Monday, February 15, 2016

Belonging and Identity

My daughter was born to me.  I did not adopt her.  I have to get it out of my head that embryo donation is just an early prenatal adoption, the way I was taught to believe by my pro-life Christian online forum acquaintances.  This attitude helped me get over my desire to not go against any Catholic church teaching, which forbids donor conception but welcomes adoption, and which recognizes personhood from the moment of conception.  For my own sanity, I was able to pursue embryo donation and still feel completely aligned with my faith.  

But now that I no longer have a need to be in line with that - or any other - organized religion, I'm also free to look at the circumstances of our family formation without trying to spin it a certain way.

There was no legal adoption that took place.  My daughter never knew any other relatives, any other human beings, until she began to grow and develop in my womb.  Absolutely all of her experiences and memories have been shaped by me and Alex and the people we have introduced her to.  Her donors were in no way coerced to give her up, as is the case sadly in many adoptions.  Her conception was no accident.  It was very well planned and thoughtfully carried out.  She was dearly wanted from the beginning. (That is not to say that this doesn't apply to adoptees, only that the circumstances of their birth tend to have an element of bad timing.)

I look at artificial reproductive technology as a sort of pre-mixing of cake.  You get all the necessary ingredients together, and then if need be, you put the mix in the fridge until you are ready to put it in the oven.  And perhaps you premixed more than you could reasonably eat, maybe because you are concerned about messing up the recipe and having to dump one or two failed attempts, so you allow for a margin of error. So after one or two cakes have come out of the oven, you realize you still have the makings of another cake left that would be a shame to get rid of.  So you donate it, let someone else bake it in their oven and enjoy it as if they made it from scratch.  Obviously people are not cake, but I hope the metaphor makes sense.  

Now I know that any pro-lifers who agree with the Catholic stace of personhood beginning at conception won't be able to get past this comparison.  How can I talk about tiny little people as dispensable, experiments, donations?  That's where we differ.  I do not believe that Maya was already a person before her embryo implanted in my uterus.  I believe that all the ingredients for her physical body were there, but that she only became animated once implantation took place.  It was my blood, my flesh, the environment that I provided for her during pregnancy, that molded the raw ingredients provided by her donors into the unique individual that she became.  And she is not done becoming, either - none of us are!  We all continue to change and evolve according to the experiences of our lives, never arriving at who we think we are.  What we really are, deep down, is not limited to our physical incarnation, our earthly life.  But that's another story.

So, while I do think we have an obligation to honor her Filipino heritage, I do not think that we need to do this to the exclusion of her Polish and Salvadoran heritage.  These last two are the cultures that she was born into.  She wasn't born into a Filipino culture.  

Alex and I recently took a DNA test to see what our ethnic heritage is made up of.  Alex has a large portion of his heritage (about half) indigenous Central American.  In other words, he is half Native American, according to his genes.  He was not born into a Native American family or culture.  He was born into a Salvadoran culture.  Similarly with me.  I long suspected that I have some Roma heritage, and it seems that there is about an eight of my heritage that originates in South Asia, which likely means I was right.  But I was not born into a Romani family or culture.  I was born into a Polish culture.  

What's more, we both changed dominant cultures when our parents brought us to the United States.  Now our dominant culture is American.  So too with Maya.  My Roma blood, Alex's Native American blood, and Maya's Filipino blood all contribute to our physical appearance.  I have the least amount of non-white genes, and so you really have to know what you're looking for to see it in me.  Only my very white relatives have ever noticed my light olive complexion, dark brown hair, and light brown eyes as being possibly of an origin other than Polish.  And while I feel intrigued by this link, and as much as Alex would like to claim his Native American heritage, what really defines us is our American culture.

Now I know that there are two points to consider here, and I've only talked about personal identity so far.  Based on my experience and Alex's, I am making the assumption that Maya will view her Filipino heritage similarly.  She may not, but then again, my parents never anticipated the difficulties I would have with my identity when we immigrated to the US.  

The other point to consider though is how mainstream society perceives us.  People assume I'm Anglo-American, or at least "just white" with solid roots in American genealogy.  They do not see a Polish immigrant.  Alex was once assigned the boxes of "white Hispanic" without being consulted. Are we treated differently?  It is really impossible to compare my experiences with those of Alex.  

First of all, I am female; he is male.  Second of all, we have very different personalities.  I've struggled with my identity while Alex hasn't.  If Maya takes after her dad, which we have reason to believe that she just might, she'll take on a carefree attitude as well.  If she takes after me, the brooding type, then no matter what we do, she will analyze every little thing to the detriment of much progress!  

Bottom line, I think I'd be doing her a disservice by fixating entirely on her Filipino heritage, to the exclusion of her Polish and Salvadoran heritage.  If identity is formed in large part through culture, and culture is passed down through language and experiences and values, then she has more claim to Polish and Salvadoran - and American - culture than she does to Filipino culture.  But identity is still determined to a degree based on genetics, and that's why we can't simply ignore her Filipino heritage. Only as she grows will she be able to reflect on her own identity and determine which aspect(s) of her background are the most salient for her.  

Does Alex have a claim to his Native American heritage even though he wasn't brought up in that culture?  I think so.  But I think so in large part because it's a significant part of his genetics, and it affects his physical features and thus how he is perceived by others.  Do I have a claim to my supposed Roma heritage?  I doubt it.  Probably because the percentage is something like 12% or less, and it doesn't have a significant affect on my physical features or how people perceive me.  

What I find interesting about Alex's heritage and identity is this.  As a Latino, he is by definition multiracial.  His ancestors include Native Americans and white Spaniards.  If he had been born in the United States, with North American Native American heritage rather than Central American, he would not be considered "Latino" even if his white ancestors were Spanish speaking Spaniards.  Yet because he has the added layer of immigrating to the United States, within the US, his multiracial identity is replaced with the label of "Latino".  

Similarly, had my family emigrated to a different European country instead of across the Atlantic, I wouldn't be considered "white" as my primary identity, but Polish.  Our differences - mine and those of the people of our host country - would be highlighted over our commonality, opposite to what happened to me in the US.

Maya, had she been born into her donor family, would be a multiracial American, just like she is after having been born into our family.  She would be perceived the same by society - multiracial.  People may guess as to her heritage - Latina?  Part-Chinese? Some other mysterious and exotic combination? And she may very well get these questions from Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, because she is multiracial.  Granted, Filipinos as a whole are made up of various racial admixtures, some looking more white, others more Chinese, others somewhat Latino or indigenous.  

To treat her genetic heritage the same as if she had been adopted from, say, a Chinese family, or even a Chinese-white family, by two white American parents, is to ignore the additional layer of identity that is created by the facts of her donor conception and subsequent birth into a different yet still multiracial and multicultural (and multilingual) family.

In the end, the best thing I can do for Maya in helping her form a sound identity is to educate myself not so much on transracial adoption, which doesn't technically apply to us, but on parenting multiracial children as a whole. Her being born into our family isn't what makes her multiracial.  That was a given from the circumstances of her conception.  What being part of our family does is allows for a more nuanced consideration of what it means to belong, to a culture, race, ethnicity, nationality.  

Who decides on the labels used? Who decides what percentage of one's heritage is sufficient to lay claims to that identity?  Who decides which type of heritage - genetic or cultural - is paramount? Who else if not the individual herself?

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