Writer Jennifer Gilmore explains the complexities of an explosive custody battle through the lens of her own devastating adoption experience.
Here’s the thing about language. We rely on it to communicate so it needs to be precise. When we read language in any form we expect clarity, but I’ve found more and more that the imprecisely and inelegantly written stories about families in all their incarnations serve to further muddy some already boggy Earth. I feel it when adoptees are consistently referred to as adopted children, as opposed to just regular old children. I feel it when a child’s race is identified, but only when that child is of color, or when mothers are called stay-at-home mothers or when children who have caretakers are referred to as nanny children. With clumsy and inexact language, or language that chooses to be accurate only at designated moments, the media further clouds what is already the all-too-obscure world of what makes a family and how we get one and, now more than ever, how we keep it stitched together.
Take this piece, “Does ‘Sperm Donor’ Mean ‘Dad’?” by Brooks Barnes, which ran in the New York Times Style section on Sunday, May 4. This is a story about the actor Jason Patric and the owner of a Los Angeles Rolfing practice, Danielle Schreiber, a once-couple who are now fighting over the custody of their biological child. Unlike what the headline purports, this piece is not much about the ethics and nuances of sperm donation. While Patric donated the sperm that made this child, this is a story like so many before it: of parents waging public war over their child.
Let’s look at the lede: “He is a movie star who shot to fame on a motorcycle in The Lost Boys. She is a California massage therapist from a prominent East Coast family. Four years ago, with his sperm, her eggs, and the wonder of in vitro fertilization, they produced a child.” Forget the snarky tone, this is clear enough. Except that later in the piece, Barnes states that this child was conceived through artificial insemination. These are two different processes: One occurs outside the body, the other on the inside. Though one or the other doesn’t vary the law, a piece on the complications of sperm donation might aim to be precise, not to mention sensitive, about these matters. It makes a reader wonder: Who is this person who is “reporting” on the implications of reproductive technology? Was this fact-checked? I’ve written pieces on travel destinations that seem to have been vetted more than this article. Perhaps the issue is not which parent to believe but which journalist to believe.
I, however, have not done much trolling on this story but have relied on the New York Times to give me the information I need to know if a “sperm donor” means “dad.” So what if the reductive and click-baiting headline is inaccurate and the procedure which assisted in the creation of this son whose life is in question is up for debate? If the rest of this article is to be believed, these two people seem to have pursued parenthood together. (According to this piece, the couple dated for a decade and Patric had “surgery” to try and make it easier to have kids. What kind of surgery is not indicated. It was probably just whatever the kind of surgery a man needs to make getting a woman pregnant easier …) Then the couple did artificial insemination (or IVF, whichever, same difference), which helped them “rekindle” their relationship. (Which must have been on hiatus? The timeline here is also unclear and does not seem to have been fact-checked.) The child, Gus, is named for relatives in both the maternal and paternal families. The circumstances of the relationship are at the very least, nuanced. And the issues between these two seem to be an unfortunate part of many separations and reveal the messy quality of relationships. They don’t, however, indicate anything about the laws of science, technology, and paternity.
With the intervention of science and technology always and eventually comes the law, however slowly and shakily—young, hip, nimble Technology’s creaking grandfather. In this case the law provides conflicting statutes, also a question of language. According to the Barnes piece one law says that a man can “…establish parentage if he ‘receives the child into his home and openly holds the child out as his natural child,’” while the other states that “…a man who provides his sperm to a doctor for the purpose of inseminating an unmarried friend is ‘treated as if he were not the natural father.’” “An unmarried friend?” Make that creaking great-grandfather …
Did Jason Patric (the once-lover of Julia Roberts, the grandson of Jackie Gleason, facts that surely have something to do with sperm donation in a way I am too dumb-witted to tease out) intend to father? He says he did. Did Jason Patric father? He did. Now, is Jason Patric a good father? I have no idea. There are allegations of abuse. And judging from stories pouring in on Facebook and Twitter, he seems like he’s not a good guy either. But whether or not he allegedly called someone a bitch, tried to fuck an underage virgin, or offered your friend cocaine is, for better or for worse, not the issue in question. The issue in question is does a “sperm donor” mean “dad”?
While we’re on the subject of parenting though, at its center what makes a good parent is someone who, at the very least, puts his child first. Poor Gus. What will these parents tell their child? What will Danielle Schreiber tell her child about what became of his father, whom he seems to have known and adored? (The piece reports he wrote his father a note and signed it thus: “I love you Dada, Gus.”) But she, with a mother who had quadruplets, Schreiber being one of them, and a father who is a “well-known” attorney (this reference to lineage lets us know that here is a woman who knows her fertility and the laws that govern it) has cut off contact.
In a different world and were anyone to ask me, I would likely side with the woman—with any woman—who cites abuse and obtains a restraining order. I believe a woman should choose everything. No decisions about her body should be made by someone else, not science, not government, not a boyfriend or husband or partner. But what is Schreiber choosing? It seems to me that choice—to parent alone, to parent with another—has to be made from the beginning. Again, according to what’s asserted in this piece, Schreiber welcomed Patric as a parent when they were together as a couple. How can this be about whether a sperm donor—anonymous or not—is really “dad?” In the case of Patric’s paternity the meanings change as the implication of donation of sperm is not alone what’s being argued.
An anecdote: My husband and I adopted a child. That makes it sound easy and it was anything but and I bring it up here because it—like so many adoption stories—involves the rights of birth fathers. We were in the process of adopting a child and I was there when the boy was delivered. The birth mother told us that this child’s biological father had been deported to Mexico and had no interest in the baby. This is what every prospective adoptive parent wants to hear. Because birth fathers that have not officially signed adoption consents and who don’t know about the unborn child can reappear. And they have rights. And so, after two weeks with this child, this birth father called. He called my husband, who speaks Spanish. He said he did not know his child had been placed for adoption, that he had been financially supporting the child’s biological mother, and that he wanted his son back. Forget that he had legal rights, which of course he did. This was his son. The situation was murky enough that perhaps we could have fought this young man who had little money and could not speak English for this child we had cared for and loved. In the world we live in, we had more power. But what on earth would we have told our child? That he was wanted and mourned and that we took him away? We had a moral and ethical and human obligation to let him go.
That event broke us, it did, but it’s not utterly dissimilar. I don’t care whom Jason Patric’s grandfather was or if he fucked Julia Roberts or if he is dark and “brooding,” but it seems to me the rights of fathers are often an afterthought. I can’t lay this all at the feet of poor clueless Brooks Barnes who is clearly writing for the Style section and not in a medical or law journal. And due to simple biology, it’s a hell of a lot easier to define a mother than a father. But whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever we call them, if they have behaved as a parent, they do have rights. And I don’t think we would want to live in a world where it was otherwise.
What Brooks Barnes gets right is that it is the “Wild West” in regards to fertility and parental rights. In our experience, the same holds true in adoption. No one makes a concerted effort to find the birth fathers. We want them to go away, to never have existed, to do what they’re supposed to do, which is to not care.
No matter what, though, it is unequivocally, always, the mother’s body. It is, hopefully, her decision to become pregnant through whatever means and it is her decision to keep or place her child elsewhere. The way I’m reading this—and I have not watched the Today Show appearances or read blogs or participated in the outrage—it is not about a woman’s right to choose. This is not only about Schreiber’s body anymore. Historically it’s pretty clear that the father—of an actual child, as opposed to a fetus—whom we’ll define for the sake of ease as a man who has parented said child, has rights. Here, there is an “intended parent” form signed at the clinic. And then there is a birth certificate that Patric has suspiciously left himself off of. The latter bodes well for Schreiber’s camp, but this in and of itself does not necessarily have to do with Jason Patric’s sperm.
Patric has said he feels this situation is “emasculating.” I find this word fascinating here. What does it mean? What does he mean? That he didn’t get a girl pregnant through intercourse? That he has been banned from seeing his child? Or is it that his body is being discussed so publicly? We know the public discussion of women’s bodies has happened since the dawn of time but what I’m trying to understand is what this—and all the handwringing in this custody case that is being waged in the name of science—has to do with this boy Gus who was conceived one way or another four years ago. Due to the sloppy reporting, the negligent research, the lack of fact-checking, and the plain old way romantic love comes so easily and leaves with such difficulty, nothing but can be concluded from this piece other than the selfishness and narcissism of these parents. And the tragedy, of course, is what will happen to this child whose namesake has been plastered all over morning shows and newspapers and websites. So, what will Gus be told and when will he be told it? Will he be lied to? How much truth will he be told, and when? How, in the end, will the language form him? Who will control his narrative? Because this is, after all, the child’s story to tell.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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