Resemblance Talk and Casual Strangers

Friday was the last day of classes, which means a summer respite spent learning, once and for all, about the viability of my eggs; the verdict on the hope of resolution and uncomplicated parenthood will soon arrive.  In the run-up I vacillate between a desperate need to pare back the endeavors that consume my attention to find clarity, a quiet headspace to process and prepare, and the black panic of absorbing the worst news: that the door to my genetics is closed at the young age of 34 after four long years of Sisyphean struggle.  So what is there to do but drink?

Oh don’t let them fool you: teachers are notorious drinkers, poster children for the “work hard, play hard” mantra.  This year it was a bar crawl spent drowning exhaustion in bottles of cheap sauvignon blanc and bottomless cosmos, the husbands with their draft beers and Yankees chatter.  My husband (let’s call him B) who has developed a powerful allergy to the pervasive shop-talk that always ensues at one point or another at these things—the kvetching about bureaucracy and administration, the absurd stories about the stuff you can’t make up—always finds inventive ways to entertain himself, this time in the form of conversation struck up with a goofy, awkward stranger who came to the bar alone.  He was swimming in his suit, slightly rumpled, tie discarded.  It reminded me of Twain’s iconic introduction of Huckleberry Finn:

Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering…his coat, when he wore one, hung nearly to his heels…the seat of the trousers bagged low and contained nothing,

Before long the curious stranger was salsa dancing with my best friend, and I heard a far off comment to my husband, “Your wife is very pretty,” but (truth be told) I didn’t spend much time at that end of the table until the the night was winding down.  The crowd thinned, tabs were settled and I found myself alone there while B waved his credit card around to catch the attention of the harrowed bartender and my friends slipped out back for one last cigarette.

He decided to spark up a conversation: “Do you have babies?”

“Not yet,” I said with my best attempt at normalcy, a smile, a facade to disguise the visceral grief this question provokes.

“How many babies will you have?” he persisted.

“As many as we’re allowed,” I countered.

“They will have your eyes, yeah?” he proposed with a cartoonish grin that reminds me he’s trying to pay me a compliment; that this is a normal conversation people have; that I am the wild card.

And then the hot flush of tears, the alarm singing in my ears, the pounding heart, the instinct to flee, to seek the familiar sanctuary of a bathroom stall, but I was trapped, alone, crying in the middle of a crowded bar, the din of everyday life, celebration, flirtation, cutting loose all swirling around me.  Take out your phone.  Press buttons.  Act busy.  What ever you do, keep your eyes down.  Discretely wipe the tears.  Text your husband to hurry!  On the ride home, B was apologizing, but this had nothing to do with him.  The words from this article in The New York Times, which I have read almost obsessively, ran through my head in repetitive echoes: “innocuous,” “legitimacy,” “constant reminder,” the broken bone that still aches long after it knits and heals.

According to a paper published in the March 2005 issue of the journal Social Science and Medicine, parents of donor-conceived kids found “resemblance talk” — something most of us consider innocuous — to be “ubiquitous, unavoidable and uncontrollable” and they feared the constant chitchat would stigmatize their child and throw the family’s legitimacy into question. This was true irrespective of whether parents had told their children how they had been conceived, and it exacerbated uncertainties about these decisions among both groups. It also made them apprehensive about whether their children could be fully accepted by their extended families.

“People see a child in a supermarket checkout line and almost reflexively make some comment about who he looks like or doesn’t look like,” said Robert Nachtigall, an adjunct clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco and a co-author of the paper. “We interpret it as a kind of shorthand by which people validate the child’s position in the family, in society, by basically making comments that refer to the blood relationship that must exist between the child and his or her parents. The problem for people who have conceived with donor gametes is that they know it’s not true. And the dilemma for them is how to respond, if at all. ”Resemblance talk did something else, too: although emphatic that it didn’t change their love for their child, mothers said it was a constant reminder of their own infertility. “Your infertility is always kind of there when you do donor conception,” said Marie, the mother of 14-year-old Catherine.

When your last try feels more like a formality than a chance, more like closure than resolution, and the need to use donor eggs has become a foregone conclusion despite youth, despite plenty of eggs at retrieval and embryos that “look good,” despite building of a good life and a stable home, despite genetic gifts one aches to pass on, despite a simple and commonplace attachment to a whole and uncomplicated version of motherhood where one might feel pride rather than anxiety and loss in the face of such commentary from normal people living normal lives, this is a paralyzing fear: the permanency of infertility.

2 thoughts on “Resemblance Talk and Casual Strangers

  1. “The permanency of infertility” is a good way to put it. I am using donor eggs right now and am afraid this is true, though I hope to be proven wrong as time goes by. One thing I remind myself is that we see families of all types on TV, and we don’t blink that they don’t look related. I assume multiracial families feel this in a way (a friend married a Japanese man, and people assume she adopted their daughter), and I’ve heard that adopted children are often told they look just like mom or dad from people who don’t know they are adopted. So, I have hope that that the lessons I’ve learned from infertility will stick around (sensitivity, empathy, compassion, friendship) far longer than the actual infertility itself. Nice post, thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re totally right. I just hope I can manage to be less emotional about it. Like my yoga teacher says: “We can’t control outer environment; we can only control our reaction to it.” Much peace and good fortune to you on the road ahead 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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