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Modern Families: Rethinking the Ties that Bind

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This year, as Alli and I await the birth of our first child, due this fall, we began receiving our first Mother's Day congratulations from friends and family. Since making the announcement, we've received a lot of advice (both solicited and unsolicited), hand-me-downs, and questions about our process from other LGBT individuals and couples who are thinking about starting their own families. And as we tell more people, I've noticed that I'm most often asked whether I'm worried about bonding with the baby as the non-biological parent.

I've got to tell you, this question infuriates me.

Despite what are certainly best intentions and a tacit show of empathy, the question irks me because it puts a premium on biological links, as though the strength of a parent-child relationship is only correlated to bloodlines: the more biologically-related, the stronger the bond. As an adoptee myself, with a partner raised by lesbian moms, I know that there are many ties beyond biology that bind families and drive the parent/child bond. Though it's less surprising that this sentiment is common among heterosexual couples who usually reproduce biological children, I am struck by the force of this sentiment within the LGBT community which has historically created families of choice and whose family compositions -- biological, blended, adopted, co-parented, and any variation therein -- are as diverse as they come.

Let's face it: Even as we battle the myths surrounding race, gender, gender roles, sexuality, class, domesticity and the nuclear family, we haven't adequately addressed the myths or stigma around non-biological family structures, particularly when it comes to parent-child relationships and adoption. And though I don't want to discourage any couple from having biological children, I do want to suggest that it's high time we address the stigma of non-biologically related family members.

As an adoptee, I've witnessed this stigma first-hand. Over the years when I've identified myself as adopted, people would asked me if I was interested in finding my "real mom" or "real family," or they'd tilt their heads in sympathy and give me a tight smile as though I was raised by people who had no choice but to take me in. They might also ask me if I'm close to my parents -- my adopted parents, they'll quickly clarify -- and other semi-cloaked questions to try to understand how I feel about being adopted and frankly, and how they also feel about adoption.

When I was young, I was perplexed by these questions. Imagine a child's confusion when asked if they ever want to meet their real parents when they spend every day with them. I internalized these perpetual inquiries as slights against me and my family and would run into the arms of my real Papa and real Mom, asking why people thought they weren't my parents or why my friends felt bad for me because I was the "a-word." (For the longest time I thought it meant "asshole.")

I now realize, of course, that these questions aren't about me at all -- they come from other people's experience and preconceptions about what makes a family. The fact of the matter is that families come in all shapes, sizes and formations. More gay parents and straight parents alike are raising stepchildren and/or adopted children, bringing much-needed awareness about the growth of blended families in the country. Indeed, more than three million LGBT Americans have children, and more than 125,000 same-sex couples are currently raising one or more children under the age of 18, including biological, step, or adopted children. What's more, six million Americans report having a parent who self-identifies as LGBT.

I think this growing family diversity is something to celebrate. Instead of the tight smiles that I grew up with, younger generations are growing up in a time when having non-biological parents and siblings may no longer seen as inauthentic or less than biologically-bound families.

I know that that the resistance to embracing family diversity may actually come from my generation, as there's an ever-present fear that parents won't feel bonded to a child if it isn't biologically their own. I am often reminded of this fear when my LGBT peers discuss starting their own families and voice their aversion to adoption. Semi-recently my buddy and I were discussing her options and I suggested adoption. She made a face. "I don't know -- I'd be afraid I wouldn't feel any connection to the baby because it wasn't my own. It would just be this strange baby in the house." I then made my own face. "Rach -- I'm adopted, and I promise you I'm very attached to my family." She flushed with embarrassment and I flushed with frustration, but we ended up having a fruitful conversation about families, bonds and the many ways that people create them.

The fact of the matter is whether the child is adopted or biologically your own, when we first meet our children we simply do not know how bonding will unfold or how quickly it might happen. What we do know, however, is that the bonding experience is diverse and that there's a number of child-related factors (age and/or age of placement) and parent-related factors (number of previous children, age, and gender, among others) that make it impossible to universalize the experience or generalize how parent-child bonding "ought to" unfold. I know there's a wealth of literature about the physical and hormonal bond that's created between a biological mother and child during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, and I don't want to take away from that very real experience. But as we celebrate Father's Day this month, I'd like to underscore that bonding isn't confined to a specific set of hours or days, but that it's a lifelong process between parents, children and loving families of choice who are curious about the world and each other's place in it.

As one New York Times blogger aptly noted: "All our children come to us as strangers." The challenge in bonding with adopted children, then, isn't in overcoming biological ties, but overcoming our own biases about biology.