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
By Lisa Regula Meyer
I normally think of myself as a decent writer- not great, but not horrible, either- but no matter how I try to rearrange the words, this just keeps coming out horribly. I can’t get the right words to make it anything except depressing and stale and no good. I try telling myself that the problem is the message, not the messenger, but who knows? Maybe there really is just no good way to tell this story.
Last week, my first surro-kiddo had a brain tumor removed from her left hemisphere. Her dads called me that morning, so that I didn’t find out about it on Facebook (where we communicate most often) or from a third party, and I really appreciate that. Their voices were shaky and trembling as they described what little they knew, and when surgery was going to be (later that day, just a few hours after we spoke, in fact). I was a gestational surrogate for Miss A, so she’s not genetically connected to me, but I still felt like I had been run over by a Mack truck. It was the lunar new year; if this is how the year of the horse began, what could the rest of the year possibly look like?
I don’t do well with situations that have no social script, and this has no social script what so ever. A five year old with a brain tumor that’s likely malignant- that happens in those tear-jerker human interest stories on the evening news, not in my life, right? Not to someone I know and love. Definitely not to someone to whom I gave birth. How does one deal with that scenario? What do you say? How do you feel? I had (and continue to have) no clue about what was right or expected or “normal” in this situation.
So I sent flowers.
And a teddy bear.
And hopes that one or more of these tokens would carry my love and sympathies to friends whom needed them dearly. Because what else could I do?
Then social media came to the rescue. An out-pouring of love fit for the little princess that she is. Warmth and well-wishes, hopeful thoughts and promises of prayers from all over the Twitter-sphere and Facebook-landia. While few people could be with them in the hospital, but we could all be there in spirit, cheering on Miss A and her daddies when they needed it. And they could keep all of us who cared about them updated as to her progress, accomplishments of the day, and overall emotions at that point in time.
That’s really the miracle of digital communities, isn’t it? The ability to reach out quickly and to large groups of people. Share the burden of pain, and the exhilaration of our success. And at a time like this, there’s plenty of burden and pain to be shared by this little girl and her “tribe” in the digital world.
By Lisa Regula Meyer
The holidays are in full swing (and will be over by the time this post is up), and I’m trying to focus on the positive. It should be a happy time of the year, and this should be considered a good year for our family- no deaths, I graduated, Kenny is having a good year at school, and Dwight and I have had enjoyable teaching assignments. For the most part, I’m even succeeding at this whole holiday spirit thing, at least a little.
One thing that I’m very grateful for is the Holiday Shop that Kenny’s school puts on with the parents’ group there. The parents at our school do a great job making crafts, finding deals, and getting donations to make sure that the kids have a huge selection of gifts to choose from while teachers, other students, and parent volunteers help students do their own holiday shopping. This relieves me from the stress of shopping with him, and trust me, shopping is stressful enough on its own for me. After crafting some gifts and decorating cards, he proudly went off to school with his list of people he still needed gifts for, and ideas of what they might like written on the back of a money envelope containing his saved allowance for the past few weeks, and I proudly looked at my growing up kid.
That afternoon I picked him up from school, and couldn’t wait to hear what he had found to finish his holiday list. He showed me the ring he found for Grandpa D, the “family gifts” for our household that he could only tell me how much Dwight and I would love and no further details, the snow-globe for Grandma S, and the Hot Wheels car for Mr. D. Then- his eyes glimmering- he told me of his best find: not just one, but THREE! Barbie dolls for Miss E. And my heart sank. She might enjoy the dolls, but her dads would be anything but cool with this gift. There are small parts, the suggested age (3+) puts them at too old for her, and body image discussions are a big deal in their house (which is a good thing- but kind of contraindicates Barbie dolls as possible gifts). A classmate of his had given him the idea, and he thought it was brilliant, but I wanted to avoid the emotional fallout of having his gift rejected. So we had another Big Talk, this time about choosing gifts that will be appreciated and how best to show love to someone- hint: it’s not always buying something.
In the end, he took the Big Talk much better than I had expected, and we worked together to find a gift for Miss E that would be a hit- a book about a toad that a local artist had written and illustrated. The unexpected bonus in this whole thing, was a new toy for Kenny. Unsurprisingly, one of the reasons for his infatuation with the Barbie doll set was because he himself thought it was cool, so for finding such great gifts for most of the people on his list and dealing with a tough situation so well, we let him keep his favorite doll. The other two are being given to a local “angel child” gift tree to brighten some other child’s holiday a bit.
Yeah, I probably could have handled this far better than I did, but this whole parenting thing has no instruction manual, and I did the best that I could in the moment. But between this little episode and our night-on-the-town handing out treat bags with some of my friends and Kenny, you can paint me the proud mama of a kind hearted, long-haired, Barbie loving Brony this season. Somewhere my sister (the long-haired, girly Barbie-lover of us two) is laughing her head off.
By Lisa Regula Meyer
Holidays are supposed to be happy and joyful occasions surrounded by family and friends, but for those who have had a falling out with their family, or who have lost loved ones through death or estrangement, the holidays can be everything but happy and joyful. All too often, teens and young adults in the LGBTQ community fall into this category. We all know the statistics about LGBTQ youth and suicide, violence, depression, and homelessness, but if you happen to need a review, Lambda Legal, Human Rights Campaign, and PFLAG new York City have some great data sets that are not for the faint of heart. Not that youth are the only ones suffering right now; we also see a bleak picture for older LGBTQ individuals as well.
Now that you’re thoroughly pissed off, depressed, resigned- whatever negative emotion these statistics strike in you- do something about it! The good news is, it’s never been easier to provide support as a part of a community than it is today, thanks to the internet and social media. Granted, it’s not as good as an actual hug, but even reading kind words reminding you that you are important enough to reach out to can be a huge lift during the holidays. Your Holiday Mom is trying to provide just that for LGBTQ youth with a virtual message that can be read as a reminder that people do care and you do matter. For some of us, the holidays are just plain terrible, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can insert all the criticisms of digital communication and community, and cries of “slacktivism” that you want, and at a rational- intellectual level I would totally agree with you. But here’s the thing- humans tend not to be very rational. Obviously, this little bit isn’t going to replace any other holiday good cheer that you might send out, but it’s a small thing that you can do that might just mean the world to someone who needs it right now. I’m proud to say that I know some of the holiday moms already posted, and I hope to be able to include more acquaintances in the list of people-doing-something-great that is the holiday letter site.
I know you care, let someone else know that you do, too.
By Lisa Regula Meyer
Today marks the start of the holiday shopping season, the day after Thanksgiving, when Americans take to the malls in droves looking for spectacular deals on the latest, greatest thing for this year. Or at least it had been the start of the shopping season until the recent craze of opening earlier and earlier began. So this year while most of us are home enjoying a holiday feast with our loved ones, retail employees will be stocking shelves and ringing up orders of people who can’t wait another day to spend.
I’ll admit that I have a vested interest in maintaining the day off that had been far more common just a few years ago, as Dwight works in retail. Having a day off to celebrate the holiday with family is also something that I believe is just plain the right thing to do. It’s not often that families today have a day set aside that everyone can be together, between more businesses being open more hours, and many people working more than one job. The biggest irony that I see is the messaging that we send- give thanks and treasure time with those you love on one hand, and love is equal to a purchase, but especially a deeply discounted one, on the other hand. It’s a sad way to start the season, in my opinion, focusing on the purchases and the profits instead of being together.
I realize that their are some people who want to work on the holiday to earn extra income for the holidays, and I hope that those are the people who are the ones staffing the Thanksgiving retail floor, but I also know that at most stores these will be mandatory work days to make sure that staffing levels are high and customer service is up. Wouldn’t valuing families mean paying people enough that a day off with their own families was a sacrifice that they could afford?
As much as I may be complaining, I’m thankful that- for the most part- we’ll have some time together as a family this holiday season. I cooked for our kin that can make it, and lit a candle for those that couldn’t. It’s entering the end of the semester, which is a busy time for the students and teachers alike, and we have both in Dwight’s side of the family. I’m thankful for the chance to do what I love and teach biology to undergraduates. I’m thankful to have my dissertation done and submitted, and my hooding coming up. I’m thankful for the families that I’ve seen through the family building process, and child-free friends who remind me of my more carefree days before kids (and let Kenny and I participate in their big Random Acts of Kindness endeavors).
Being thankful for these things makes me want similar privileges- family, friends, living wages, education- for other families as well.
By: Lisa Regula-Meyer
For better or worse, Kenny’s grown up in classrooms of all sorts. His first day of class was at the tender age of two weeks, and we had Drawing II, Plant Biology II, and Piano II. I took a year between undergrad and graduate school as a “post-undergrad,” auditing classes that I hadn’t gotten a chance to take previously, working on some research projects with a faculty member, applying to grad schools, and generally easing into parenthood. I realize that it’s a huge privilege to be able to do that, and I’m grateful for that year. Since then, he’s had graduate level biology and ecology courses, history classes for graduate students, and sat in on some classes taught by myself or my husband. We’re kind of used to blending family-time and education.
Recently, we’ve been more conscious about also including everyday lessons where we can around the house, too. Rolling coins becomes a math lesson, baking and cooking can draw on both math and chemistry, driving around leads to discussions on geography and ecology, and listening to music or watching TV ends up as a history lesson. It’s not easy, but we enjoy talking as a family in a more directed manner than Kenny’s usual blathering. Honestly, he talks nearly constantly so if we can direct his verbosity in some direction other than the latest Bayblades episode, all the better.
All of this focus on education has helped him to 1) love school, 2) be comfortable asking questions and finding answers, and 3) created a minor tyrant that thinks that he must. know. EVERYthing. That need is exhausting and can be maddening when he comes up with a question that we don’t know the answer to, or that doesn’t have an easy question. Our family focus on education has also lead more than one well-meaning friend to assert that “Kenny would do so well as a home schooled kid! Have you thought about doing that?” What can I say? Our friends are interesting folk.
I’d be lying if I said we hadn’t considered it on occasion, usually after a rough day at school for him or when we get together with friends and hear all the fun things they get to do with the increased flexibility with a home-school schedule. I’d also be lying if I said any of those discussions ever ended anywhere other than, “But we’d all go insane being with him that long without a break.” Homeschooling is not in our future, but supplementing his education we are more than happy to do.
I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned it here before or not, but there was a time when I thought I could be an early childhood educator. Boy, was I wrong, and thankfully I had a professor who pointed out this oversight to me. I switched to biology as a major, and never looked back. Like so many other people, I assumed that simple lesson content material would equate to simplicity in teaching it. Except working with children is a whole other ball game than working with adults or young adults and helping them learn. There’s that whole development that makes a big difference- lack of logic, lack of foresight, lack of restraint, and so on.
I am very appreciative of the people who can teach small children, and the work that they do; I couldn’t do it well for all the money in the world. They’re also my peers in the educational field whom I respect to no end. My amazing students are the results of other educators’ time, talent, and yes- sometimes tears. I don’t want to take their job in my child’s life, I want to work with them to give him the best education that we can. I don’t want to cut their funds and make them work harder, with less resources; I want them to have what they need to do the job that I can’t. I don’t want to remove my child from a system that isn’t working perfectly; I want to work to improve that system for everyone’s child. To those people who can homeschool their child, more power to you, but it’s not right for our family. I still respect your right to choose the path that is best for your family, and know that I’ll be doing what I can to improve our educational system just in case you ever do need to use it instead of homeschooling. Maybe it’s a long path to travel for me to get to this point, but this is where I am. I’m happy to see people coming around to this point of view in whatever way they do. We could all stand to take a lesson from each other on how best to teach the next generation. Keep what works, change what doesn’t, and keep the baby when you toss the bathwater.
By: Lisa Regula- Meyer
The school year is in full swing now in Kent, and we’re heartily enjoying life with a second grader. Specifically, we’re enjoying this second grader and his second grade class. This year, our school is trying out a mixed 1st and 2nd grade classroom. Two teachers, two student teachers, and two grades in an extra large room (really two rooms with a collapsible wall between them that’s not used very often now). Kenny’s been thrilled about it so far, and seems to be doing well with this new set-up, in part because the first grade teacher was his teacher last year, and he really enjoyed working with her. We’re glad that he has another year in a safe place where he enjoys learning, and his official teacher for this year has a similar pedagogy and manner to his first grade teacher. His daily pattern is familiar, he’s making progress on school work, and meeting new friends.
I may not work with young kids, but I do teach, and I take my profession seriously. So much in education is bad news- rising tuition, rising student loan amounts, another assessment added to the schedule, and test prep taking more and more time away from teaching. With all of that, it’s great seeing innovation and child-centered learning still making its way into some areas. Classrooms being treated like research, following evidenced-based practices and contributing to that evidence, trusting teachers to take leadership of their own classrooms, those are the things that I like to hear happening.
In my own classrooms, I’m trying some new things, as well, like virtual presentations and some new lab activities. It’s surprising how different things feel with just a little bit of a difference; those little changes make such a big deal in overall outlook. For me, seeing changes in my syllabus come together, and seeing how other people shape their classrooms for the students (with supportive administrators, even!)
By: Lisa Regula Meyer
Three ways to create a family frequently discussed on The Next Family include gestational surrogate, traditional surrogate, and adoption. There are far more other ways, but I wanted to focus on these three because it’s an area where there is frequently some confusion. As a reminder, “gestational surrogacy” is when a woman (the GS) outside of a couple carries a child that is not related to her for the recipient couple, the intended parents (IPs). The child may be the genetic child of one or two of the people in the IP couple or not, depending on how the couple goes about the surrogacy process. “Traditional surrogacy” is when a woman (the TS) outside of the IP couple carries a child that is related to herself, her own biological child and the half sibling of her own children. Usually the child is related to one of the IPs. Adoption concerns an existing pregnancy for the birth mother, and the child is placed with an adoptive family, to whom it does not have a parent-child genetic connection.
There are benefits and drawbacks to each of these methods, and finding the correct balance of benefits and drawbacks depends on the parties involved. Gestational surrogacy tends to have a more sure ending legally, and if there is a child created it is 99% likely going to go home with the intended parents, since the child was created/intended for them, and the surrogate has no genetic link to the child. Traditional surrogacy tends to be less expensive, and does not involve the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF), but is seen as riskier for the parents since the surrogate has a genetic tie to the child. The infamous Baby M case was a traditional surrogacy. Adoption is the most legally risky, as birth mothers can rescind their decision and choose to parent instead of abdicate her parental rights and responsibilities within a set period of time. The child was not created with the intent of the adoptive parents, so legally, they are typically seen as having fewer rights than intended parents. We’ve seen the outcome of this policy discussed by The Next Family writers, and it’s painful.
I wanted to address this in writing in one place here because there is an important distinction between surrogacy of either type and adoption- the matter of intent. That the child was created with the intention of the parents is crucial legally, and ends up being important in how we view these constructs socially. I’ve been both a GS and TS myself, so I have first-hand experience with those processes. I’ve often had well-meaning people call my role as TS “birth mother” because birth mother in an adoption case is more familiar than a TS is, and it’s easy for them to understand and convey to others. But being simplistic in this manner ignores intent and adds a layer of assumptions about identity that I don’t appreciate all that much. I do know some TSs that identify as birth mothers, but it’s not common and not always healthy, resulting in a blurring of lines and creating a feeling of loss that I don’t think anyone should have to endure.
Socially, we often see adoption situations with a particular lens- a mother losing or giving up her child, a child being given away or not wanted in the first place- and assuming that there is a loss in that situation. A family is created, yes, but a parent and child are separated, something that we see as a bad thing (look at the Baby Veronica case and how contentious it has become). That loss is not assumed in a surrogacy situation, because there is no family that is broken up, only a family that is formed. That’s a joyful situation and should be celebrated, however it happens. Obviously, there are cases where a surrogacy can end up hurting the surrogate as well, but from what I’ve seen it’s usually not the case, and if it does occur, the pain is due to something outside the birth of the child, the relationship with IPs, extended bed rest or stress on her own family, and other reasons.
Identity is important as it frames how we see ourselves and how the world sees us. Because of that, I think it’s important to remember the full complexity of a situation and embrace that complexity instead of trying to simplify, and it’s especially important to recognize people by their chosen identity, not one that we wish to use for them out of simplicity. Our identities take time and thought to form, so taking time and effort to recognize them correctly is appropriate.
By: Lisa Regula Meyer
In keeping with the theme of additions started by the kittens, we’ve added another member to the family. Specifically, my mother in law has remarried a high school friend, and the man that introduced her to my father in law. I’m happy for them, the groom seems like a great guy (and Dwight asserts this is the case, and Dwight’s known the groom since he was young). They seem infinitely happy, and summer is a season in my life that needs additions to balance the subtractions, so it’s all good. I’m also optimistic that the groom’s longstanding friendship with the father in law might make for less strenuous holiday trips; only having to do one giant holiday bash for each holiday would be amazing.
The nice thing about blending of families for adult children is the limited functional changes that occur. In my experience, I enjoy not having to adjust too much to a new member of the family, and the limited potential for negative interactions that come with that. We get the benefit of a new addition and expanded family without the messiness of blending two families into one. At least that’s how it was with my second step father compared to my first. We’ll see what this new transition brings, but I’m positive about the situation.
My one concern is names and how to refer to people. Dwight’s dad is very happy with his title of “Grandpa,” a title that he doesn’t share with any living person, as my step dad is “Mr. Dusty” in Kenny’s eyes. I don’t want to take something as important a part of his identity away from Dwight’s dad by calling the groom “Grandpa” also. Dwight’s mom has already started that trend, but Dwight and I are leaning toward “Mr. David” instead. The groom has yet to express any preference, and seems comfortable with whatever (can I say that his laid-back temperament is a huge plus?). Kenny has enough problem with names that the groom will probably be “What’s your name again?” for a year or more.
I am, and will probably always remain, a staunch supporter of respecting self-identity, whether that’s in gender, name, career, whatever. You get to choose what other people call you, and the forms of address you respond to. I also tend to think of family less in terms of bloodlines and more as “chosen family,” be it chosen through adoption, friendship, foster care, or some other tie. It’s acting like a family that makes a family, not genetics, as far as I’m concerned.
At the same time, we’re constantly defining not just ourselves, but our relationships to one another. How many jokes and comedy skits have featured the scenario where a new couple are figuring out terms of endearment or relationship status? The awkward “So… are we boyfriend and girlfriend?” moment in high school comes to mind. It’s a human trait- we like to name and group things. If the person is has no preferred title or name, but others are identifying him/her in more way than one, what’s the “correct” term? Is there such as thing as “correct term”? Companies and individuals pay big money for naming rights to sports centers, stadiums, and other buildings; who has naming rights in a child’s relationship? Only time will tell. Besides, as The Bard once said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”
By: Lisa Regula Meyer
It’s getting later into the summer, and we’ve hit a cool spell in Northeast Ohio. By cool, I mean autumn-like night time temps of 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. As usual, the season’s gone too fast and I’ve not gotten enough work done, nor had enough recreation time with my son and husband. It seems that four classes in a semester is my maximum right now. Forgive me if being busy work hard and playing harder means that I don’t write much or always on time before the return of some normalcy with back to school in a few weeks.
Music is something that’s always been a panacea for me, and Kenny shares some of that tendency. All three of us are heading to a concert out of town later this week, and really looking forward to it. My only concern- we’re going out of town, and will be meeting up with a high school friend of mine and his partner. Most of the times I’ve gone out of town to visit gay friends, I have returned home pregnant; I need to remind my body that that’s not the plan this time (ah, surrogacy jokes…). One bit of semi-regular fun on evenings that Dwight has to work has been Cleveland Orchestra concerts on the lawn of Blossom Music Center for good mama-son time. In particular, last weekend was a selection of highlights from Porgy and Bess alongside some spirituals. It was a special time for Kenny and I, as the song “Summertime” is something that has long been a connection for us. I’ve loved it since I was little, and it was a go-to song when he was fussy as a baby. That image of infinite protection leading to vast freedom, the idea of a parent as protecting and preparing someone who’s bound to leave of their own volition, that’s the image of parenting that has always struck most true for me.
As we snuggled on a blanket under the night sky, listening to the music, and his face turning to tell me that the singer was “doing it wrong- not like you sing it,” I realized that despite all my misgivings, maybe I was doing it right after all. And that moment was sweeter than even the freshest blueberries this year.
Tonight is another concert night, with Broadway hits and a picnic dinner, and I’m very much looking forward to being reminded of how we each dance to our own beat, when Kenny’s flailing and spinning in movements that I have never been able to replicate.