Reflections on Adoption, part 4

Part 4, from philosopher and adoptive parent Brynn Welch.


Social Convention 4: remember that parenting is really, really, really hard, regardless of the number of parents/children or the path to parenthood and be more forgiving of ourselves and more helpful to others.

What happens in the absence of this convention: expectations, both externally and internally imposed, become insane. This one is tricky. There certainly are others judging our decision to parent and waiting to see whether we’ve really thought it through. But usually, we’re the ones self-imposing the unreasonable expectations we imagine others have of us to keep it all together and be over the moon all the time about parenthood. So although I think there genuinely is a problem with people having unreasonable expectations about how parents will feel about parenthood and handle the complications it presents, those of us who are parents are a big part of the problem. We are often the ones forgetting how hard what we are doing is and expecting ourselves not to show “weakness”. So here’s the real deal with me, and I strongly suspect it’s the unspoken real deal with a lot of people: seeing my son born was the most incredible moment of my life, and I was shocked by how much love I felt in that instant. But when the nurse handed him to me, my first thought was something like “WAIT! What do you mean I’m responsible for him now?! That seems like a terrible idea.” Everyone knows that parenting is hard. But experiencing it is…well, the knowledge that it’s hard just doesn’t come close to capturing the experience of it. I was exhausted, frazzled, on edge. But what people kept asking was, “Are you over the moon?” The answer is complicated: yes, I am. I am happier than I have ever been. I am also now existing in the depths of the underworld. In 11 days, I went from just a person with an adult home and lots of time to sleep to being a very tired mother of an infant with a house full of baby junk. I am feeling ALL OF THE THINGS. But I felt like I should answer “Yes, I am sooooooo happy!” Nevermind that my day now revolves around someone else’s bodily functions, and I have reached the point of exhaustion where I am physically ill. Let’s just leave it at “Yes, I’m soooooo happy!” I suspect all parents feel this way. We internalize the expectation that we will exist in a constant state of gratitude, bliss, and togetherness. Sure, that’s a lofty goal, but it sets us up for certain failure. As a single parent via adoption, I feel this pressure three times over. I feel somehow less free to complain about financial stress or work-life balance because people will be thinking, “Well, you chose to be a single mom!” or “Well, you wanted this!” Although people have in fact said exactly those things to me, both that reaction and my fear of it are irrational. The reaction itself assumes that my choice to become a parent was somehow more deliberate than anyone else’s. The process may have involved more (and far less pleasant) steps, but the decision itself was exactly the same. It further assumes that a second parent would help, and that’s not obviously true. (In fact, I think flying solo is way, way better than most people imagine.) But my fear of that reaction is also irrational because although I am occasionally greeted with “Well, you chose to be a single mom” or “Well, you wanted this!” I have also been offered food delivery, babysitting services, and all the free venting you could want. So although people occasionally reinforce my fear, most do not. Nonetheless, I have internalized unreasonable expectations the few have and projected them onto everyone. After all, I chose single motherhood and got lucky enough to finalize an adoption with a perfect little dude. I need to prove that neither of those were bad decisions, right? What baffles me about the absence of this convention is that every parent I know – regardless of the path to parenthood, the number of parents in the home, the number of children, or the amount of money and professional flexibility – feels something like this pressure to have it all together with smiles on our faces. But we also all know that a) parenting is really, really, really hard and b) that pressure to have it all together is an entirely unnecessary additional stress. We’re trying to raise tiny humans, for crying out loud!

Advice: let’s all be kinder to each other and to ourselves. Let’s remember that new parents are over the moon and more in love than they thought possible, but they’re also getting pooped on and missing sleep, privacy, that guest room, and the ability to just run into the store really quickly. When we focus on the former, we trivialize the latter, and the latter is definitely not trivial. And new parents, people want to help. If you’re tired and want a nap, just say so. No one will judge you, and people are not generally opposed to an hour or two of baby snuggles.

I shall now take the first step toward being kinder to myself about this: tomorrow is my son’s birthday. Of course I will celebrate his birth. I am so, so, so excited that he was born. But you know what else I’ll be celebrating? That I made it an entire year as a single, working mother of a small child. Because let’s be honest: that’s freaking awesome. So there.



On self forgiveness and New Year’s resolutions

Feminist philosopher Kate Norlock writes,

“My research focuses on forgiveness, and most of my work concerns the things we beat ourselves up about. We’re only capable of resolutions because we’re capable of memory, and unfortunately, memory is also what makes us good at focusing on our failures. Self-reproach is a function of memory, and self-inflicted harms – like sacrifice of our plans and hopes, and taking on unworthy images of ourselves – linger and reinforce negative beliefs we already have about ourselves.

The funny thing is, I don’t hear much about self-forgiveness in fitness circles.”

Go read the rest here.

On the “female penis” and why reproductive biologists (and everyone else!) need philosophy of sex

Last week, with the publication of Yoshizawa et al’s “Female Penis, Male Vagina, and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect,” the media and the intertubes obediently leaped on the phrase “female penis,” with outlet after outlet reproducing the phrase, often with predictable jokes about penis envy and who wears the pants in the relationship.

Yoshizawa et al’s article detailed the authors’ discovery of four species of tiny Brazilian cave insects in which sexual congress involves the female inserting a long, spiny member (a gynosome) into the male’s sexual orifice and using that gynosome to slowly extract sperm and other nutrients from the male, a phenomenon the authors describe as “coupling role reversal.”

The trouble is, of course, that the described phenomenon is not a reversal of the usual sexual roles, for two main reasons: (1) in familiar penis-in-vagina intercourse, the bearer of the penis does not typically extract sperm from its partner; rather, it ejaculates sperm into its partner; and (2) while there are indeed usual sexual roles within species, it is an exaggeration to say that there are usual sex roles across species. In some species, females leave their eggs on riverbeds to be fertilized by partners who arrive later; in some species, one partner impales the other in order to transfer ejaculate into them; some species require more than two mating types. I could go on. Parthenogenesis, exploding genitals… the natural world has it all! …and that’s just the animal kingdom. Don’t get me started on plants.

Given this amazing complexity, why would Yoshizawa et al (and all of the journalists and bloggers) adopt the (arguably) oversimplified, reductivist approach to cave insect sex that they have? In her smart, trenchant take on the story, Annalee Newitz attributes the approach to anthropocentrism. In an equally thoughtful piece (although one that I don’t happen to agree with, in the main), Ed Yong replies that “penis” is used for the female cave insects’ sex organs in the same (more or less) metaphorical way that “foot” is used in “snail’s foot.” For Newitz, treating any sexual appendage as a penis disregards the rich variety of sexual phenomena. Yong disagrees, arguing that extending the term “penis” to include organs with a broad range of sexual functions properly embraces sexual variety.

Yong’s point is an interesting one, and I’m happy to know that there are folks like Yong who know their biology and who adopt thoughtful, pluralistic approaches to sexual function. However, it is implausible in the extreme to suppose that the herd of bloggers and science journalists who piled on to the “female penis” moniker did so for the principled reasons Yong elaborates. Rather, what we see in both Yoshizawa et al’s choice of descriptions, and in the swiftness with which that terminology was taken up by journalists and bloggers, is an inability to conceive of sexual phenomena as escaping the Adam/Eve, Noah’s Ark two-by-two paradigm.

One sees this over and over in biologists’ descriptions of mating behaviour among hermaphroditic species (like flatworms) and species with more than two mating types (like fire ants) — a shoe-horning of non-human sexual phenomena into a familiar human binary. Even today, and even after the revolutionary work of such feminist biologists as Joan Roughgarden and Anne Fausto-Sterling (to name just two), traditional reproductive biology still can’t get past the idea that the magical number for sex is “2”, and that every sexual function/organ is reducible to two paradigmatic ones.

Presumably, the source of all this trouble in the history of ideas is indeed religious/mythological. However, reading the gender biases of one species of evolutionarily recent bipeds onto all of the other species is bad science. It is, moreover, science that ignores what recent developments both sexual reproduction and two-sex sexual reproduction are in the history of life on Earth. Put simply, regardless of what our Sunday school tales and the aisles of our toy stores might encourage us to believe, in the world of reproduction, male and female are not axioms of the system; nor are any particular sexual organs or functions indispensable.

Schliesser on de Gournay: sexism is “serious blasphemy”

Yesterday, at his Digressions & Impressions blog, Eric Schliesser posted a (second) lovely discussion of 17th century philosopher Marie de Gournay and her account of the Church’s role in the subordination of women. Strikingly, de Gournay argues that, in having played this role, Christianity also oppresses men, by encouraging them to make idols of themselves.

For, men have chosen to let themselves be ruled by “superiority of…strength” (73) and not their rational faculty. In fact, she argues that in so doing men have committed “serious blasphemy” because men have elevated themselves above women. For, women are “worthy of being made in the image of the Creator, of benefiting from the most holy Eucharist and the mysteries of redemption and of paradise, and of the vision–indeed, the possession–of God.” (73) Man’s political decision to deny women “the advantages or privileges of man” is, thus, a way to make an idol of himself. 

De Gournay’s argument is a powerful reply to the Pauline-Augustinian argument that woman only expresses God’s image when she is united to man (de Trinitate, Book 12, Ch. 7). I know what I’ll be adding to the syllabus the next time I teach philosophy of gender. Thanks, Eric!

Sign Language is not Performance Art

The exoticism of signed language interpreters and signed language gets uptake in mainstream media, but deaf people’s views are ignored. Here’s one response to this phenomenon, written by my colleague, Dr. Caroline Solomon, a deaf professor of biology and her brother, Jeffrey Archer Miller, a hearing lawyer who regularly represents deaf people.

The subtle subtext of the media’s approach has been to introduce its readers to American Sign Language as an oddity, more in the vein of a story about Cirque du Soleil than as a window into a sophisticated means of interpersonal expression. Wall Street Journal reporter Elizabeth Williamson delights in describing how Mr. Painter interprets “fiscal cliff” and “kick the can down the road” from English to American Sign Language. Would its readers be equally interested in a story about an interpreter translating arcane Washington bureaucratese into Spanish? We suspect not.


Reflections on Adoption, part 3

Part 3, from philosopher and adoptive parent Brynn Welch.


Social convention 3: be excited for adoptive parents, not proud of them.

What happens in the absence of this convention: adoptive parents find themselves getting loads of praise for adopting a child. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Who doesn’t like praise? However, the praise very quickly starts to imply that one views adoption as somehow similar to mission work, which makes it seem like there was a reason we *wouldn’t* adopt our children. I wanted to parent for the same selfish reasons others want to parent. (I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m perfectly at peace with the selfishness.) Although now I am of course motivated by a fierce love of one particular little dude, my desire to adopt was motivated by my desire to parent, and my desire to parent was exactly the same as anyone else’s desire to parent. I wanted to have that kind of relationship in my life even before there was some specific person with whom I might have that relationship, and adoption was the path that made that possible. I was not doing mission work; I was just trying to become a mom. Praise for having adopted is particularly strange because a successful adoption makes adoptive parents feel unbelievably lucky. PowerBall lottery winners have *nothing* on someone who hears a judge declare s/he has all rights and responsibilities of natural parents. I thought I was being a little nutty and overly sensitive about this until I spoke with other adoptive parents and read several books about adoption, and it’s apparently a pretty universal experience that adoptive parents are a) praised for having adopted, and b) uncomfortable with what that praise seems to imply about adoption and/or the adopted child. There is no question that much praise in the form of “he’s so lucky to have you” or “I’m so proud of you” would have happened had I given birth to my son, but there’s also no question that some of it wouldn’t have. The latter category is bad but unfortunately often indistinguishable from the former. I freely admit that this may be a situation where adoptive parents are reacting to all praise badly even though much of it is totally unproblematic. Nonetheless, in the absence of this convention, we are praised, and though there’s no earthly reason someone who hasn’t been through it would know this ahead of time, the praise is uncomfortable. Hence the new social convention.

If you have friends or family who have adopted, be excited for them and with them, but do not praise them. Even if you disagree about the implications of such praise, resist praising because that praise will – rightly or wrongly – make the adoptive parent(s) uncomfortable. In fact, the best response to someone who adopts is “Congratulations! You’re so lucky!”



Sally Haslanger receives Ford Chair at MIT

Fantastic to see awesome feminist philosophers getting recognised. (Yay Sally!!)

Deborah Fitzgerald, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, has awarded professor of philosophy Sally Haslanger a Ford Chair. “This honor is in recognition of Sally’s significant and distinctive research, and her distinguished leadership within the field of philosophy,” said Fitzgerald.

Thanks, Mr Jender!

If you’re wondering how wrong university procedures can go…

[Trigger Warning]

This story from Brown University will give you some idea. I encourage anyone who is confused about why victims may not come forward especially to read it. But of course, this isn’t just about Brown.

Students were outraged in 2013, when Yale University disclosed in a semi-annual report that only one of six people found responsible for sexual assault had been suspended, and the rest were punished with reprimands, training or probation. A subsequent report showed one student was found guilty of sexual assault and was given a two- term suspension, and the rest of the assault cases hadn’t concluded or did not lead to a formal investigation.

From the 2008-09 academic year to 2012-13 at Harvard College, five students were required by the Administrative Board to withdraw from the undergraduate school due to “social behavior – sexual.” Two students were punished with probation for “social behavior – harassment/sexual” and the college took no action against six students for “social behavior – sexual.” Harvard College was hit with a federal complaint last month for, among other grievances, forcing sexual assault victims to live in the same residence halls as their attackers.

Documents provided by Dartmouth College show that from 2010 to 2013, sexual violence cases resulted in two students being “separated or resigned” from the college, two students suspended, two placed on probation and four found “not responsible.”Dartmouth may implement a policy that would make expulsion the preferred sanction for students guilty of sexual misconduct.

Colleges are not required to disclose how many students are investigated or punished for sexual misconduct. Columbia University, for instance, has so far declined to release such statistics.

Three women accused the same male student at Columbia of sexual assault. Still, two of the reported victims told HuffPost that the male student was found not responsible and was allowed to stay on campus.

Reflections on Adoption, Part 2

Part 2, from philosopher and adoptive parent Brynn Welch.


Social convention 2: unless the adopted child, adoptive parents, or birth parents say otherwise, assume the birth parents are off limits.

What happens in the absence of this convention: Curiosity quickly moves to voyeurism, the expression of which ranges from thoughtless insensitivity to staggering cruelty. First and most importantly, details about the birth parents are simply none of anyone’s business. Just as it would be invasive for me to ask for the details regarding someone else’ child’s conception and birth or the impact those have on the parents’ emotional, financial, or professional situation, there’s no good reason to ask for those details about my son’s birth parents. Second, the tone underlying many of these comments is troubling. They are sometimes openly derogatory and almost always disregard the birth parent’s experience, treating the birth parent(s) as merely means to an end. In general, questions and comments about birth parents fail to recognize them as moral equals. One thing that has always shocked me is that while people will celebrate my new family, they will show disdain for the person who made it possible. Third, people often ignore the fact that my son is present when they ask these questions/make comments about his biological parents. The effect is that I am often asked invasive questions in front of my child, and those questions (or the assumptions that generate them) are insulting to the mother of my child. That is obviously an undesirable effect, and I am certain not the one intended by the person posing the question or making the comment.

The advice: bear in mind that questions about the birth parent(s) seem benign but are often experienced as intrusive and offensive. Moreover, the type and quality of relationship between adoptive parents and birth parents vary widely. Those relationships are deeply personal and complex, so it’s best to avoid probing into/commenting on the relationship for the same reason it’s generally a good idea to avoid doing so with respect to someone’s marriage. In this case, curiosity is trumped by a family’s desire for privacy, so err on the side of caution: wait for an invitation inside.