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Lee Woodruff Headshot

The New American Family - Let's Lose the Labels

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I've been thinking a lot about people's definitions of family. There seem to be so many more options today about how families are configured. Nicole Ritchie's pregnancy bump, stalked and photographed like the dodo bird, caught my eye in the airport on the cover of a celebrity weekly magazine. Nicole, of course, being just one of many in a long line of high-profile, single, unwed moms. There was a day when this kind of news would have set disapproving tongues a-wagging. Now the speculation is more about whether or not the poor gal has enough meat on her bones to carry a child to term. For the most part, people seem to be fairly blasé and accepting of her single parenthood. Although I'm quite sure moral outrage still lurks in neighborhoods and pulpits throughout America.

I'm old enough that I still have one foot in the era where it was shameful, downright socio-pariah stuff for a girl to become pregnant with no husband. I remember well the wedding of a friend I grew up with who walked down the aisle sprouting her own bump on her wedding day. I remember clearly the muffled conversation of the matrons in hushed tones and their disapproving, eyebrow-raising shorthand. The message was -- maybe good girls do it -- but the smart ones hide the evidence.

Before my time, heck, probably during my time, unwed moms were "sent away" disappearing mysteriously in the night when their delicate condition began to show. Movies and books always seem to depict them being banished to cruel aunts' houses in the plains states or all girls homes, religious institutions which must have provided as much fun as watching a chemically-infused Twinkie harden in the open air.

And now, here we are, proudly proclaiming from the pages of OK and Star magazine the triumphant bump-hunt. Poor JLo seems to be on constant bump watch, as does fading honeymooner Nicole Kidman, or the stalked-like-a-gazelle Angelina Jolie. God forbid the poor young things just had an extra fish taco that day, and the evidence bulged over their low-rider waistbands. Some of them are so waiflike that a simple case of constipation could be considered a suspicious bump these days.

So as a culture, we've taken the flaming scarlet "A" out of bringing a baby into the world solo. And now we've moved on to viewing single parent adoption as de rigeur. Once it would have been deemed a bold move to adopt a child alone. Sheryl Crow recently adopted a baby boy, a single Meg Ryan added a Chinese daughter to her son, to name a few. Of course, the celebs we see doing it have plenty of means to offset the hardship --- nannies, cooks, personal trainers all must surely ease the fatigue and downright loneliness at times of single parenthood. But I see regular Joes and Josies know doing it, too. Single women who have missed the call of the ovaries and decided they wanted to be mothers are going the route of foreign adoptions -- without the fat wallet and with full knowledge that this will be an exhausting, sometimes isolating undertaking, a juggling act with three rings and two hands. But one with a huge pay-off, nonetheless.

Thanks to Brangelina, we have ushered in a new level of acceptability for the blended family. They've created a wonderful patchwork quilt of adopted and home grown brood, from different continents and cultures, some just hers legally? Some his, too? Who knows, does it matter? While for decades, friends have been adopting from China or Russia or the former Soviet Union, Brad and Angie put the "cool" stamp on multi-ethnic families.

So here is the thing I still don't get. Flipping through my guilty pleasure celeb rag on an airplane recently, I stumbled over an article about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's kids. The thing was that the reporter used the word "adopted" kids. And it struck me as a little too much information. These kids have to be in their teens. Haven't they now logged enough time in the family to qualify as just plain "kids" rather than focusing on the way they came into the family?

I don't hear people refer now to Joan Lunden's surrogate twins. Or furthermore -- people don't say -- "his missionary position child and the one by IVF,

Our family had just such an untraditional formation in 2000 when we used a gestational carrier to bring our twin daughters into the world. I'd had a hysterectomy after losing a child, our third, and after looking at many options, Bob and I decided to give surrogacy a shot. It was a lot more bizarre then, let me tell you. We had a lot of "splaining" to do in the neighborhood once we announced the news. But I'm quite sure they'd feel affronted or bemused if we referred to our girls as "the implanted embryos." We could meet with a little resistance on that one. It's a sure path to a couch in the shrink's office.

We've been very open with our twins about how they came into the world. I dare them to say that with all that effort and all those needle jabs of hormones we didn't want them fiercely, desperately. This was no spontaneous tryst on a summer night during a blackout. But the rigors of IVF are way beside the point when describing my girls. In fact, come to think of it, due to laws that haven't caught up with the technology of fertility, we actually had to legally adopt our own biological kids once they were born. So, truth be told, they are adopted too. Like Tom and Nic's two kids, or Brad and Angie's brood, it's simply old news. Absolutely unimportant.

When my husband Bob Woodruff was in a coma after having been hit by an IED while covering the war in Iraq for ABC News, our family went through its toughest trial yet. When it became apparent Bob wasn't waking up, I came to terms with the fact that it was time for my children to see their father, however frightening that sight might be.

In a moment I will remember forever, my eldest daughter approached her father for the first time in his hospital bed, his brain swollen out of his head with a traumatic brain injury from the blast. The side of his face was disfigured, his skin peppered with hundreds of tiny rocks and dirt that had been packed around the bomb.

In a supreme act of love and hope that her Daddy was still in there somewhere, Cathryn leaned over Bob's good side to play the "kissing game" -- their father-daughter routine of kissing as long as they could on the phone when Bob was covering stories long distance.

"Daddy," she said in a soft but amazingly brave voice. "You have to wake up, we all need you to come home."

What happened next was the first sign to me that my husband was in there. As Cathryn kissed his "good" cheek, a tear ran out of Bob's eye and down his face. We both screamed for the nurse to come and see -- proof that somewhere in that swollen, damaged brain, Bob recognized his daughter.

"There is a connection there of blood and of DNA," the doctor had told me. "It's a genetic connection that is stronger than his bond with you -- no matter how much he loves you."

I've thought a lot about what she said to me that day. And I've thought about it in terms of my friends with adopted kids. Would that connection to their dad be any less strong? Would a "mere" adopted child have been able to reach her father that way?

I'm no parenting expert to be sure. And I don't have all the facts on the nature/nurture debate. But I do know all kinds of families, families who love their children, no matter what their color, genetic make-up or how they came into the world. They love them with all their hearts, genetics be damned.

I'd like to think love does conquer all. The supreme bond between a parent and child is sacred, whether they came into the family with a donated egg or from an orphanage in Mali. I think its time we lose the labels and be grateful that there are loving homes, open arms and people willing to get down in the trenches of parenthood and slog it out. Every single exhausting, lonely and wonderfully rewarding day.

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