About Elizabeth Edwards–Can We Doubt That She Was A Mother?

This is a bit off-topic, but I came across something on the web that is bothering me.   Rather than just stew about it, I thought I’d see if I could add an intelligent comment here.  

As everyone no doubt knows, Elizabeth Edwards died this past week.   Her funeral was yesterday.    She was 61.  

Some years back, after the death of her 16-year- old son, Wade, Elizabeth and her then-husband John Edwards had two more children.   Emma Claire is now 12 and John is now 10.   It’s not that hard to do the math and realize these children were born relatively late in Edwards’ life–she must have been in her later 40s/early 50s.  

One could wonder whether the Edwards used ART.   Perhaps they did.  Maybe it is even likely.   One could even wonder whether they needed to use eggs from a third-party.  I have no idea.   It’s possible.   But surely this is a matter that the Edwards family is entitled to keep to themselves.

Did they discuss whatever they did with their children?  Again, I have no idea.   I think the parents were entitled to make their own judgments about what to tell their kids and when to tell them.  These children are still fairly young and the last couple of years cannot have been easy ones for them.   Perhaps the parents thought they had enough to deal with just now. 

Now here is what is bothering me.   There’s a post over on the Family Scholars blog from a woman named Alana S.  I’ll just quote the last line, as this is what really caught me out.     She’s writing about the children here:     

I’m most curious about which woman they eventually grow to mourn the most- the loss of Elizabeth, or their biological, egg donor mother.

I find myself reading this as an attempt to deny or undermine the role that Elizabeth Edwards has played in the lives of her children because she isn’t biologically related to them.  (Nevermind that we don’t even know if this is true.)   This insistence that biology must be most important and that lived reality doesn’t matter is the single aspect of the discussion about donor-conceived children I find most troubling. 

Maybe an egg donor was used and someday the children will really want to know about that.  Maybe the information won’t be available and that will be a cause of grief and loss.   Maybe Elizabeth Edwards was not as honest with her children as some might wish her to be (assuming, of course, that she had something to be honest about).  But none of that, in my view, entitles one to deny the reality of her role in her children’s lives.    She was their mother, the only mother they’ve known.  

I don’t want to make this into a zero-sum game.  I don’t want to argue over a hierarchy of loss and grief.   You might convince me that the egg donor (if there is one) is an important person and that the children should have information about her.    But please, don’t try to tell me that Elizabeth Edwards was not their mother or that they won’t grieve for this loss.


31 responses to “About Elizabeth Edwards–Can We Doubt That She Was A Mother?

  1. I do not at all think Alana S. was suggesting that “Elizabeth Edwards was not their mother or that they won’t grieve for this loss.” Not sure how anyone could even come to that conclusion from her post honestly – Alana was simply bringing to the conversation the question about how the premeditated and intentional loss of meaningful connection (mothering?) from a bio-genetic mother and all the family that is connected to those intentional disconnects – will contrast and conflict with the loss of a persons gestational non-genetic social mother (aka: Their mom/mommy). Alana was conceived with the use of an anonymous sperm vendor….and she’s felt that there is an injustice involved with it. Of course she wonders and worries about the feelings of people conceived from egg vendors (donors?). I do too.

    • While you may be right about what she meant, perhaps we could agree that the line is ambiguous. In any event, for me, this highlights a concern I have with frequent arguments offered in support of those identified as donor-concieved. It’s one thing to say “I feel this loss and this has harmed me.” I think there is useful conversation to be had around this topic. But too often this gets cast as a zero-sum game–the gamete-provider’s importance is asserted at the expense of the people who have done the actual work of raising the child. This troubles me deeply. I see no need to deny the critical role that Elizabeth Edwards has clearly played in her children’s lives.

      • “the gamete-provider’s importance is asserted at the expense of the people who have done the actual work of raising the child”

        I don’t know any ‘donor conceived’ person who has ever said that. Can you please give references?

        Of course, absolutely, certainly, without a doubt, the people who love us, who we love and who we are dependent on are of vital importance no matter what we call them, completely regardless of bio-relatedness or legal relatedness. There is absolutely no question about the deep and profound loss these children have experienced in Elizabeth Edwards passing. I’ve experienced this kind of loss myself, many times.

        • Yes, this is an important point.
          Most DC people are NOT being told about the truth of their conception. A Swedish study revealed that 11% of Swedish couples who use ART are not telling their children.

          BUT, what we’re seeing is that kids are being told during/after traumatic events: like a death, or a divorce, or serious illness of a parent.
          So right at the time a child is grieving for the loss of the parent they care deeply about because of how they nurtured them, they are suddenly hit with a second blow and discover they have TWO people they now must mourn- the social parent who is gone, and the biological parent as well.

          and mourning the biological parent is very complicated because no one around you is mourning them with you. There is no funeral. There is no counselor trained in these forms of loss. Your mom isn’t sad about losing/not knowing your sperm donor father. You are grieving him in complete isolation.

          • …I’ve experienced this kind of loss myself…

          • The only translation I could find of that Swedish study was reasonably garbled (Google translate, I think) and so it was hard to tell the time frame of the study. I suspect (but do not know for sure) that the number of parents using third-party gametes who are open with their children has risen over time. This would be especially true as the percent of those families represented by lesbian couples or single mothers rises–those are groups who are more frequently up-front with their children about ART, in part for obvious reasons.

            All that said, I have no quibble with the underlying point–honest is critical.

        • Well, I wrote the original comment because I read the last line of Alana’s post that way. Perhaps I was wrong to do so. And if you look back on this blog you’ll see any number of comments where people deny the importance of the people who’ve actually raised children, saying they are not the “real parents.” I cannot recall offhand whether any of these commenters are donor conceived or whether I know whether they are.

          But rather than send anyone back for a search of the comments or the web, I’d be happy just to agree to the position you state in your closing paragraph and call it common ground.

  2. I absolutely interpreted that post in the way Julie has interpreted it; I don’t see how it can be interpreted differently.
    That post is from someone too deep in her own pain to imagine how other people might be feeling.
    If Elizabeth Edwards children read that post I doubt they would find any comfort or understanding in it at all despite its professed concern how they feel. If someone was truly imagining how they feel they would realize how offensive it is to diminish their loss or her role in their life at the pinnacle of their grief (or anytime for that matter).

  3. Hi Julie, Karen, Kisa,

    Human beings do not need to physically meet a parent to miss them. Every time we look in the mirror or exhibit a talent, or quirk, we are experiencing our bodies and brains, and our bodies and brains are a combination of our biological mother and our biological father.

    I may have never met my father, but I experience him every. single. day.

    My mom left my first social father when I was 8. I haven’t seen or spoken to him in 16 years, but I don’t miss him at all.

    My biological father on the other hand…. I think about him every day.
    That is the source of my comment. I genuinely do wonder which mother they’ll miss more, because for me I definitely miss my biological father much more than my social father.
    But it may be different for everyone. Maybe Elizabeth had an unbreakable bond with her kids.

    Maybe it will work out for them and their egg donor mother will be welcomed into their lives via filling the void Elizabeth left.

    • It seems to me it ought to be possible to recognize that a gamete provider may be an important person to a child without challenging the stature of the person who actually raises the child. Whatever the status of the gamete provider, can we at least agree that the people who do the hands on work of raising the child–who invest their time, their love, their commitment–deserve recognition as well? To be clear, I do not mean nannies and baby sitters, either. I mean the people who are known to the child and to those who live in their community as parents.

    • Of course I agree with Alana.

      • How far down this line of argument will you go? Let’s assume (remember we don’t know) there is an egg provider somewhere. Let’s put her aside for a moment.

        These kids just lost the woman who carried them in pregnancy, gave birth to them, and reared them for 10 or 12 years. Do you really think she isn’t a critical figure in their life? Would any child psychologist deny the importance of this relationship? Do you really think that a stranger–even a genetically related stranger–can simply step in and fill this role at this point?

        I don’t think anyone can reasonably question that there was, in a psychological sense, a parental relationship between Elizabeth Edwards and her children. Whatever you think about the importance of genetics, this seems to me to be the children’s reality.

        • I also agree with that. She and her husband crafted that reality for those children and that reality is all they have. Of course they will be traumatized by her death. She presented herself as their mother and that is exactly how the children will experience her loss.

          • Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that all social mothers should record extensive notes and videos showing how to make sandwiches just the way the children like them, so it won’t be hard for someone else to step in and fill their role and won’t be traumatic for the children if they suddenly die.

            • Was there any purpose to this thoroughly illogical comment other than to diminish?

            • I know I’m late to the party–but I’m trying to pick up on the comments again after a bit of a break. It’s not the how entirely–I could give exact instructions on how to make the sandwiches or go through the turn-out the light ritual. But you cannot separate it from the person doing it. And to me, this is a key point. By doing the things–making the sandwiches or whatever it is–you become embedded in someone’s life. You’re not just a sandwich maker.

              Again, I know this conversation has gone dormant. Just getting myself back up to speed.

  4. My opinion is that people born of an egg donor and a gestational mother (whether we call the latter a surrogate or a legal and social mother) have two biological mothers. They get a DNA package from the egg donor and all that that implies, and they get the uterine environment of the gestating mother and all that means for the development of the child and the bonding between mother and child.
    So we have a first generation in human history who are born quite literally of two biological mothers. I strongly suspect when one or both of those women are not in the child’s life, there will be grief. The question is, who will be brave enough to lead (and fund) a good study of those young people?

    • That’s an interesting way to think about it, because it suggests that there are already quite a few people who have three parents. Often courts are quite resistant to the that idea.

    • Really Elizabeth? You think that the kids would actually miss the gestational carrier. No way not on your life – she may play an important role in their development but the child is not related to her or her family – its as fleeting and temporary as any caregivers role – the ability to impact the child is huge with anyone caring for a child, but they do not become related by virtue of that care and therefore, there is no long term loss from her absense later in life.

    • probably some psychology foundation?

      Elizabeth why do you call your blog family scholars when so many of the blog authors aren’t scholars at all?

  5. Raising the offspring of another person gains a person the rightful roll/title of social parent but I think deliberately creating a child to put yourself in that position may put the social parent in a compromised position depending on whether the child resents or embraces the choice made by that social parent to create them with another persons genes. Its a very bold step for a woman to bring new babies into the world in her early 50’s. Those children may be faced with some conflicting feelings about their Mom. Maybe no more conflicting than any of the rest of the world has towards the women known to them as their moms, but certainly that conflict has a unique set of parameters that most of us will never understand.

  6. I understand your point Julie.
    The kind of intimacy involved in gestation and care-taking is incredibly significant. The period from birth to adolescence I suspect the gestational/social mother is the “only” mother from the perspective of the child. But as we grow up and begin to realize our genes and their influence… The less cute we get, the farther away from puppy appeal.. the more our genetic heritage plays a huge role into feelings about self and how we fit into the world. The more we consider our ancestry and view it as vitally essential to a sense of full personhood.
    Gestational/social moms are VERY threatened by their children potentially showing loyalty towards their biological egg donor mothers.

    I would very much recommend that gestational/social mothers go through counseling and coaching before becoming pregnant letting them know that this is a very real (and likely) possibility for their family.

    If they can’t handle the jealousy and their child’s need to know who they are through knowing about their egg donor mother, well I really wouldn’t recommend for them to have a child this way.

    • I think we’ve got common ground here at the beginning–on the role of the nurturer. But I do not agree with you about the role our genetic heritage plays in determining our identities as we age. I think this must vary person to person. I’ve never seen research supporting it as a general proposition. (This doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, I suppose.)

      That said, I do think it’s a good idea for people planning to raise children generally to think pretty carefully about what they are getting into. I suspect people planning to adopt are generally asked to think about how they’ll feel down the road if/when their child wants to know more about her/his origins. And I assume this is part of why many adoptive parents now choose some form of open adoption. I’d say a similar thing about people planning to use third-party gametes–that people should be encouraged to think about the issues this might mean they face down the road.

      There’s a bit of a feedback loop at work here, though. I do believe that we can make various issues more or less critical by how we describe them. Thus, if we insist that the genetic link is the only important thing (I am not attributing this sentiment to you), then we make it harder for people who do not have it. Same thing if we devalue relationships grounded in the reality of child-rearing. It’s this concern that lead me to comment on your original post.

  7. I let a lot of people convince me for a long time that the stress and obsession with not knowing my biological father was a trait and phenomenon related to my own individual issues and does not represent the whole or majority of donor-conceived people- therefore I should be quiet and get on with my life.
    But then I started to join forums, and talk to other donor-conceived people, and I was incredibly surprised by the patterns in our behaviors. Many of us are changing our names. Many of us use the same language when describing our relationships with our social fathers and biological mothers. Many of us are angry in the same ways. Many of us are beginning to take similar pilgrimages and adapt similar narratives.
    That’s when I got the confidence to speak up.

    Julie, I have to disagree with you about adolescents and adults needing to know where we come from. Adults who have always known where they come from largely take it for granted. You treat it like oxygen and don’t even notice it’s there. For those of us who don’t have it. We are weezing.

    Why did Malcolm X change his name from Malcolm Little? Because it was a mark for ‘unknown’ since his ‘real’ family name was not recorded- due to slavery and being cut off/deliberately separated from his biological African family.
    Why does THIS website exist? http://www.dnaancestryproject.com/

    We know heritage is important based off of all the work adopted children have done in the last century- from demanding open adoption, to even going all the way and making sites like these: http://keepyourbaby.com/

    There is of course the aboriginal “stolen generation”- they were pretty pissed about being deliberately separated from their history and families…

    And in America, our black communities regularly make statements regarding the pain of being removed from their genealogy.
    Oprah went on air talking about her dna test and the deep curiosity about where she comes from: http://s1.zetaboards.com/anthroscape/topic/2897531/1/

    It’s only people that HAVE their family/ancestral narrative that don’t think it’s important.

    • I do not mean to diminish your experiences but they aren’t universal. There are in fact people who do not have access to their genetic ancestry for whom it isn’t a big deal. Their existence doesn’t negate your views nor does your existence negate theirs. All I think we can say is that how people experience these things varies. For the moment I will make no further generalization than that, but I feel rather confident that I can make that one.

      I am also confident that I can say that broad social attitudes can effect an individual’s sense of herself/himself. For instance, in my childhood, adoption was often something that seemed to be a family secret. It was whispered rather than spoken that this person or that person was adopted. There weren’t picture books about adopted children. I think many adoptive parents were encouraged to conceal the fact of their child’s adoption. Surely this had an effect on how individuals who were adopted thought about themselves. Surely it is better for them (generally) that adoption is no longer such a source of shame, that adoptive families are visible in many forms of media, that often (though not always) adoption stories are spoken aloud. My daughter’s middle school has an adoptee affinity group–something I’m sure didn’t exist fifty years ago. All of this is to say that, at least for many adoptees, the shift in general attitudes towards adoption has changed their experience of living as an adoptee. I’d say that, at least in this instance, it is a good change.

      In the same way, I think broad social views about the importance of genetic linkage, the importance of functional parents, the acceptability of ART have consequences for at least some individuals. And broad social views change over time–see the discussion of adoption above. Thus, the experience of individuals in particular categories may be different from one generation to the next. It’s very hard to figure out whether there is some unchanging fixed core of these experiences or, if there is, what it might be, because everyone always lives in some culture that operates with some set of values, etc.

    • “I let a lot of people convince me for a long time that the stress and obsession with not knowing my biological father was a trait and phenomenon related to my own individual issues and does not represent the whole or majority of donor-conceived people- therefore I should be quiet and get on with my life.”

      Seems like they weren’t really interested in the facts, just using them to shut you up. But the linkage is wrong. It doesn’t matter how many people do or don’t feel a certain way, if you feel that way that’s a legitimate feeling that you don’t have to apologize for.

      This being said of course it is always a relief to know we aren’t crazy, that theirs a whole bunch of intelligent thoughtful people who know what we know.

  8. Julie,

    I think that what you are “seeing” as a denial of the “social” parents in favor of the “biological” parents is simply how you view life from your own lived experience, which I am assuming is based on only having one mother and one father.

    (Speaking in generalities understanding there are differences to each individual) Yet to the donor conceived and adopted we have at least more than one mother or father and often two of each, regardless of what terms we use. It is our lived experience that allows our reality to view life as having more than one set of parents, each holding a different and unique role. It does not limit our ability to love both, to mourn both, to want both – but not at the expense of the other where loving one means the dismissal of the other…simply our lived realities have programmed us with the ability to accept we have more than one set of parents (or versions thereof) and have real and unique feelings for each one. There is no competition, each is unique to us.

    Our genetic heritage in my opinion expands and become more apparent as we age both physcially and emotionally. All you need to prove this is to look at the horrific twin studies on babies deliberately separated and adopted into different homes. All I need to prove it is to view myself, my mom, and my grandmother as one example of many. My mom is today what my grandmother was when I was young, I am nothing like either but according to all accounts, incredibly similar to the mother who gave birth to me who I never knew.

    “I’m most curious about which woman they eventually grow to mourn the most- the loss of Elizabeth, or their biological, egg donor mother.”

    My take on this statement is through my lived reality. I see it as question of would you mourn someone you have wonderful memories of more than you would mourn someone you never had the chance to know. I mourn the loss of my dad, but because I have the best of the best memories he will always be part of me because those memories never die, so I think of him often but not in mourning rather in remembrance. But I mourn the loss of my mother often because we will never have the chance to have made memories together so there is no resolution where mourning turns to remembrance. Again, not a competition simply a unique difference.

    • Yes. Thank you ‘The adopted ones’, I think you summarized this very well. The emotional considerations are, in my humble opinion, of primary importance – and not just the ‘donor conceived’s’ and ‘parents’ but the genetic mothers and fathers who relinquish their offspring through pre-conception ‘donor/vendor’ agreements/contracts as well. Another recent article that digs into those concerns:

      “The brutal fertility factories trading on British mothers’ dreams”

      Quote from article:
      ” ‘You’re desperate for a baby so you believe what they tell you. Looking back, I feel that the way the whole system is structured leaves the ­potential for exploitation wide open. There are ­desperate people at each end of the transaction, in the middle there are people ­getting rich.’

      Dr Francoise Shenfield, of University College London, is Britain’s top authority on ­fertility tourism and an ­executive member of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE). She is ­convinced the donation procedure is safe, but has concerns about donors’ long-term mental well-being.

      ‘If you can avoid OHSS then there are no long-term physical side-effects that we know of,’ she says. ‘However, we can’t say the same about the psychological effects. It’s very possible that five or ten years down the line some of these women could be having regrets.’

      That is a sentiment Nastya and Hillary can certainly ­identify with. Nastya remains haunted by her lack of knowledge about her ­‘children’.

      ‘I know some women in their late 50s and 60s are being implanted with embryos. What if such a woman died, leaving the baby I have helped to create with no mum? I will never know.

      ‘There’s another feeling, too — that I’ve been used, I’ve sold my body. I have a friend who worked as a ­prostitute to pay for her studies. She said how she felt dirty and, ­sometimes, I feel the same way.’”

  9. Julie I just noticed something in your comment above that seems inconsistent with things you’ve written elsewhere in the past.

    “These kids just lost the woman who carried them in pregnancy, gave birth to them, and reared them for 10 or 12 years…Do you really think that a stranger–even a genetically related stranger–can simply step in and fill this role at this point?”

    Usually you think who ever is willing to act like a parent deserves recognition as a parent. I’m surprised that you made that statement. No I don’t think a stranger can step in to a child’s life and and fill the roll of a deceased or otherwise absent parent. Adopting a child out of a situation like that may grant the woman parental rights but I don’t think she should ever try to refer to herself as their mother or their parent; a woman who creates a child is a mother whether she is able to perform her parental duties or not; certainly a woman remains the only mother of her children even in death, someone else can step in and raise those children without self servingly seeking the the title of mother. There are women who would step in and adopt a child out of that situation who are not motivated by a desire to experience motherhood and are not adopting in order to become parents. Those women take over another woman’s parental responsibilities because they want to help raise that child to adulthood and are not interested in winning the title of mother away from the woman who was unable to raise her kids. Adoptions by people who are related to the child or are friends of the family typically don’t involve the need to be recognized as the children’s Mom. I just think its interesting that women who think they can earn the title of mother by raising another woman’s child sought out adoptive situations in order to become mothers. Had they been called upon to adopt the child of a best friend or sister who’d passed away they’d be content to assume the parental rights without expecting to be called Mom by anyone least of all her friends child.

    Nope strangers should not step in and think they can fill that void. While nobody is stepping in to adopt Elizabeth Edwards kid’s, lots of kids whose parents die do get adopted and for some reason strangers think that adopting makes them parents. That’s all I’m saying.

  10. Mr Howard for someone so right-wing and uptight you can be pretty funny.

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