Home Sociology Infant Observation: Creating Transformative Relationships
Representations of mother in the daughter of a single, gay father
This paper describes the infant observation of a single, gay man's daughter, Laura, born through ovum donation, artificial insemination, and surrogacy. The observation begins before Laura's birth and follows the dyad a few months beyond the birth of the father's second baby when Laura is twenty-two months old. The paper focuses on the way in which Laura comes to represent the idea of mother. The father's conflicts and concerns about this and Laura's struggles to understand her brother's and her own birth stories are also discussed. The observation served in part as a therapeutic intervention, providing a containing and validating function to the father throughout, as well as more direct discussions at the critical times before the birth of each baby.
Less than half of all children in the United States are raised in households with two heterosexual biological parents yet psychoanalytic developmental theories largely are based on this traditional family structure. Many of my child and adult patients struggle with issues having to do with parents missing from the traditional nuclear family still idealised and deeply embedded in our social, religious, and legal structures—birth parents, divorced parents, parents who have died, and more recently, donor and surrogate parents. As part of my post psychoanalytic work in the Anni Bergman Parent-Infant Training Program, I wanted to observe a baby who was born into a non-traditionally configured family. I was interested in understanding the particular stresses non-traditional family configurations pose on the parent(s) and on the developing baby, and wondered if by definition these were at risk families because difference from cultural norms in itself often arouses conflict, stress, and lack of support and validation. I was especially interested in understanding something about the fantasies and representations the present parent has of the absent parents and how representations of these absent figures might develop in the baby's mind. How will the baby form a representation of someone with whom she or he has had little or no sensory contact? How do words and language become attached to, organise, and additionally influence the way representations are formed? I was fortunate to have guidance in this project by Anni Bergman, my long-time teacher and mentor, now colleague and friend, and by Rita Reiswig, a master baby observer and clinician.
I learnt of David, a thirty-eight-year-old single, gay man living in New York City who was to have a baby, Laura, in a few months. The baby had been conceived through the in vitro fertilisation by David's sperm of an egg donated by a woman in Oklahoma. The resulting embryo was implanted in the uterus of another woman, the surrogate, who lived in Florida. The legal, medical, financial, and social arrangements had been made and were still being overseen by an agency in California. This family to be would have a single gay father and two biological mothers, the genetic mother transmitting her family history through the ovum donation, and the surrogate mother, carrying the baby, providing the uterine environment including sound, heat, and movement as well as supplying oxygen, hormones, and nutrients from her bloodstream. In the home, there would also be a nanny, a woman hired to care for Laura while David worked, and myself, visiting once a week to observe. Already, before Laura's birth, there were several mothers and fathers to think about including David's own parents, upon whom his representations of and wishes about mother and father were presumably primarily based.
David understood that I was interested in observing a parent-baby dyad, and that I was particularly interested in observing a baby born into a non-traditional family structure. We met several times before Laura's birth, and then after she was born, I did weekly observation visits for a year and weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly visits into the present.
Laura is now six-and-a-half years old and has a four-and-a-half-year-old, full genetic brother, Luke, born using the same ovum donor and a different surrogate. At age two-and-a-half, in the rapprochement phase, expressing her new representational capacity for play, language, and self and other concepts, Laura said to David, "I want my mommy," emphasising the word "my" and indicating that she wanted to know about her specific mommy. My focus in this paper is on the evolution of the representation of "mother" in Laura's mind, based on observation material up until that time, discussions with David, and portions of the Adult Attachment Interview, which I gave to David. I also will talk about the ways in which the observation functioned in part as a therapeutic intervention, helping to consolidate David's position as Laura's primary object and attachment figure, helping him to focus and reflect on Laura's thoughts and feelings and to talk with her in ways which might otherwise have been more difficult (Muir, Lojkasek, & Cohen, 1999; Rustin, M. E., 2006).
David is a home-based business consultant, personable and good-looking. In our first meetings during the few months before Laura's birth, he openly talked about his feelings as an expectant father. He remembered the fun foods his own father made for him and his brother when they were children and imagined he would do the same with his child. His father, now, was so happy to be having a grandchild. Mention of his mother was notably absent and when I asked, was told without elaboration that she had been ill for some time and died six years before. David always knew he wanted children. Even in his twenties when he first came out and it was very unusual for gay men to have children, he thought he would find a way. About five years before, he began looking into adoption, but most agencies would not accept gay couples and none would accept a single gay man. As he discovered more about surrogacy, it seemed potentially less problematic, and although many states did not recognise surrogacy as legal, some agencies welcomed gay people and worked with doctors and hospitals in states in which surrogate pregnancies and contracts were legal. He registered with a California-based agency and was told he would be matched to a surrogate with whom he was likely to develop a close relationship. With some embarrassment, he told me that had puzzled him because he had thought surrogates were often "uneducated, obese women looking for a way to make some money." He was surprised at that point to think he or his child might have any relationship at all with the gestational surrogate; he simply thought of her as a carrier.
The first potential surrogate in fact, seemed untrustworthy and did not work out but another, Cindy, was soon found. She is a gay woman who has two children from a previous, heterosexual marriage. Before the surrogacy arrangement was made official, David and Cindy had to meet, discuss, and agree on complex medical decisions such as whether to terminate a foetus if a multiple pregnancy occurred. Later, once Cindy was pregnant, problems surfaced when she and David disagreed about a medical procedure, causing David to fear Cindy might not take good care of the pregnancy. He expressed frustration and anxiety that although this was his baby, he had little influence over what Cindy actually did. Nevertheless, David said he was very practically minded and none of this seemed odd or hard. Finding an ovum donor had involved searching many websites, which listed donor statistics ranging from height and age to religious affiliation and College Board scores. David chose an anonymous donor who was a college student, had his physical characteristics and, by chance, a good singing voice. He said egg donors usually need money but also altruistically want to help someone have a child.
In one of our early meetings, David said he was reading a book about the first nine months of life and realised the baby will know Cindy's voice and rhythms.
He wondered whether he should talk quietly to the baby when she was born—if she might be upset at his louder voice. He said there is so much a baby knows at birth.
He wondered what I thought. Shifting from my observer's stance, I said that advice about things like that seemed to swing with time, and that these days the advice is to provide the baby with what they are accustomed to, but that it seemed to me what is most important is that the he is comfortable and sees the baby's responses to him and adjusts if necessary accordingly—that she will get to know him and his voice.
In Gender as Soft Assembly (2005), Adrienne Harris writes,
It is increasingly difficult to write with coherence or with innocence about gender as some monolithic, simple, comprehensible concept. We have to keep putting words like feminine and masculine in irony-conveying quotation marks ... (as) these terms have meaning only in particular and unique contexts and these contexts shift constantly ... Gender words and the phenomena they signify have come unglued ... Patients and analysts alike struggle with new and old language, category terms that carry primary process, charged affective meanings, and words we want to bend to new uses. (p. 101)
"Mother" words in David's new family context were like this, signifying the ovum donor, the surrogate, other women, and David himself who would perform "maternal" functions from the moment of Laura's birth. Mother representations were expressed in various ways by various people over the course of the observation.
I will now describe four time periods, characterised by distinct fantasies and concerns about mother, and will talk about each phase separately using vignettes to illustrate the characteristic themes. I will focus most on the first period just before and soon after Laura's birth when mothers were very prominently on David's mind and on the minds of others in his life, and on the third time period just before and soon after Luke's birth when mother is clearly on Laura's mind as well.
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