As I was getting dressed this morning – and yes it was later than I had intended – I caught an interview on Radio 4’s Midweek with a man called Andrew Solomon that made me stop and listen. He has written a book called Far From the Tree – A Dozen Kinds of Love which explores the differences between parents and children. The book recounts the experiences of parents whose children have a disability, gift or mental illness, those born out of rape and those who commit crimes. Solomon starts from his own personal experience of being a gay man in a straight family and, according to a recent review (link below), ends by becoming a parent himself, recommending that ‘parenthood is not a game for perfectionists’. I’ll second that one.
This book, a tome by all accounts, but highly readable, is definitely now on my ‘must read’ list, but in the meantime the interview got me thinking about parenting by donor conception (when am I ever not thinking about it these days!). The title of the book refers of course to the old saying that ‘the apple does not fall far from the tree’ meaning that children grow up to be like their parents. Given the knowledge we have about epigenetics these days I think it can be said that if there are likenesses between parents and children then these are just as likely to be to do with parenting and the environment rather than straight inheritance of characteristics, but putting that aside for the moment…
Solomon opens his book with a statement that is as obvious as it is startling…that there is no such thing as reproduction. Well of course there are two meanings to this word, but in the sense that children are copies of their parents he is absolutely right. Each child is unique and probably more different to their parents than they are the same as them (just think about your own family). The problem is that so often the expectation is that a child will be, in rather old-fashioned language, a chip off the old block or a mini-me in more modern parlance. Parents by donor conception have an opportunity to challenge this rather DNA determinist view of having children. Because we know that there is an unknown part to a child’s make-up, it removes the expectation that the child should be anyone but his or her self. Of course, a prerequisite for being able to do this is an acceptance of the donor as being a contributor to the mix of genes that will provide a fundamental blueprint to be modified by epigenetics. A parent who remains in denial or feels threatened by the donor may strive harder than any other parent for their child to follow in their footsteps. Yes another reason for parents to feel confident and comfortable with donation before going ahead with treatment.
Walter and I have found it fascinating to watch our children grow and develop. I certainly recognise character traits that come from me in all three (whether by genetics or environment, who knows); they all have enormous integrity. kindness and compassion for others, qualities I’d like to think Walter and I share and have passed on in kind. But in so many ways they are very different to both of us. Peter’s prowess with high-tech equipment; Will’s feeling for business and Zannah’s passion for the philosophy and practice of Chinese Medicine could not have been predicted but we are delighted to celebrate them all. Walter and I have always worked in the public sector. The boys are into making money, but have good personal relationships as well. Zannah just wants to help others and is not personally settled yet, but has many good friends.
All three could be said to have fallen far from the tree in some ways – and without expectations that has been liberating for us all – but in others they remain close and are very much loved. Can’t wait to read that book.