As a clinical psychologist focusing on LGBT families, Erhensaft has found that separating intercourse from reproduction is harder than you think. This is because eggs and sperm, even when meeting in a petri dish, are still connected to people. And that it helps to “be the baby” when making decisions for creating future families.
Clinical and developmental psychologist Diane Ehrensaft is the author of Mommies, Daddies, Donors and Surrogates: Answering Tough Questions and Building Strong Families, as well as a professor of psychology at The Wright Institute in Berkeley. She has worked with families formed through assisted reproductive technology for over 39 years.
When I was being trained as a psychologist, it was taken as a given that a family is a mother, a father, a child. And there was no other way to think about family. And anything else was an aberration, considered a deficit, ripe with pathology. Along came the women’s movement, along came the gay and lesbian movement, along came reproductive technology, along came the transgender movement. And with that, there has been a revolution in what is a family.
The first question is, who are the intended parents here. Who is intending to have this baby together. And in the answer to that, you get a lot of perspective on whether people are coming together in harmony, if there’s more than one parent, or whether you can already feel sandpaper friction. So for example, now moving to a family that says, “Well, we’re going to use an anonymous donor. And we are two women, and we want to have a baby. And we are going to be the parents; no other parents need apply. And we absolutely want this sperm donor to be anonymous, because we do not want any intrusion in our family life.” So I say, “Well, I can respect that. That makes a lot of sense. But now let’s come around from your child’s point of view, and let’s just think about—do you think your child will see it the same way, that this will just be a vial of sperm, and never a person that they’ll be curious about, or want to know?” So I invite people to first think about themselves, and then step back—which is sometimes hard to do before the baby actually comes—and say, “Be the baby.”
Separating intercourse from reproduction is harder than you think. We can do it scientifically. We’ve done it. But what I have learned, just from my own experiences clinically, is that we knew a long time ago that you can take the reproduction out of sex. It created the sexual revolution of the 1970s, where people felt much freer to have intercourse without the fear of pregnancy. So we were able to do that. And it also opened up the issue that not all sex is about intercourse. What has been much harder is to take the sex out of reproduction. So you think you’re doing it in this nice, sterile lab, but as you do it, the reality is, that sperm and eggs are always connected to people. And it is very hard for people to leave egg and sperm at the level of a petri dish, a test tube, a syringe. So people grow from that. And there is something, perhaps culturally imbued, about imagining doing it. So if you make a baby, it’s ‘cause you’ve done it. And you may have done it scientifically, but it just spills over into the sex of doing it. So we have—that’s alive and well, at least at this moment in history.
The one thing, and this is for all parents, is it does matter how you make your baby. You know, some people say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, you know, the baby comes to you.” It does matter. It’s what meaning you make of it. And to remember always that once you intend to have a baby, and that baby comes, whoever it comes to is the real parent. It’s not based on DNA. It’s based on bonding. It’s based on the desire to have a child, finding a way to have a child. So the worst vulnerability that parents feel, particularly if they’re not the genetic parent, is when a kid says, “You’re not my real mommy.” And the answer to that is always, “Honey, this is as real as it gets.” And to remember that not only to communicate that to your children, but that you communicate that to each other; that you, whether you’re the genetic parent, or the non-genetic parent, or two non-genetic parents, that you communicate to each other, “Honey, you’re as real as it gets.”