The New Yorker is one of America’s oldest and most venerable magazines with a proud past stretching back to before the Great Depression. In its archives, a reader can find short stories, articles, and cartoons by such icons of American literature as E.B. White, James Thurber, John Updike, and J.D. Salinger. The most recognizable feature of the magazine is arguably its illustrated covers that reflect social issues, popular themes, and prominent people. The edition for the week of May 13, 2013, the week following Mother’s Day, is no exception. The illustration on its cover features three children peering around the corner watching two women standing in a kitchen as they hold what appears to be a homemade Mother’s Day card which they have just discovered. The undeniable purpose of this cover is to present a normalized view of a same sex household: two women and their children celebrating Mother’s Day (or is it Mothers’ Day?) in the same way that any household would celebrate it.
For me, this cover raises a question: what happens in this house a few weeks from now on Father’s Day? Never before in history have we had to articulate so specifically the meaning of these days. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are separate days (as opposed to a unified “Parents’ Day”) that are set aside to celebrate the unique contributions that mothers and fathers make respectively to the lives of their children and to the stability of their homes. Is there then something missing from this house on Father’s Day? Surely there is at least one father lurking in the back story. He may be an anonymous sperm donor or an ex-husband of one of these women, but one thing is for certain—where there are children there is at least the shadow of a father. It is a biological impossibility that both of these women are the mother of all of these children.
Those things being said, on Mother’s Day and on Father’s Day there are two distinct aberrations in this home. On each day there is at once something missing and something alien. There are three children who possess an incomplete knowledge of their origin and their heritage, but have a third party non-relative who they are told completes their family.
At the most fundamental level, parenthood is about biology. Whatever else parenthood is, it is biological. It is a fact that every child who has ever been born has only one mother and only one father. One or both parents may be absent or distant or even anonymous, but they are still biologically either a mother or a father. Of course we know that what we celebrate on Mother’s Day is much more than biology. It is, instead, a vacuous set of intangibles that forms the connection between a mother and her child. These intangibles, however, are inextricably intertwined with biology.
The little boy who will give my wife a Mother’s Day card this weekend spent every moment of the first nine months of his life with her. Her voice was the first voice that he ever recognized, her lungs provided him with oxygen, and her blood passed nutrients into his so that his little body could grow and mature. At the time, those nine months seemed excruciatingly long, but in retrospect, it was a remarkably short period for what it produced. The cold, clinical biological fact of my wife’s pregnancy produced a little boy who was born with the instinct that he could trust the woman whose voice he had known for his whole life. He heard my voice, too! While I was not quite so biologically committed for those nine months, he was growing inside the body of my wife. We weren’t strangers or random partners. We were committed to one another and with one another every day. When his life began, it began in the context of a loving household in which no third party was needed to bring him into existence. At what point did the “other woman” in the illustration become the “mother”? How much time did it take and what actions and attitudes generated these intangible elements of connection?
Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world where many operate as if sex were simply recreation making children the unintended byproduct of sex rather than the driving purpose behind its design. Theologians recognize two purposes of sex: to produce children (creative aspect) and to define a marriage (unitive aspect). Both of these aspects are child-oriented, not adult-oriented. Even the unitive aspect of sex is intended to create a bond between parents that produces children who are then born into committed and stable homes. What The New Yorker wants us to believe is that biology is irrelevant and that motherhood and fatherhood is simply a matter of will, that men and women become fathers and mothers because of desire and nothing more. If there is much more to motherhood and fatherhood than biology, there certainly is much more to it than desire.
Let me say as I close, however, that there are those who will quickly object and argue that adoption is an institution which I surely support, but which produces families without biological connection. Despite the fundamental necessity of biology in defining motherhood and fatherhood, adoption is not a phenomenon that negates this reality. To the contrary, adoption affirms the necessity of considering the biological. It assumes that every child has one mother and one father by the mere fact that for adoption to proceed, the legal rights that follow from biology must be severed by death or by law. Adoption provides orphaned children with the parents that they need. It does not, however, provide childless adults with the children they want and increasingly believe that they deserve. No person or couple has a right to a child. Adoption should be an altruistic, child-centered, selfless committment to raise a child as if he or she is biologically connected despite the fact that this is simply not the case.