I just came across this from the Motherlode blog at the New York Times. It’s an account of how one woman told her young daughter that the daughter was born with the aid of a surrogate mother.
It seems to tie back to some conversations we’ve had in the past about truth telling. Issues of truth have always been present in the ART debates (and in discussions of adoption long before that). One of the key themes raised by those who identify as donor-conceived who also claim injury is that they were lied to. And the demand for truthful birth certificates (whatever that means) have often been raised in the comments.
As it happens, I am a great fan of truth-telling. (I know some people won’t accept that, but really–ask my friends.) The thing is, this doesn’t mean I think everyone gets to run around telling the truth all the time. I do, in fact, keep secrets. When I am told things in confidence I tend to respect that confidence, which means I do not go out and retell the truth I have been entrusted with, even when I realize that others may be unaware of the truth.
I guess I also do not think that I am always entitled to tell the truth (and this is where Marilynn and I parted company in the comments under this recent post, I think.) Suppose a four-year-old asks me “Where do babies come from?” If it isn’t my four-year-old, I would not presume to have the right to tell this child “the truth.” And in the same way, if I came across an eight-year-old who believed in the tooth fairy, I wouldn’t feel that I had the right to tell that child the truth about tooth fairies.
Beyond that, it isn’t always clear what “telling the truth” means. Suppose it was my four-year-old who asked the babies question above. There are many truthful ways to answer this question in more and less detail. Less detail might seem less truthful but it also might be age-appropriate.
It is in this complicated framework that I consider the Motherlode piece. It’s a story about how one mother told her daughter the truth–that a different woman–a surrogate mother–gave birth to her. I won’t quote the whole piece–it’s worth going to read. Amy Blumenfeld talks both about why to tell the truth and also how much of the truth to tell at any given moment.
What struck me most, though, is the reaction of Mia, the child who was told the truth, and here I will quote:
We pulled out the album filled with snapshots of my hands on our carrier’s progressively growing abdomen and lay them out on the butterfly rug in Mia’s bedroom.
“See, that was me,” Mia said matter-of-factly, pointing at a picture and looking up at her cousin.
Now I confess I am not wild about the word choice (“carrier,” you know?). But that really is not what struck me first. What struck me first is that this all seems to appear perfectly natural to Mia. She’s unselfconscious and, perhaps even more importantly, unashamed. That’s really what telling the truth can get you.
I thought at first her response–her unashamedness–was startling, but I’ve been thinking about it and I wonder if it is. Why would she be ashamed? It’s only if the adults (and children) around her make her feel that way. There’s no reason a child should feel shame over the manner of the child’s conception and birth unless that shame is brought to them by the world around them. After all, the truth about conception in more common families could seem pretty strange, too–at least in the eyes of children.
It seems to me that lying–or not telling the truth–is much more likely to inspire shame, or at least to create fertile ground where shame may grow. And in the same way, telling the truth is not a bad way to convey to a child that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Surely that’s the right way to go.