One morning, my son Alexander logged on to his 2nd-grade morning Zoom meeting . The topic of the morning’s lesson was family. Watching in the background, I became nervous. He was new to this school community, and I thought the class might bring up uncomfortable feelings about his not having a Dad. I was concerned he might feel excluded. But it turned out this fear was an old school assumption. His teacher showed the class a slideshow of different families. It included photos of a mom and dad and two kids; a mom and a child, a dad and a child, and two parents with their arms around a young woman standing with two children. She asked the class to answer three questions: What do you notice about these families? What do you know about the family? What do you wonder about family?
As we begin to expand our ideas about sex and gender identity, we are also starting to understand the full spectrum of biological possibilities and family arrangements for creating and raising a child.
Some students wondered about the two parents hugging the woman. The young woman, his teacher explained, was a surrogate who helped the parents grow a baby. A young girl observed that some families only have one mom or one dad. The teacher said that sometimes one parent dies or chooses to have a baby without another parent. I could see Alexander’s body language change as he recognized our family in the mix. My worry turned to relief. “What do you see?” his teacher asked Alexander directly. “They are all different,” he said. “Some have just a mom.” Later, he had to answer the three questions. His words made me cry. He wrote: “I know family is lots of different varieties. I know family is life. I wonder why families are different? I wonder why families exist?”
My now eight-year-old pretty much asked the questions I’m trying to answer in my new book about the family’s future. Currently titled Reconceptions: A Story of Love, Science and the Unfolding Future of Family, it will be published by BenBella Books in 2022.
Since Alexander was born in 2012, the world has changed. Gay marriage is now legal. Many more people in the LGBTQ community are choosing to have children with egg and sperm donors. Never-married single motherhood has now been reinvented as an empowered choice for an ever-growing set of women. Single fathers, both gay and straight, are choosing to have babies with egg donors and gestational carriers. The term “co-parenting” is no longer confined to separated or divorced couples. Many individuals are consciously choosing to raise their children in separate households. Many people who are single parents by choice include their sperm and egg donors as active family members. In some cases, co-parenting is giving way to “multi-parenting.” Some families are now multi-party collaborations in which friends or relatives donate eggs and sperm and go on to play significant roles in the children’s lives.
The pioneers of this new world are engaging in what John Robertson, a law professor and bioethicist, calls “collaborative reproduction.” Collaborative reproduction is a term born from the expanded array of civil rights for LGBTQ families, lifestyle choices, and medically assisted methods of reproduction available to 21st-century families. The shifting of social norms around gender and sexual identity, marriage, and family combined with technological innovation is allowing for increasingly diverse ways to reproduce and raise our children.
A New Definition for Infertility
Reproductive technology now plays such a central role in how many families are planned and defined that the World Health Organization has expanded the definition of infertility. The new definition emphasizes that every individual has the “right to reproduce.” Modern fertility medicine can now include LGBTQ couples and single men and women, both straight and LGBTQ, who have not found a partner.
At the same time, reproductive technology research in labs across the world will expand our choices about how to make a family. For example, there are two evolutions of IVF that could change both the gender and genetic mix of future conception. They could also take the idea of multi-parenthood down to our very genetic structures.
Reconceptions offers a broad vision of what a thriving family can look like in the 21st Century and beyond.
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Originally published at Rachel Lehmann-Haupt.