Tag Archives: Family

A Mother’s Day Tribute to a Sullivan Woman

14 May

Barbara Sullivan 1975

 

I don’t remember when I came to the conclusion that being a dwarf meant I absolutely had to care about all forms of discrimination and social injustice. It seemed to always be there. I remember at age 19 stumbling upon some closed-minded corners of the Internet and promptly firing off mass e-mails reverberating with shock and outrage about the prevalence of homophobia in the dwarf community – a community that I believed, if any, should be particularly sympathetic to the concerns of those persecuted for how they were born. Solidarity among those ostracized for inherent traits they have no choice about should be automatic and unwavering.

But plenty of people who can be categorized as minorities disagree. There is a ream of reports about homophobia among many minority advocates, racism and misogyny in gay communities, transphobia in lesbian communities, and plenty of social justice groups fall short of embracing disability rights and the openness to bodily diversity it requires. It seems we can’t go a few days without some social justice activist revealing ignorance of and/or apathy toward the work other minority groups have been doing for years. In other words, not everyone “born different” feels the same automatic solidarity I do. It’s why the divide-and-conquer strategy so often works.

And perhaps there are other reasons for why friends frequently tease me for being an “issues person.” On Mother’s Day, it would be negligent of me to ignore another influence on my worldview that has been as powerful as my dwarfism. My mother, Susan Sullivan, is a social worker after all – and she decided to become one a good 10 years before my birth brought her and my father into the dwarf community. Her mother, Barbara Sullivan, was a social studies teacher. She would be 100 years old were she still alive today. Her worldview and its legacy deserve more than a cursory mention.

The 1975 article announcing my grandmother’s retirement in the Peru Central School newspaper reads:

Mrs. Sullivan, who teaches Problems of Democracy and Consumer Education, is presently teaching her last semester…

She has taught us many things. Maybe the most important of which is the ability to empathize or put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is the foundation from which we can solve local, national and personal problems. Then she has gone one step further.

Mrs. Sullivan has opened many eyes to racism, sexism, poverty and the injustices present in our court and prison systems. Not only has she opened the eyes of her students, she has also helped her fellow teachers.

A lot of work is done in her classes but also a lot of discussions. The kind of discussions that help end individual prejudices…

You can bet she will be involved in the community projects that time has not allowed for in the past. Because that is the kind of person Mrs. Sullivan is – caring, understanding person who will always be remembered by any student who has ever taken any of her courses.

A little article cannot give appropriate thanks for all she has taught us. The best way we can show our thanks to her is to go out into the world and work toward ending the injustices that trouble her heart so much. Until we can do this, all we can say is… Thanks.

Grandma Barbara also taught the school’s first sex education class – a feat my teenage mother at the time found as impressive as it was embarrassing. But Grandma Barbara preferred interacting with teenagers over younger children, asking me with deep interest about drug use and the AIDS crisis when I entered middle school. When I was younger, the discussions were simpler but nevertheless motivated by sociological pursuit. She examined integration at my school by asking whom I interacted with, and I received my first black doll from her. She had been an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and was deeply concerned about racial injustice long after it was fashionable. The night Barack Obama was elected president, I quietly shed a few tears over the fact that she had not lived to see it. But in my head I could hear her shrieking, “Hallelujah!” with all the abandon for which she was famous among her friends.

How much her own background brought her to such conclusions about the world I cannot say. She grew up in a small town in Western New York where pets were named unprintable racial slurs. An avid reader, perhaps her relentless pursuit of knowledge helped. But her intolerance of injustice was as intellectual as it was visceral. I remember her smacking the side of her head and clenching her fist in fury during a scene in the 1994 film The Jungle Book when Mowgli is shoved about and laughed at by British officers at a gentleman’s club. Through example, she inculcated in us an inability to stand idly by while others are ostracized.

One of the first Mother’s Days in the United States was proclaimed by suffragist and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, who envisioned something far different from the celebrations embodied by flowers and greeting cards we have come to know today. She called for a day when the mothers of the world would commit to peace. She firmly believed that war would end across the globe once women were given the right to vote because no mother would vote to send her son into battle. Her belief was noble, however naïve or inaccurate.

And Grandma Barbara would have appreciated the sentiment. She was in so many ways a simply loving grandmother, who spoiled my brother and me with sweets and treats, and chased us around her backyard chanting, “Tick tock! Tick tock!” in pretending to be the crocodile from Peter Pan. But her boisterous love of the world was matched by her passionate desire to repair the world. My mother and I cannot deny she passed it on to us. It is a gift for which I will be forever grateful.

Who’s Your Family?

27 Nov

Lady with Punk Grandson II(Image by Christ_i_ane used under CC 2.o via)

From the Archives

 “We don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.”

— Holly Hunter in Home for the Holidays

Whenever you set out to talk about minority rights, you end up crashing into the issue of identity. And this invariably swerves, again and again, into the issue of family. The poet Sharon Olds once said, “A family is a mystery,” and this is probably why I can’t get enough of it in novels, film, clinical trials, and yes, even in real life. Show me someone fascinating and I can’t wait to meet their parents.

In and outside of the holiday season, twenty- and thirtysomethings so often love to extoll the importance of friends over relatives, echoing Oscar Wilde: “Friends are God’s apology for family.” Our first true friendships usually begin in adolescence—the time when we start wanting to forge our identities independently from our families—and this sets the standard whereby friends are seen as a respite from all of our obligations: from parents and siblings, from school, from work, from the exhaustion of the holidays spent with the relatives. “My family drives me nuts, my friends get me,” pop culture says. “Sure I love my family, but I actually like my friends.”

And yet, friendships ultimately prove to be fleeting with age, as life partners and earning money and having children begin to take priority. A study at Oxford University found that taking on a romantic partner generally pushes two close friends out of your life. A serious boyfriend or girlfriend is, after all, a super-close friend and there are only so many hours in the day to fit people in. It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the addition of in-laws and children require us to quietly toss a few more buddies overboard. Or at least scratch them off the gift list.

Few of us like to face the harsh truth that the number one facilitator of friendship is convenience. How many people have we doused in superlative praise, spilled our hearts to, bragged with about our never-ending awesomeness, only to eventually lose touch because we live too far away, we’ve changed our habits since that new job/baby/boyfriend, we haven’t spoken in so long and wouldn’t know what to say? Sure, we’ll fling them a Facebook birthday greeting, but composing an entire email would require so much apologizing for having taken this long to write…

Maintaining a friendship requires effort, as author Julie Klam said in an interview with Linda Holmes on NPR two years ago:

She realized, too, that it wasn’t an area that was being written about very much in a way that spoke to her experiences. She found a lot of clichés, but not a lot of insight. “Everything that I had read about friendships was always … platitudes about, you know, ‘friends are like flowers and you have to water them’ or whatever. Or the T-shirts with the koala bear and the flower and the ‘Friends are…’.”

So… Why is there so much writing about so many aspects of our lives — love, sex, money, family, careers — and so little about the inner workings of friendships that are so central to so many people’s lives? Maybe, Klam theorizes, it’s because friendships seem disposable and interchangeable when you look at them like an efficiency expert. “There’s some sort of thing about, like, ‘Well, if you don’t like the friend, just don’t be friends with them.’ Rather than the idea of working things out.” Working things out, as you know if you read other kinds of relationship books, is the usual ideal outcome, rather than bolting when trouble strikes.

… And of course, that’s what makes keeping up with your friends complicated. When I ask her what she considers the big challenge of adult friendships, she emphasizes that it’s legitimately hard to make time for them, because they’re not, you know, mandatory. And the older you get, the more things in your life are mandatory.

Perhaps this is why there is such a paucity of stories about friendship in books and film. A friendship can be destroyed without any drama. All the characters have to do is lose touch.

And that can be fine. Many friendships are simply not worth laboring over. Time changes every one of us and there is little point in forcing ourselves to pretend to be someone we are not simply for the sake of sustaining the appearance of something that no longer serves us. Scores of people can be your perfect match in a single context: that course you took together, that team you both played on, that year you roomed together when a deep heart-to-heart required nothing more than walking down the hall and flopping onto the bed with a beer. (Or maybe there was more convenience in those years before you roomed together and had no idea how much/little time/money s/he spends on cleaning/personal hygiene/video games.)

A friendship is significant if it can survive all the changes and challenges life will inevitably throw at it. But the same goes for family, to the extent that I believe there is really no difference between the two. As Andrew Solomon wrote in what I still consider the Best Book of the 21st Century, “Love becomes more acute when it requires exertion.” The exertion can be exquisite.

Family can be fun to be with, but what they offer with far more consistency is purpose. This is why studies find that parents are often happier watching television than spending time with their children, but it’s their children—not television—that inspire them to endure when they are faced with pain or hardship.

Many traditional beliefs about family are not helpful. If you’ve explored this blog at all, you know I believe bloodlines are dangerously overrated. I also believe it can be damaging to expound upon the virtues of lifelong commitment and forgiveness without exception. While many people abandon others all too easily because they are more concerned with their own comfort than anyone else’s, just as many people remain in emotionally abusive relationships because their generosity trumps their self-care. I have sadly witnessed enough toxic relationships to know that some ties are better off severed.

This is why I define family not by genetics, but as the people you are so close to that they regularly drive you crazy – while still being worth the grief. They are the people who know you so well that it embarrasses you to think about. They can simultaneously be uncles, cousins, godmothers, half-brothers, former coworkers or classmates. But no matter their origin, once it’s clear to me that I will always stick by someone no matter how vexing they can be, they are family to me.

Because if novels and films and social psychology tell us anything, it’s that you can’t get truly close to another human being without being annoyed by them.

 

Originally published December 2014

Muttertag

8 May

Mother and Son(Image by Andy415 used under CC 2.0 via)
 

A very happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful mothers I have had the pleasure of knowing, not least of all my own.

And to those of you who have lost your mothers,

And to those of you who have lost a child,

And to those of you who had to take care of your mothers (and yourselves) much earlier than the rest of us had to,

And to those of you who have tried hard to become mothers despite what neighbors (or politicians) may have said,

And to those of you who have tried hard to become mothers despite what nature ultimately decided,

And to those of you who are not mothers but have raised a child as well as any mother could,

In gratitude and with the deepest respect.

 

 

Interview on Berlin Television

6 Jun

©Ines Barwig(Image ©Ines Barwig)

 

Berlin’s public broadcasting station rbb has just aired a report on Painting On Scars, which you can read about and watch here.

For those of you not fluent in German, I advise you against using GoogleTranslate. As a professional translator, I’ve always considered the service a bit of a rival, but now we’re talking full-blown war. Because while any half-educated human Germanist could tell you that the rbb report translates into English as “Short-Statured – Getting Taller Through Operations,” Google says:

 

GoogleTranslate

 
 

White Woman Sues Spermbank for Accidentally Giving Her Black Donor’s Sperm

5 Oct

Unity in Diversity(Image by Fady Habib used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Man, we can’t go two months without some couple making headlines over a baby they didn’t plan for. An Ohio woman named Jennifer Cramblett is suing a spermbank for impregnating her with the contents of a vial different from the one she selected. The mix-up resulted when a clerk misread Vial 330 as “380.” Her lawsuit reads:

On August 21, 2012, Jennifer gave birth to Payton, a beautiful, obviously mixed race, baby girl. Jennifer bonded with Payton easily, and she and [her partner] Amanda love her very much. Even so, Jennifer lives each day with fears, anxieties and uncertainty about her future and Payton’s future. Jennifer admits that she was raised around stereotypical attitudes about people other than those in her all-white environment. Family members, one uncle in particular, speaks openly and derisively about persons of color. She did not know African Americans until her college days at the University of Akron.

Because of this background and upbringing, Jennifer acknowledges her limited cultural competency relative to African Americans, and steep learning curve, particularly in small, homogeneous, Uniontown, which she regards as too racially intolerant.

As just one example, getting a young daughter’s hair cut is not particularly stressful for most mothers, but to Jennifer it is not a routine matter, because Payton has hair typical of an African American girl. To get a decent cut, Jennifer must travel to a black neighborhood, far from where she lives, where she is obviously different in appearance, and not overtly welcome.

One of Jennifer’s biggest fears is the life experiences Payton will undergo, not only in her all-white community, but in her all-white, and often unconsciously insensitive, family. Despite her family’s attempts to accept her homosexuality, they have not been capable of truly embracing Jennifer for who she is. They do not converse with her about her gender preference, and encourage her not to “look different,” signaling their disapproval of her lesbianism.

Though compelled to repress her individuality amongst family members, Payton’s differences are irrepressible, and Jennifer does not want Payton to feel stigmatized or unrecognized due simply to the circumstances of her birth. Jennifer’s stress and anxiety intensify when she envisions Payton entering an all-white school. Ironically, Jennifer and Amanda moved to Uniontown from racially diverse Akron, because the schools were better and to be closer to family. Jennifer is well aware of the child psychology research and literature correlating intolerance and racism with reduced academic and psychological well-being of biracial children.

Family planning is so endlessly complicated that any law-abiding individual seeking privacy deserves it. But Cramblett is going public with her pursuit of compensation for emotional distress and therein invites judgment. John Culhane writes at Slate that this sort of blunder is bound to happen in the free market of assisted reproductive technology. Julie Bindel at The Guardian warns of a creeping let’s-get-a-designer-baby approach to parenting among those using IVF. “Just remember,” she writes. “If the child you end up with does not exactly fit your ideal requirements, you can’t give it back – and nor should you even suggest that something bad has happened to you.”

Do parents have the right to be guaranteed certain kinds of children? Those pursuing parenthood via sperm donors, egg donors, or adoption have much more freedom to decide against certain kinds of children than those using nothing but their own biology. The application for becoming an egg donor in New York contains over one hundred invasive questions about family and medical history, as well as education, favorite sports, artistic talents and “additional characteristics” such as “cleft chin, full lips, big eyes, or high cheekbones.” Applicants are required to submit three photos “that shows [sic] your face and/or body type clearly.”

I understand why such questions are asked. Many if not most parents already know such things about those involved in producing their child, so why shouldn’t the IVF parents be allowed to know? If my partner and I were to join their ranks, what sort of donor profile would seem most appealing to us? Deciding upon something inherently entails deciding against something else. Nevertheless, it is hard not to see this tick-the-box approach to baby-making as eugenic. How many parents would accept my eggs, with their 50% chance of passing on achondroplasia? How many would sue if someone accidentally got them without asking for them?

Parents seeking to adopt children here in Germany are asked what kind of children they would and would not like to have before they look at profiles. For example, do you mind if your children look extremely different from you? What about physical disabilities? Mental disabilities? Drug addiction? In an interview with a family whose two children were adopted, I was told that the agencies encourage prospective parents to be utterly frank about their fears and prejudices – that an insistence along the lines of, “We can handle anything!” will sound suspiciously naïve.

Such brutal honesty strikes me as reassuringly well-informed, perhaps the result of infamously ideological parents like Josephine Baker or Jim Jones, who flaunted their rainbow families at the expense of the children’s individuality. Reading Cramblett’s descriptions of her relatives’ hurtful reactions to her sexuality, I can sympathize with the feeling that battling one kind of bigotry can be hard enough. Everyone deserves to live free from the unnecessary pain of bigotry. But if we’re going to be suing someone, wouldn’t it be more logical to file complaints against those who make her daughter feel stigmatized and unrecognized? Surely they’re the ones causing “emotional distress.”

While the spermbank does appear to have erred out of negligence and may be at fault, would awarding Cramblett for “emotional distress” not set a precedent and open the door for endless lawsuits over the births of minority children parents did not explicitly wish for? My parents had a 1 in 40,000 chance of producing a child with achondroplasia, as does anyone reading this. (That is, unless you already have achondroplasia.) Should doctors warn every prospective parent of those odds? Should they warn us of the chance for racial atavism? If homosexuality proves to be genetically determined, will parents have a right to sue doctors who fail to remind them of the risk? The very idea of being financially “compensated” for emotional distress is often silly to those of us who know from firsthand experience how vastly unreliable life can be.

Legal decisions aside, my primary hope is that Cramblett and her partner will explain the lawsuit to her daughter in a way that does not cause her to feel any more conflicted about her extraordinary appearance than her relatives’ racist views already do.

 

 

Should You Be Allowed To Hide From Google?

18 May

Big Google brother ?(Image by Alain Bachellier used under CC 2.0 via)

                                                                                     

The European Court of Justice ruled against Google this week in upholding an individual’s legal right to be forgotten. That is, while newspapers and most online sites will retain the right to publish information about me (and anyone else living in the European Union), I can now petition Google to remove its links to such sites so that they will no longer appear in search results for my name. The ruling has a good deal of support here in Europe, but Google, Wikipedia and newspapers across the Atlantic are crying censorship.

I personally don’t plan on making such a request any time soon, but I am disappointed that both the ruling and Google’s opposition to it fail to distinguish between public figures and private citizens. Under U.S. law, public figures are defined as those involved in public affairs (politicians, officials, etc.); those who actively seek public attention in order to influence the discourse of one or more issues (activists, pundits, outspoken celebrities or entrepreneurs); and those involved in issues of public interest whether or not they seek attention (criminals, all celebrities ever, spouses and relatives of politicians and celebrities). Public discourse benefits from search engines being able to produce a comprehensive collection of resources about public figures. Yes, this will always result in a plethora of worthless vitriol, but as unfortunate as this is, public figures must respect everyone’s right to hold and express free opinions about them, whether someone thinks that George W. Bush is a fascist or that Jeff Bezos is a fascist. But I believe private citizens deserve greater protection.

While we can all control what we publish about ourselves on the Internet, we cannot control what other people publish about us. Photos often require our permission, outright lies can be punished by slander laws, and children are also heavily protected from exposure by anyone other than their parents.  But private citizens usually have fewer resources for combating defamation and slander. And there are no laws against a friend of a friend outing you as gay on their blog or blabbing about your medical history on Tumblr. 

While it may be crucial for certain people – for example, weapons retailers or nursery school employers – to know if you have a history of mental illness, such information is otherwise considered strictly confidential by law. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 imposed heavy punishments for any medical professional who breached doctor-patient confidentiality at the height of the AIDS crisis. But in the Age of Google, any tangential acquaintance of yours with a blog and a tendency toward loudmouthery can tell the world about any diseases you may have. Google is fighting for their right to include such gossip in the piecemeal biography that is their search results for your name, available to pretty much everyone on earth.

Particularly in the case of medical minorities, even those bloggers with the best intentions can be atrociously revealing.  Most of us know the embarrassment of our parents posting our baby pictures to Facebook, but in my research for issues of disability, I’ve come across countless parents posting public confessionals like:

My daughter was heart-broken to learn today that she’s the infertile one!  

My husband wanted me to put her up for adoption because he was just too ashamed.

I wonder if anyone could ever love him looking the way he does.

Any parent facing terrifying conditions or social adversity with their child deserves a place to vent their deepest fears. But there’s a difference between opening up in a counseling session and turning the Internet into your therapy couch. Discussing such fears in books and documentaries can contribute to the greater debate on disability, especially when it leads to examining what exactly instills such fears in parents. And too much parental openness is certainly preferable to the widespread shame of previous centuries that led so many to abandon their disabled children. But disabled children will grow up someday and may not want their parents interviews following them wherever they go. What young adult wants their friends or employers or potential lovers accessing statements like those above by merely entering their name into the search field of the world’s most popular website?

And while parents may readily take down such comments at upon request, what about acquaintances who gossip about you online? (Remember the Mark Zuckerberg character blogging about his ex’s bra size in The Social Network?) I’ve dealt with friends of friends trashing my medical experiences online by writing my own blog entries about the incident and the issues it raised, but I don’t believe everyone should be required to. Responding to a breach of privacy not by defending yourself but by simply removing yourself from the grid should be the right of any private citizen who’s ever been humiliated for personal information that truly affects no one but their closest friends and family. One of the very foundations of bigotry is the widespread belief that freaky people owe it to the world to answer any question we have about their lives.   

My favorite aspect of the Court ruling is the very thing Jimmy Wales bemoans: “A very strict reading of the law leads to this very bizarre conclusion that a newspaper can publish information and yet Google can’t link to it – it makes no sense at all,” said the Wikipedia founder. It makes sense in that, by untangling your company’s website from your high school’s website, the new ruling endows us with the ability to compartmentalize. This ability—to separate your work life from your social life, or your medical condition from your love life when you have no intention of becoming a public figure—seems like a right well worth protecting.

Sherri G. Morris writes of the time, back in the Internet 1.0, when she had met a great guy through her local chapter of Mensa. After a few dates, he googled her name and immediately discovered she belonged to a support group for people with intersex conditions. He and Morris eventually married, but there are undoubtedly many members of minority support groups who would prefer to restrict the fact of their membership to visitors of the group’s homepage. And, when it comes to private citizens, I’m not convinced such a restriction would qualify as censorship.

To compartmentalize, to reveal certain information about yourself at your own pace, is something which we all value in our lives, and which Google has been eroding with its every update. Until now.

 

 

A Challenge for Supporters of “Traditional Marriage”

13 Apr

(Via)

 

I’m all for toning down the emotion in politics and avoiding vitriol. But sometimes a silly idea reprinted for the umpteenth time just gets to you.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between proponents of marriage equality and the opposition, columnists Will Saletan and Connor Friedsdorf have been arguing that the former shouldn’t dismiss the latter as bigoted. Not all same-sex marriage opponents are homophobic, they declare, and comparing them to interracial marriage opponents is a false equivalency because plenty of traditionalists think gay people are perfectly okay. “Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior,” Friedsdorf writes, “but it’s also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.”

Childfree couples will take umbrage at this, and who can blame them? If we decide that the word “marriage” should only be awarded to those ready and willing to make babies, how about raising the bar a bit higher while we’re at it? How about limiting it to couples who have known each other for at least five years, have both completed their education, and are financially independent enough to pay for their own wedding? How about requiring premarital cohabitation for a period of at least 18 months—the infatuation phase lasts 9 to 18 months, after all—and of course requiring engaged couples to have sex a bunch of times, in order to make sure they know what they’re getting into? And why not reserve marriage for those who have never been previously married, never had a brush with so much as a traffic cop, and have passed an emotional intelligence test? In any case, conservatives who dare to argue that only baby-minded couples qualify for the marriage moniker shouldn’t be one bit surprised when this unleashes a barrage of opinions about which sorts of couples truly “deserve” it.

But while we all privately hold firm opinions about the best recipe for a partnership, and we all tend to voice these opinions here and there in public, there is something particularly revolting about those earnest attempts to argue that the ideal family is founded in a man and a woman’s physical capacity to make children. Five justices already decided last year that this argument doesn’t hold up in court. But Saletan and Friedsdorf’s insistence that the argument is nevertheless “rational” and “much-less-problematic” than other forms of bigotry is solipsistic and insensitive to the point of seeming cruel.

My extended family includes foster children and adopted children. There are scores of wonderful reasons for couples to adopt: they can’t physically have kids, they don’t want to physically have kids, their medical situation is complicated, they don’t want to increase the global population, they desperately want to do something about the crisis of unwanted children in the world. They recognize the indisputable truth of which most are aware but not all of us like to acknowledge – that family is what you make of it.

Some adopted children, like the subjects of the 2011 documentary Somewhere Between, feel compelled to make contact with their birth parents or culture of origin, and that is their right. Others, like Scott Fujita and Philipp Rösler and Steve Jobs, have felt no connection whatsoever and are at best amused by others’ fixation with their origins, and that is their right. When facing the myriad complexity of what makes a person who she is, guaranteeing everyone the right to self-determination is by far the fairest solution.

Some people admirably bend over backwards to honor their family ties, no matter how hard it may be, while others wisely save themselves a lot of grief by avoiding toxic individuals who share their DNA. For outsiders to implicitly value that DNA over genuine love and unwavering devotion is a pretty brazen putdown. Those who voluntarily commit and honor their commitment to be someone’s family deserve so much more respect than all of the deadbeat and emotionally abusive parents I’ve had the misfortune of knowing.

Because Ive said it once and Ill say it again. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is.

Yet blood is still thought to be thicker than sweat, as the stigma of non-biological families persists. This traditional obsession with genealogy on a grand scale has led to classism and racism and aristocratic inbreeding and the sterilization of disabled people. On a smaller scale, it’s led to parents and children pushed to the brink of tears as they endure, again and again, some loudmouth’s opinion about “real” families.

Which is why I propose a challenge for all those well-intentioned supporters of “traditional marriage.” I won’t ever call you a bigot—if anything because name-calling has a pretty low success rate when it comes to changing society for the better—but do me a favor. Walk up to a childless couple planning to adopt and tell them that you’d like to see their marriage invalidated. Say it to their face. Tell them that their marriage is “wrong” or “not right” or less than or whatever it is you’ve been lead to believe is “real” because they didn’t use their own genes to make their children. Then visit them again after they’ve adopted and tell their kids about your wish to replace their parents’ marriage with a separate-but-equal civil union. And then tell me with a straight face that what you’ve said to them about their family is “much-less-problematic” than what Jim Crowe said about our president’s family.

Speaking of the president, he may have said it best: “What makes you a man isn’t the ability to make a child, but having the courage to raise one.”

 

 

Heritage on St. Patrick’s Day? It’s Complicated

16 Mar

IMG_1606(Image by Folke Lehr)

 

Along with millions of other Americans, I used to boast a bit every March 17th: “You know, I really am Irish.” It’s a common American pastime to cite one’s known heritage, either as demonyms (“I’m English and Irish and… ”) or percentages (“I’m a quarter Irish, one eighth Polish…” ). I still believe in self-determination, but having lived in Europe for nearly a decade, I have ceased to rattle off these titles. Not only is the latter a vain attempt at exactitude with no chance of ever being exact—we’re not even really sure if my great-grandmother was Polish or Belarusian—but it resembles the sort of puzzle-piecing that only pseudo-scientists of suspicious political convictions find relevant. And it makes Europeans laugh. And then correct me. “No, you’re not Irish. Your ancestors were Irish.” Which is true.

While Americans sometimes refer to their ancestors’ nation as their “homeland,” they usually can’t construct a sentence in the country’s official language and certainly cannot name the country’s current head of government, the second largest city, or any of its history that isn’t directly related to U.S. history. At best they know a handful of expressions, a recipe or two, maybe the region where their parents’ parents’ parents lived. For this reason, their claims to nationality usually strike the natives as silly.

But the melting pot concept is often admirably used to celebrate diversity. It bungles any sense of loyalty and prevents jingoism. I can’t really argue that the English are “naturally” evil for what they did to my Irish ancestors when my last name is Sanford. My known ethnic heritage is a split between some of Europe’s most notorious conquerors (English, German) and their victims (Irish, Polish). To claim only one or two of them as “my people” feels ridiculous. If I ever have children, their great-grandfathers will have fought on opposite sides of World War II.

Then again, not everyone’s heritage is such a hodge-podge, and plenty of conservative genealogists try to prove why the blending of certain cultures is “better” than the blending of others. That the perpetrators of segregation, Nazism, apartheid, aristocracy, and the internment camps are the most famous fans of genealogy causes me to cringe whenever anyone claims pride in having Irish or Italian or Icelandic “blood.”

Such pride is much more understandable when coming from minorities who have been made to feel that they don’t belong in the country they were born in. My grandfather, Michael Sullivan, was the grandson of Irish immigrants to America. He was the oldest of 9 children, my mother has 43 cousins, and I’ve never tried to count how many of us there are in my generation. He often began sentences with the word “ ’Twas,” and liked to sing folk songs that seemed to have come from Ireland, but may very well have originated in immigrant settlements in the States. This is the extent of my experience with his Irishness, but his was far more profound. He grew up in a time when he could easily find signs reading, “Irish need not apply,” and “mick” was a word he hated in the way that only people who have been called a slur do. When he married Barbara Tupper and her grandmother found out he was Catholic, she crossed my grandmother out of the family Bible. All this made John F. Kennedy’s election in his lifetime radical. It is my grandfather’s story and it is important. But it’s not my story.

An attempt to make it my story would feel intellectually dishonest and pretty flaky to boot. As Andrew O’Heir writes this week at Salon: “Irishness [in America today] is a nonspecific global brand of pseudo-old pubs, watered-down Guinness, ‘Celtic’ tattoos and vague New Age spirituality, designed to make white people feel faintly cool without doing any of the hard work of actually learning anything.” Indeed, my middle name endows me with no expertise when it comes to picking out Celtic music or Irish books and films. I can’t tell what most Irish people actually enjoy and what’s just on display for tourists any more than I can tell what Finnish people actually enjoy and what’s just on display for tourists.

As said before, taking an interest in other cultures is always preferable to xenophobia. But it often comes with the temptation to flaunt minimal efforts like feats of greatness. Claiming credentials based on ancestry feels not entirely wrong, but not entirely right either.

The boundaries of countries and ethnicities are as blurry as our sense of self. Heritage is often seen as the recipe that resulted in an individual, yet there are so many more ingredients to the recipe. Yes, I wouldn’t be here today if the branches of my family tree were arranged any differently, but I also wouldn’t be here today if my parents had slept together in April 1981 instead of March. And placing too much importance on genetics insults any families who cannot or choose not to have children using only their own reproductive cells. Family is what you make of it.

This is not to say that everyone should always downplay their roots. Children with at least one parent who emigrated from another country often have undeniable ties to their ancestral culture – in any case, ties that are far more likely to be based on fact than fictitious romanticizing. Most of what constitutes our inexplicable sense of culture comes from traditions and foods and pastimes we experienced growing up, and great writers like Amy Tan, Gary Shteyngart, and Sandra Cisneros show that growing up with two cultures affords you special insights into both. If my German partner and I ever have children, we plan to raise them bilingually (English and German) and bi-culturally (Thanksgiving and St. Martin’s Day), teaching them anything there is to teach about where their mother grew up and where their father grew up. Whether or not to add some Swedish into the mix—my mother-in-law came from Stockholm—is a point of endless debate between us.

If we ever have grandchildren, it will be interesting to see how they approach their American heritage. If they’re at all ashamed or excessively proud, I’m determined to discuss it, but if they’re merely disinterested, so what? I predict that my great-grandchildren will not feel any strong connection to their American heritage, nor should they. As my partner points out, maybe they will be half-Czech or married to a Burkinabé and have their hands full raising their own children bilingually. Cultures and people move and morph constantly throughout time and space.

When I finally traveled to Ireland two years ago, there were traces of culture that seemed somehow familiar. And that was moving. But most of the charm—“The Irish Sea really is that green! They really do sing in the pubs!”—came from recognizing things I’d grown up seeing in movies, not in my grandfather’s house. And I also found traces of culture the following year in Amsterdam that were faintly familiar to me because, although I have no known Dutch forebearers, I grew up on Long Island.

My most impressive sense of belonging in Ireland came from the fact that I was not the palest person around. Not by a long shot. (Hence my captioning the above photo taken on the cliffs of Howth in an e-mail sent to friends: “If there’s anything Sullivan about me, it’s my complexion.”) Lookism can be a very powerful force. But it does not have to be. In Dublin, we were never once served by someone who didn’t have a Slavic accent. If the current flood of Eastern European immigrants end up staying in Ireland, their children will have much more of a claim to the place than I do.

They’ll at least be able to remember the name of the prime minister, after all.