2. Our daughter has never bonded with any of her genetic relatives.  She was born to the woman who carried her and who is parenting her.  There was never any separation or loss of current relationship. 
3. Due to my current spiritual views, my daughter didn't come into existence until her pre-embryo implanted in my uterus.  It was my body that nourished her into life; she is quite literally made of my own flesh and blood.  

It may sound as though I am implying through this post's discussion of adoption that I consider my daughter to have been "donor-conceived".  However, it is actually not as simple as that, either.  In my next post, I'll discuss how embryo donation carries different considerations from sperm- or egg-donation.