One night after her bath, after what barely qualified as teeth brushing, after she ran around giggling with a blue fairy nightgown over her head because she couldn't quite squeeze that big noggin through the neck hole, my daughter and I crawled under the covers and read a paperback she selected off her shelf. It happened to be a book about a baby coming into the world and sparked a conversation about what she called the "Story of Us."
Mia was about 3 years old at the time and already well-versed in basics of her birth, or at least, how to bake a cake.
I had cancer as a teen, and while the treatment left me incapable of carrying a pregnancy, my eggs remained healthy. When my husband and I were ready to start a family, we created our own embryo. We just needed someone else to carry and deliver the baby.
Our daughter was born with the help of a gestational carrier and we agreed never to sugarcoat how she entered this world. Covering up in childhood but divulging the truth later on didn't sit right with us. Why lie? We couldn't be more proud of the process and wanted her to feel the same.
At first, I planted the seed that my belly was "broken." After all, I reasoned, it's not a bad lesson to learn that beauty can emerge from imperfection.
Eventually, the explanation blossomed into an elementary but factual and relatable version of the events that transpired: "It was like baking a cake. Daddy and I were the ingredients, our friend was the oven, you cooked for nine months and were ready on your birthday! You are our sweet, delicious cake!"
For a while, the cake satiated her curiosity. But soon, she craved more. More details about our carrier. About the carrier's own children. How long was the cross-country flight home from the hospital? Did we feel her kick in utero?
Those "Story of Us" bedtime conversations, I soon learned, were dress rehearsals. The pink polka dot duvet we snuggled beneath really was her security blanket -- a comfortable, safe space where she could process this sensitive information. Though I was unaware at the time, our pillow talk was preparation for the next stage: "coming out."
In fact, a psychologist friend likened it to what people sometimes experience when they embrace their sexual identity and go public for the first time as gay. There is a sense of pride, of self-acceptance and wanting to share that new identity with those you hold dear.
Mia was 5 years old the first time I witnessed her take ownership of her story. While bedazzling headbands on the kitchen table, she told her cousin Rebecca that I didn't give birth to her. When my eye-rolling tween-aged niece insisted Mia was lying, I was on hand to set the record straight.
The next confidant was Mia's buddy Jenna. She visited our house one afternoon and I spotted the two of them sitting on the hallway floor, mid-discussion. Rather than intervene, I spied from a nearby room, curious how both girls would handle it. My daughter not only got the facts right, but relayed the information with palpable "how cool is this?!" exuberance.
Jenna's response arc: Disbelief, questioning, mild comprehension, acceptance and finally, a verbal "OK" accompanied by shrugging shoulders. Then, as if they had been chatting about Smurfs instead of gestational surrogacy, the conversation was dropped and the two of them ran into the kitchen to raid the refrigerator for snacks.
As I stood there, watching giggling little girls with ice pops dripping down their chins, I couldn't help but marvel at how my miracle baby had become a miracle child who, unknowingly, was changing the world's definition of family making -- one playdate at a time.
Both the Rebecca and Jenna conversations took place on my watch and with children of parents I knew well. What will happen, I wondered, when these talks take place outside the privacy of my home? Do the parents of her classmates really want their 5-year-olds learning about third party reproduction in kindergarten?
Soon enough, I was faced with that very situation. While waiting at the pick-up line, another mom walked over, smiled and with slow, deliberate enunciation quietly said, "So [my daughter] came home yesterday asking how Mia was born."
I inquired how the news reached her.
"Mia told her," she said. "[My daughter] asked me a bunch of questions, but I wasn't sure how to answer."
After gently cross-examining my child on the ride home, I learned that while playing "family" during free time, she explained to some of the kids that there was no reason for her to stick a baby doll under her shirt (as others did) because her baby was being carried by a friend. After all, she said, "That's how I was born."
Welcome to the ripple effect of arming your child with pride.
Clearly, the long-term impact of third party reproduction going mainstream has begun. Those birds and bees conversations once reserved for junior high health class are now taking place between kids in the sandbox.
The result is some interesting ethical questions: Does a teacher have a right to know how a child was born? Should parents feel obligated to divulge personal information to the school if there is a chance their 6-year-old will provide a tutorial on surrogacy? Should school administrators be brought into the discussion in case other parents complain that their child learned the basics of IVF while sitting on a seesaw? And what if classmates go home asking if they were born the same way? Their parents inherited the conversation simply because their kid played with my kid. Whether or not they used alternative means to create their family, our openness is forcing a discussion they may not yet be prepared to have with their child.
My friend Sharone Gilbert is a mother of four, two of whom were born via gestational carrier. After day camp counselors accused her young kids of lying when they said their mom didn't give birth to them, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
"I always preempt the teachers so my daughter won't see a weird reaction," says Gilbert, who admits even with the heads-up, one instructor felt the topic was taboo and feared addressing it in class.
Gilbert's kids now take a picture book to school that her mother created about their birth. "If they want to share it they can, if they don't want to, they don't have to. It's their story to tell."
And that's exactly it. It's their story to tell when they are ready, sooner or later. Granted, the impact on the recipient of the information (and their parents) may be greater than if, say, the child shared her affinity for all things turquoise, but really, they're all just parts of a whole. In our family, Mia's birth gets equal billing (if not lesser than) the fact that her favorite color is green and she loves chocolate cake.
So teachers, camp counselors and fellow parents, get ready for story time. But remember, the chapter about how they were born is just the prologue.