Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Baby Steps: A review of Baby Steps: How Lesbian Alternative Insemination Is Changing the World

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By Amy Agigian (Wesleyan University Press, March 15, 2006; $17.95)

It is always odd to read a postmodern analysis of your own life. I have been a foster mom, a lesbian "bio" mom via alternative insemination (AI) and a gestational carrier (AKA a surrogate mom) for my partner's egg. I have personally deconstructed motherhood in bedrooms, doctors' offices, judges' chambers, birthing tubs, preschools, and playgrounds. I was excited when Baby Steps hit the high traffic tables in my local gay book store. But a quick glance at a few sentences made it clear this was not the personal page-turner the engaging cover suggested. Take for example, "Social control in modernity is achieved in large part by policing the body, with special reference to its origins and privileges as indicated by parentage (e.g. sperm, blood, and name)," or "Contingent and hybrid social forms, including households and kinships groups, have always existed and co-existed with more (stereo)typically feudal and modern ones." The author, Amy Agigian, is a Professor of Sociology at Suffolk University in Boston, and Baby Steps is a serious academic work. She is not a lesbian mom, although she does have deep personal ties to the gay community, and Baby Steps is not a personal story. It is a multi disciplinary analysis of how current social structures, reproductive technologies, and modern-day gay and lesbian culture have conjoined to create not merely a postmodern family, but the next theoretical step, an ultramodern family. I occasionally wanted to dispute or add to Agigian's analysis based on my own experience, and more than once I had to put down the book out of frustration with the tortured language of postmodernity. But I did find myself thinking about Agigian's ideas for months afterwards, re-examining the everyday events of my family life in light of the socio/cultural framework she describes. And, I'll admit, I smiled occasionally as I washed out the third sippy cup or sang wheels on the bus for the forty-eighth time, thinking, "Look at me! I am tearing down the hegemonic discourse of hetero patriarchy. Wheeeee!"

Agigian reviews the cultural, economic, legal, and technological movements that have led to what she considers this moment in "new families" and the way lesbian AI families both reflect and drive these movements. She first traces the history of the family structure from the "patriarchal" model, in which the father is lord and owner of wife and children, through a postmodern "capitalist" model, in which families are tied by biology but are also "contractual." Family members have certain expectations of each other and can "terminate" the family contract if those expectations are not met (think divorce, think "Irreconcilable Differences" in which the child divorces her parents to live with the maid). Now, Agigian claims, we are on the verge of a new family construct, a construct brought about by the convergence of legal, technological, and social advances and gay and lesbian culture. The construct, the "ultramodern family," is embodied in lesbian AI pregnancy and parenting.

In her chapter "Legal Legitimacy and the Lesbian AI Bastard," Agigian reviews how the rise of lesbian alternative insemination has necessitated the creation of new legal constructs to accommodate and recognize complicated new relationships between genetic, gestative, adoptive, single, and/or caretaking parents and their children. For example, she reviews the creation of "second parent adoption" by Donna Hitchens, founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights . Historically, adoption required that one woman legally resign all parental rights before another could become her child's adoptive mother. Lesbian families needed to add a second legal mother, rather than replace one. Thus, second parent adoptions were created, through case law in the San Francisco Bay Area, to provide legal protection for lesbian AI families.

However, Agigian posits that legal and technological advances of the last twenty years alone are not enough to shift the paradigm from the postmodern contractual family to the new ultramodern family. It is the conjunction of these developments with the advent of modern gay and lesbian culture, she argues, that truly redefines family. Long before AI allowed lesbian mothers to conceive children independently, gays and lesbians were creating new forms of family. Agigian cites the work of anthropologist Kath Weston, who describes the evolution of gay and lesbian "chosen families" as opposed to "blood families." Weston has discussed how the coming out process evokes fears of being estranged or flatly removed from one's blood family, and how whether or not these fears are realized, frequently gays and lesbians respond by developing alternative kinship structures that include lovers, ex-lovers, male and female friends, and children. These family circles are mutual networks of support and caring, and they cross racial, sexual, socioeconomic, and many other boundaries. And now, because of fertility medicine and explicitly AI, biological children have been added to the existing construct of gay and lesbian families of choice. That family of choice, based on affinity, love, respect, and care and further fortified by technological advances in reproduction and the resultant legal and social advances, is Agigian's ultramodern family.

As for changing the world, Agigian points out that for generations families and women in particular have raised children "not their own." Families have always been more complicated than social definitions have allowed for, forcing many families into painful secrecy to avoid stigma or legal action. Many families have tried to fit definitions that did not reflect their reality. Lesbian families, not being able to "pass," have had to be open, and so have created a new definition that has changed the future for all families.

In the last chapter of her book, Agigian takes a look at that future. She reviews the work of visionary legal scholars on redefining family -- all families. Martha Minow advocates a "functional" definition of family, meaning that any unit of people who "act as a family" should be treated as such under the law. Vicky Henry argues that all families should be defined by legally binding contracts, which would provide clear relationships for all parties involved and compel the court to "recognize the parameters chosen by the particular family." In my own family we have used a legal structure known as a "uniform parenting agreement," or UPA, for our child conceived through In Vitro Fertilization. The UPA was devised to accommodate heterosexual couples undergoing advanced fertility treatment. The agreement allows the sperm donor, the egg donor, the gestational carrier (AKA surrogate mom), or another male parent (specifically NOT the sperm donor) to state their intentions to parent the child. The UPA requires one to choose which one or two of these people will be the legally, socially, and economically responsible parent(s). (In our case, I was the gestational carrier and my partner was egg donor, a configuration that may have surprised the makers of the UPA.) Generally this document is drawn up while the child is still in utero. In officially identifying the parents, it defines the family explicitly, rather than presumptively based on genetics (the egg donor and sperm donor), or according to who carries and gives birth (the gestational carrier). In this way, parental status comes to depend upon the intention of the adult to care for and parent the child; parentage is based on choice and responsibility rather than biology. Henry and others expand the idea of the UPA to include more than two legal parents, of any gender.

These theorists and others seek to legitimize and protect not only lesbian families, but single parent families, adoptive families, and all other "non-nuclear" forms of family. More radical theorists such as Martha Fineman point out the absurdity of legally codifying the most transient of all relationships, the adult sexual relationship. Fineman advocates for the elimination of all marriage and domestic partnership, and instead proposes that we define and support the mother and child as the primary legal and cultural relationship in our society. Finally, Agigian cites Mary Lyndon Shanley, who argues that definitions of family should focus not on the rights or desires of parents, but solely on the rights and needs of the child, whose "needs for love, care, and continuity in her important relationships" should inform all our decisions about family law and policy. Agigian acknowledges the practical problems involved in these theories, but finds them important as part of the process of redefining family.

I won't kid you, reading Baby Steps is hard work. The first four chapters of Baby Steps that deal with the historical, legal, economic and technological trends are dry. Each chapter is a brief reading of a vast subject that could be treated in its own book. They also suffer from a lack of hard data on intentionally created lesbian families -- no fault of Agigian's, as these data are not collected by any government, corporate, or research entity. This is not the book you want to give your great aunt Betsy to create a sense of understanding and identification with lesbian moms. For a personal story you are better off with Family Values by Phyllis Burke. For a "how-to" manual on creating your own ultra modern bundle of joy, read The Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy and Birth by Kim Toevs and Stephanie Brill.

On the other hand, Baby Steps is a very thought-provoking book, and the last two chapters, describing the ultramodern family, and theorizing about the future, are especially stimulating. The best part of any postmodern analysis is its ability to let us view the "day to day" minutiae of life through a very different lens, as part of a larger discourse of culture, politics, economics, and even biology. Agigian's broad view joins that of her postmodern peers in allowing us to think about how we can affect that discourse by living, defining, and changing the "day to day." At least that is what I like to imagine, as I sing the wheels on the bus for the forty-ninth time.

Karen Vernon is a writer, a public health researcher, and the mother of two lovely girls. She has published multiple academic papers related HIV prevention, treatment, and policy, injection drug use, and needle exchange. The Gift is Karen’s first non-academic publication. Currently she lives in Washington DC and tries to find time to write between the crying, screaming, work, and worry, but generally just goes to the park instead.

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