Friday, January 04, 2008

The Measure of Choice…

Read this Salon article, “The Baby I Turned Away.” Go ahead, click away from my page, read it, gauge your initial reaction to it, and come back to me. (C’mon, have I ever given you a bad reading recommendation?)

I couldn’t not write about this, but even after reading it a few times, sleeping on it, reading it again, wading through the letters posted, I’m still all over the map. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Whether you think the author, Jessica Berger Gross, is a superficial “baby shopper” lulled by a romanticized ideal of India and motherhood or a woman who simply knew her limits and made the right choice (most reactions tended to split down these two lines), you have to respect the honesty here. It’s not easy to lay bare your most painful decisions, your fears, and your limitations, especially with such an emotionally charged issue.

I’m not interested in dissecting, praising, or bashing the author here. I’d rather explore the whole idea of choice. Choice, both within the context of this one article and in much broader terms, is a luxury. For example, the author had the option (read: financial security) to pursue an expensive foreign adoption. That alone is not something every person who wants a baby but cannot have one on their own can do, and she knows they are the “lucky ones.”

But so often the luxury of having a choice brings so many additional possibilities and consequences. In this case, the ability to pursue this adoption put them in the position to face tough, tough questions. As the author writes,

“I wished we were different people, the kind who would welcome this child, welcome the risks, with no questions asked. I wanted to help her, to make her OK. But what if I couldn't? Could I love her anyway? To a parent, this question must be unthinkable. You love your child no matter what, accepting all limits and gifts. But we had a choice, and the magical thread that had spun us around this child for the previous two days was beginning to unwind and tangle.”

Ahh, the downside of choice. It forces us to confront our weaknesses, it shatters our perceptions of perfection.

Obviously I am approaching all of this from a different perspective than a lot of people who either applaud or condemn Gross. I’m not the parent of a special needs child, nor am I currently pursuing an adoption. But the whole idea of what is “normal” or “healthy” (Editor's note: Go on and read this, too--it's relevant to my position) and what happens when the future we envision is far different from the reality we inherit is an important one to me. And I think whether you’re talking about disease or developmental delays or emotional problems or whatever the special circumstance may be, it all boils down to the same fundamental debate.

What do you do when life doesn’t conform to your plans?

On the one hand, this sentiment from a Salon letter-writer, Late Again, gave me pause:

“Why would you CHOOSE something with so much heartache if you didn't have to? Thank god there are people who do. But, really, most of us wouldn't choose a difficult path given an alternative. The major advantage of adoption over biological birth is the notion of choice. Good for you all if you would check the box on the adoption forms that says "I'll take anyone." Most people wouldn't. This is just one view…”

It’s a good point to raise in the discussion. Objectively, why take the harder road when you don’t have to?

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming) could you be cheating yourself out of unforeseen positives on that road? Could you be selling yourself and your potential to meet challenges short? I don’t know. There are a lot of parents out there who are much better equipped to speak on this, who have spent time in the trenches.

It’s tough. If I have a child, of course I wouldn’t wish for the child a life of sickness. Who would? (It certainly wasn’t in my parents’ plans for me, but then again, neither was all they have gone through and endured.) But I would be the first to say that that child’s life would be undeniably rich and fulfilling even in the face of illness. I’ve never had the luxury of health, not for one day on this planet, but I do not lament that things aren’t any other way.

The absence of choice is just an important facet of this discussion. You can’t always control the human body—who can conceive and who can’t, what diseases can be prevented or detected early and which ones cannot; you can plan for and hope for and expect good health (and all the accoutrements that loaded term brings) but that does mean it will happen, or that you have any say in that.

Sometimes you roll with the punches, and you do not have a choice. Challenges present themselves, even ones you want no part of, and somehow you meet them and keep on rolling. But if you’re lucky, you’re too busy living your unscripted life to even notice what you can or can’t choose.

Pragmatically, not everyone is this lucky. I know that. While I do not have many answers or conclusions, just lots of questions and speculations and thoughts that clearly run in circles here, I know at least one thing. I, too, am one of the lucky ones.


Aviva said...

We were lucky and were able to get pregnant without aid after about six months of trying the first time around.

But I will admit that we had a CVS, which can be done much, much earlier than an amnio, because we wanted to make sure the baby was as healthy as it could be. We knew there was no guarantee that genetic testing would catch every single problem -- it doesn't! But we wanted to rule out the serious problems. We weren't sure where we would draw the line, but we agreed that somewhere, there was a line that we would decide to terminate the pregnancy.

Certainly if there were problems that would cause the baby to suffer unnecessarily and death was assured within the first year. Other issues? We were't so sure. We see our next-door neighbors raising their son, who has severe autism and Down syndrome, and we weren't sure we could handle what they handle. But there are so many high functioning children with Down syndrome that we weren't sure what we would decide if our daughter had it.

But even then we knew she could look perfect genetically and something could happen either in the womb or during the birth and leave her severely incapacitated. It's a risk you take when you have a baby. Or gosh, she could (G-d forbid!) get hit by a car tomorrow and become a quadriplegic with low or no brain function.

There's just no guarantees in life, as we've definitely been finding out with my current illness.

In sickness and in health isn't just a marriage vow, it's also what you accept when you choose to become a parent.

Laurie said...

Thanks for the comment, Aviva. Your last lines, "In sickness and in health isn't just a marriage vow, it's also what you accept when you choose to become a parent," are so perfect for this post. Wish I'd thought of them myself!

Becci Hethcoat said...

I think that the choice to become a parent brings with it the choice to accept whatever you are given and to love that child no matter what. My first son was very difficult and had some special needs. When I had my second boy I was thrilled at how "normal" he was. Of course that only lasted until he reached 2 months old, when his vaccines paralyzed him for life. Now I have a third child who seems, for now, to be pretty "average". While I am thrilled to see how parenting this child is different from my first two...I love them all so deeply and so much the same that I cannot imagine my life without them. I worry that if this woman's "birth" child is not perfect, she will be destroyed by it and not be able to love that child. So many people are out there looking for the "perfect" designer child for what it brings to their lives...not what they bring to the child's lives. Overall, the article made me sad. Thanks for sharing something so though provoking.

Dayna said...

This was very interesting article and post. I've responded, in a blog post (because my response was becoming so long) and I've linked here.

Laurie said...

Thanks for the link, Dayna. As you touch on in your post, that's the thing about illness--it's not something you're ever "ready" for, but you learn fast, you appreciate the highs when you have them, and you deal with the lows because you know there is always something greater at the other end.

Having grown up quite sick and watched my parents both deal with serious illness, I really do believe you can always do more than you expected of yourself when it is asked of you--as you know all too well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laurie - my initial gut reaction is empathy. I didn't read any of the comments about the article on Salon, but I can certainly imagine the reaction she got from the "you are so selfish how dare you pick and choose like that" yadda yadda yadda from the holier-than-thou moms.

Of COURSE none of us who are biological moms were able to choose whether our children are healthy (within the normal parameters of not abusing alcohol or drugs while pregnant, of course), any more than we have the ability to choose whether we are healthy ourselves. You take the recommended advice (eat right, exercise, blah blah blah) and cross your fingers and hope for the best.

To me, that's not the point.

SHE had a choice (the author). She's not a bad person for making that choice, and I don't think she's more selfish than the "average" person. We make choices every day as parents, and sometimes they are selfless and sometimes they are selfish and we just hope that we strike the right balance between being a good parent and not going absolutely insane from martyrdom.

Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

I read this article after you posted it the other day and I have been thinking about it ever since. It raised quite a few conflicting emotions in me, and I wish I could ask the author questions, even from a writing perspective about what she chose to include in this piece and the bits she left out.
Thanks for posting this thought-provoking link.

Terry at Counting Sheep said...

Choice makes all the difference in the world. So many things in our lives are the hand that we are dealt. But when we are faced with a decision. . .

Thanks for the link to a facinating article, and how one person handled her choices, based on who she was and what she knew about herself.

Ultimately, no one can stand in judgment of someone else's decision such as this, in my opinion.

Your comments about the article are quite poignant.

jeisea said...

Thank you for this fascinating and thought provoking post.
Choice in never easy. With it comes responsibility. The road ahead is uncertain no matter what the choice. The thing is, once chosen, commitment and follow through are all important. The future unknown.

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