I’ve been less than an attentive blogger the last couple of days–law school graduation and perfect weather conspire, I fear. But I’ve also still be thinking about the swister/twister/switched at birth story. There’s yet another bit of coverage of it on the Guardian daily podcast from yesterday (Friday). There are also a couple of thoughtful comments on that last post of mine.
My slightly reformulated question–one that the earlier commenters addressed–is why this is all so interesting for us. It’s been boucing around the media quite widely now for a week, after all.
I think (and some of this is suggested by others) several things come together. There is the “it could have been me” factor: It’s such an easy and simple mistake to make. At the same time it’s a completely life-altering mistake. That’s the thrust, it seems to me, of the “she lived the wrong life” comments. It sets you on a completely different path from the one you would have been on in the absence of the mistake.
Beyond those two points, I think the switch-at-birth story is interesting because we do not quite know what to make of it all. Our very langugae fails us. For example, what is the relationship of the women to each other? And what do we call their relationships to the people they grew up with?
It seems clear to me that the people you thought were your parents or your siblings for as long as you can remember do not cease to be your parents or your siblings simply because you learn about a long-ago mistake. The reports seem to bear this out. Neither of the women here show any inclination to reject the families they grew up in.
But there is clearly a need to integrate this new information into their current identities. That challenge is two-fold.
One part is the “it shouldn’t have been me” point. It should have been a different child living this life in this family. But of course, it wasn’t a different child and reality is really far more influential in our lives that should have/would have/could have, though we all live with that, too. Perhaps it is because we all have the experience of should have/would have/could have we can relate to this as some extreme version of that.
The second challenge is how to understand the new family you acquire once you know of the mistake. The people who should have been your brother/sister/mother/father. Here perhaps most dramatically our conceptual framework does not serve us.
What is the proper term for the relationship between Kay Rene (or DeeAnn) and the woman who gave birth to her? Perhaps some would say that she is the real mother. But I think that’s wrong–the woman who was always there, she’s at least as real a mother. The woman who gave birth is a might-have-been mother–might have been if the babies had not been switched. Or perhaps she’s an original mother–maybe she was the mother for a while, but she ceased to be after some time had passed?
In fact, I think the scenario offers us a way to consider the importance of the genetic linkage as an element of parentage. It demonstrates that the linkage isn’t paramount. Perhaps we intend to have a system where it is–where children are assigned to adults based on genetic linkage. But when mistakes happen, other people become perfectly fine parents/brothers/sisters. In other words, we may want to align genetics and parenthood, but it doesn’t have to be that way.