It’s never too early in life to treat your children like mushrooms. Or to give them the suspicion that you live in a world only tangentially connected with theirs.
That, apparently, is the operating theory behind Cory Silverberg’s picture book What Makes a Baby (Seven Stories Press, $16.95), reviewed with implausible enthusiasm by Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic. According to Berlatsky:
Silverberg’s goals here are very deliberate and (in the reader’s guide) carefully spelled out. He wants to include all children, regardless of whether they have a mommy and daddy who had sex, or adopted them, or whether they have two mommies, or two daddies, or (as Silverberg mentioned in the guide) a trans daddy who gave birth to them, or any of a myriad of other possibilities. The book, then, tries not to impose one truth, but rather to open up possibilities and conversations.
Null hypothesis: Silverberg is being (somewhat) honest — he wants to make his book accessible to as many children as possible, including those raised by same-sex couples and transsexuals. Hey — more kids, more royalties; not every author of children’s books is as wildly successful as was Dr. Seuss.
However, as Berlatsky tells it, Silverberg is so determinedly inclusive in his treatment of sex that “the book doesn’t even mention the word ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy’.” Sperm and egg meet in a uterus that doesn’t apparently belong to anyone, through some unspecified means (here’s looking at you, IVF babies!); what connection they have to the colorful blobs, drawn by Fiona Smyth, that represent people is never quite nailed down. You might as well say nothing as be so thoroughly ambiguous.
Which leads us to the alternative explanation: Silverberg’s open-mindedness is a sham. He is in fact trying to impose a preferred view on his audience, a view Berlatsky calls “gay utopia”, though the homosexuals I’ve known or met may very well beg to differ. In “Gay Utopia” — or at least in the alternative universe of so-called “queer theory” — who’s got a uterus or testes doesn’t really matter, because anyone can play any role they want to. (I put the term in nice, sanitary quotation marks because I have friends who object to the use of the q-word, even when adopted by homosexual people themselves for a specific purpose. And I don’t blame them.)
Again, not all people who identify as homosexual accept QT, or even take it seriously. After all, to be homosexual, you must first see a difference between the sexes, and it must matter to you to some degree. Lesbians don’t want to sleep around with “anyone they want”; they want to sleep with other women. How they feel about men is as individual as they are; but however they feel, they feel about men as men, as creatures distinct from themselves. The same for homosexual men: not so much Vive la différence as C’est la différence. If it truly mattered not to homosexuals, there would be no viable market for sex changes, and drag shows would be almost unheard-of.
But Silverberg’s attempt to provide an origin story for every child isn’t limited to those with two mommies or two daddies, but also for those who have single parents or are being raised by Grandma and Grandpa, or who are orphans or foster children. “The important question becomes not how close your family is to normal,” Berlatsky chirps, “but rather, ‘Who was happy that it was YOU who grew?’”
Kids aren’t stupid. They pick up by watching and listening a lot more than you think you’re teaching, as any parent can attest who has inadvertently taught their little precious a no-no word. Sooner or later, they figure out when something about their life, their family, isn’t quite right … there’s something (or someone, rather) that ought to be there but ain’t.
The problem with a universal origin story is that each child’s individual origin has its own backstory, which the universal origin story doesn’t tell; certainly Silverberg’s doesn’t even attempt to address it. The meeting of gametes, no matter how charmingly told, is of less interest and moment than the meeting of the parents themselves.
Ultimately, the one gamete once belonged to a man and the other to a woman, one or both of whom for some children are no longer in the picture. Where did they come from? What were their motives? Did I inherit my ear for music from a man to whom contributing genetic material was of no greater import than contributing a second-hand sofa to Goodwill? Did the woman in whose body I began my life feel anything about my departure from her life? What kind of people were they? Would I have liked them? And why did their participation in my story end? Why did they leave me with other people?
That’s the backstory. For some kids, that’s the unknown that matters more than the dance of the gametes.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that all such children will eventually set out on quests to discover their “real” mothers and fathers. Many grow up … well, not so much comfortable with not knowing as accustomed to it. But every now and then, even the happiest of these children will occasionally stare at the family portrait, hoping to see the man (or woman) who isn’t there.
Here, I believe, is Silverberg’s real problem: He’s attempting to answer the embarrassing question, “Where do babies come from?”, in a way the parents/guardians of a non-traditional family can spin to pre-answer — or fend off altogether — the more potentially troublesome query, “Where did I come from?”
I just don’t believe it can work as Silverberg intends. As I said before, kids aren’t stupid; they can tell when you’re trying to avoid answering a question (“Look! Something shiny!”). Just because you manage to stop a kid from asking the question doesn’t mean you’ve stopped him from wondering what the answer is.
It’s a problem single and adoptive parents have struggled with as long as adoption and single parenthood have been options: What do you tell your child, if anything, about the man/woman who ought to be in the family picture but isn’t? Do you know the child’s backstory?
For some people, that backstory isn’t pretty. Do you tell your child that Daddy answered an ad you and your partner put in Craigslist seeking sperm donors? That Mommy was a poor Indian woman you paid to give birth to him/her? That you won custody over him in a bitter legal battle with his natural mother? Or do you shovel some manure at him and keep him in the dark, mostly because the backstory puts you in an unflattering light?
Make no mistake, though: that backstory includes one man and one woman. And if there were one feature of Silverberg’s book I find offensive (just one?), it’s the portrayal of this gendersilly paradise as populated by barely-differentiated, sexless blobs. Our sexes are part of our individuality; disconnecting us from our reproductive organs, ironically, makes us less unique, less diverse.
Vive la différence.
© 2013. Anthony S. Layne. All Rights Reserved.