By Lisa Regula Meyer
In my Biological Diversity class, I spend a decent amount of time helping my students to understand two major concepts surrounding niches. An organism’s niche is essentially the role that it plays in its environment and the sum of all its traits. To be specific, its niche is divided into two distinct components, fundamental and realized. The fundamental niche is the organism’s intrinsic niche, its role and traits all on its own. If we were to think in human terms, the fundamental niche is how you define yourself and what your heart would have you do without any obstacles; it’s what we want to be when we grow up as children. The realized niche, however, is what role the organism actual inhabits. This can be different from the fundamental niche due to competition with other organisms, predator or prey interactions, or even altered some by symbiotic relationships. In human terms, the realized niche is what we actually do. Maybe you always wanted to be a professional ballerina, but couldn’t make it into any of the really good classes, so instead you settle for going out dancing every weekend while teaching elementary school all week. Or maybe you get an interview at a prestigious job opportunity thanks to an old high school friend’s connections (kind of like a symbiotic relationship). For an animal, their realized niche might be restricted by another animal that out-competes them for shelter in northern areas of their range, or a plant’s realized niche might be expanded by having symbiotic fungi that helps it get water in drier climates.
What does this have to do with anything family or surrogacy related? Our identity is a big part of our niche; some parts are solid, innate parts of ourselves and are with us for all of our lives, while other parts are fluid and depend on our environment to help mold and shape those components. Our niche also consists of our family- the stable, steady people in our lives who have been and always will be with us while other members of the clan are here today and gone tomorrow, some by blood and some by choosing. Sometimes how we define ourselves and how other define us isn’t exactly the same. I don’t define myself by my experience of being a surrogate, but many other people do. For me, surrogacy was an experience that I had, not an integral part of who I am. No matter how you identify or define yourself, it’s always interesting the differences that other people might have in their perception of you, defining you as smarter or prettier than you consider yourself, or assuming that you are or aren’t a member of a particular group.
This difference in definitions and disconnect from perceived identities has been hitting home more than usual in our house. My traditional-surrogacy babe, I’ve been informed by her dads, spent quite a bit of time last week asking about her brother, my son, and where he was. Most people identify my son as an only child, and by most counts, that’s correct. He has a genetic sibling, yes, but not day to day sibling-like interactions with her. Really, they might spend a total of three days together in a year, and speak on Skype only slightly more often. He shares his home with his dad and I only, which is the data on which most people base their definition of him. But functionally, he has a pretty extended family. We have friends with two daughters with whom we typically play games at least once a week. We have another group of kids with whom we walk to school and home most days, and who frequently spend large chunks of the weekend at our house. In our house, and with these close friends, we joke about Kenny’s brothers and sisters, because the kids’ dynamics are very much that of siblings- bickering, getting jealous of each other, sharing secrets, crying to each other when they’re upset, and sticking together like glue.
Frankly, I like this dynamic in our extended, created family. Kenny gets the benefit of sibling-like interactions, Dwight and I get the benefit of having full-time responsibility for just our “only” child (although there are some days where at least one extra kid is in our home for the majority of the day). This is a system that works for us and our friends at this time. Maybe it won’t in the future, and we’ll address that at that time, but for now we’re happy with the way things are, even if people’s perception isn’t really our reality. It’s not always that differences in perceived identity and actual identity can be bridged so easily, and we count ourselves lucky that so far it has.
Photo Credit: Meggy