New Directions For The Family Tree

Family relationships are becoming more complicated as they expand to include surrogate parents, donor siblings, or birth parents. Guest host Jacki Lyden is joined by three parents who all have non-traditional families: Carrie Goldman, mom of three girls, Jay Rapp, dad of two, and Tina Testa, mom of twin boys.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away this week. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and some dads in your corner. Each week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

This week, we want to talk about family trees and how they're branching off into a lot of surprising directions. Might be your own family or you may have noticed that families around you look a lot less like the nuclear family from "Leave It To Beaver" and a little more like this TV show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "MODERN FAMILY")

JESSE TYLER FERGUSON: (as Mitchell Pritchett) It's been about a year since we decided to adopt a boy and, meanwhile, our friends Steven and Stefan decided that they wanted a baby, too.

ERIC STONESTREET: (as Cameron Tucker) Wonder where they got that idea.

FERGUSON: (as Mitchell Pritchett) Well, we're still waiting, but they already got their kid because they went to a surrogate.

STONESTREET: (as Cameron Tucker) Which is all they talk about.

LYDEN: So you might have guessed. That's a scene from the Emmy Award winning ABC show "Modern Family," but today, many families do include surrogate parents or birth parents and donor siblings and much more. And, while families say, yes, it can be very complicated. The more, the merrier. It is sometimes still difficult to explain to children.

We wanted to hear more about all of this, so we've called on three parents who all have unique, nontraditional families. And I'm joined now by Carrie Goldman. She's the mom of three girls. Her eight year old daughter Katie came to the family through an open adoption and she writes a blog called Portrait of an Adoption. Hello, Carrie.

CARRIE GOLDMAN: Hello. How are you?

LYDEN: Very well, thanks. And, also, we're joined by Jay Rapp, our dad today, and he and his partner, Gene Logan(ph), are the parents of two girls, both adopted. Rapp is white. His daughters are both of African-American descent. Hello, Jay Rapp.

JAY RAPP: Hello. Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: Thank you for being here. And we also reached out to our listeners via Facebook on this topic. We got almost 200 responses. Tina Testa is one of those listeners. She's a mom of three year old twins. Her sons were conceived using a sperm donor. Welcome to you, Tina.

TINA TESTA: Hello.

LYDEN: So, everybody, moms and dad - let's start with you, Carrie. Your daughter was adopted through what's called an open adoption. You have a relationship with the birth mom. And you wrote in your blog that having an open adoption is complicated. There's so much beauty in allowing an adopted child to know and love a birth family, but with that knowledge comes the burden of truth. And we wondered, what is that burden of truth?

GOLDMAN: The burden of truth is - I look at it this way. Most adopted children harbor a fantasy about their other family, and in their minds it's just this perfect alternative to the family they're in. And, when you're in a closed adoption, the fantasy might just live. When you're in an open adoption, you know the conditions that the birth family lives in.

And, in Katie's situation, her birth family's life is very difficult at times. And we have to balance how much to reveal to her so that we're honest with how much to keep back from her because she's just a little girl and I don't want her to feel anxious or stressed when she learns that her birth family is struggling.

LYDEN: Jay Rapp, you and your partner, Gene, have two daughters. You guys are gay. Both these girls are adopted. How much have you told them about the birth families?

RAPP: We've been honest from the very beginning. My oldest daughter, who's eight, she actually has pictures of her birth mother and her half-siblings. She has two sisters and a brother. And our younger daughter, who is four, actually doesn't have any of those things, so we know very little about her family. And, of course, these are both closed adoptions.

But we've tried to be very honest from the beginning when we talk about our family. And really, although this may sound cliche, really conveying that they came from a very loving family who, of course, would have wanted to keep them were circumstances different, but for a variety of reasons, were unable and, as a result, wanted to provide them with what might be a better life.

And so, with that in mind, you know, we approach this from the viewpoint that they are a part of our family, that while biology is important, what's really important is the family that is raising you, the family that loves you and supports you and takes care of you and dresses your wounds and takes care of you when you're sick - type of thing.

LYDEN: Tina Testa, as we mentioned, you responded to our question on NPR's Facebook page about the nature of changing family trees. You've got two twin boys who are three years old and they were conceived using the help of a sperm donor. Have you thought about what you'll tell them as they grow older about how they were conceived?

TESTA: Yes. Yes, I have. We are definitely going to tell them the truth as their age becomes more appropriate and they ask more questions and they have more of an understanding of the birds and the bees.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: So, when it seems right.

TESTA: Well, we're going to start to talking to them about how babies are made, first of all. And when I start telling them about how babies are made, I'm going to tell them all the ways babies are made.

LYDEN: Are there, like, children's books that cover something like a sperm donor, or...

TESTA: I did find one book about an egg donor, and I'm going to start there. And I've been trying to find some books on sperm donors. And I haven't been able to find one. But I always wanted to write a children's book, so I'm planning on writing one myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: This may be your opportunity. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking to our parents about complicated family trees, and how they talk to their kids about their unique families. I'm speaking with Tina Testa, mom of twin boys; Jay Rapp, he's a dad of two girls; and Carrie Goldman, mom of three girls.

Carrie, a lot of listeners wrote to tell us that in the '60s and '70s, their own parents warned them not to tell their kids if they were adopted or born via surrogates or donors, and that many people said they wish they'd had more information, but they could also understand that it was an attempt to protect the children. Did you think, because of these things, did you think at all about a closed adoption?

GOLDMAN: You know, I really intended to have an open adoption from the start because my husband, Andrew and I, we did a lot of research into adoption as we were preparing to adopt and one of the things that struck me was the number of adult adoptees who had launched searches. And my thinking was, if so many people are launching as search, it must mean that there's this part of them is dying to know this information. And the psychologists - studies have shown that it's healthier if possible for children to have access to openness from the start. And so, you know, it's not always a possibility, but where it is a possibility, it seems to work well.

It is very complicated. When we first adopted Katy, she had been living in foster care. She was still a baby and came home with us, and her birth brother and sister eventually went back to the birth mother, and it was hard to figure out what does open mean? It's not like there's a rule book or a definition, you know. For some people, open means simply exchanging first and last names and addresses so you can always find each other. And for other people, open means having the birth mother come and spend the summer living with you.

So, it was very interesting, and at the beginning, Katy's birth mother called me very frequently, I'd say, every couple days. And I reached a point where I realized for myself that wasn't comfortable. I was struggling to, you know, bond with this baby, who had not been living with me, and I finally - I was very anxious about it, but I did have to tell her birth mom that I needed a little more space. And she was amazingly receptive, and on her own she said: How 'bout if we talk every six months? And that was such a change that that took some getting used to. But as the years have gone by, we've had to continue to evolve, so we did do visits the first couple years; an annual visit. And then the summer before Katy's third year of life, her birth mom decided it was too painful to see Katy and she said, I need a break. And we ended up taking a four year break from visits.

So, at that point, the adoption was very limited in its openness. And we resumed visits again a couple years ago. So it does change quite a bit.

LYDEN: It seems like you're all very adaptive and very creative and very clear about your love for the children. I wonder, Jay Rapp, we're talking here about family trees, and I'm just curious, you've told your kids that they can contact the birth mother when they're 18. What about your own sets of parents - yours and your partner's - and the whole notion of a family tree? How - is it going well with their grandparents?

RAPP: It is. We are incredibly fortunate. Both of our parents are incredibly committed to our kids and although I feel like I shouldn't need to say this, they treat them as if they're their biological grandchildren. And there's not even a question. So, from the very beginning, you know, we've never admittedly had to struggle with the idea of the traditional family tree. Both my kids attend a fairly progressive school, and so they sort of stay away from that, sort of based on the diversity of the community. But from the very beginning, you know, when we talk about history, family history, and who has done what, it is always, you know, your great-grandparent or your great-great-grandparent in really sort of exploring what their family looked like early on into present, and so that they feel very much a part of that. And they may not necessarily look like the rest of the family, but that doesn't mean that they still don't claim being part of our family, and that we don't treat them, obviously, as if they were no different than if they were our birth kids.

LYDEN: So, we asked our listeners to write in with different takes about non-traditional family trees, that whole exercise, which we've been talking about. And here's Katy Foust(ph) of Seattle, Washington. She's 35, and this is what she had to say about it:

KATY FOUST: I wonder if there have been a resurgence among our generation of the nuclear family among those of us who live through the familial restructuring that's emerging within our culture, a longing for what we didn't have. My husband and I both love our parents greatly, but we often comment that we are parenting the family we wish we had as kids.

LYDEN: So she goes on to say that both her parents and her husband's parents are divorced and then remarried, or re-partnered. Do you see any advantages to the ideal, even, of such a thing as a nuclear family? Tina Testa.

TESTA: Gosh, that's a good question. Since we have children born with a sperm donor, and my husband and I are currently going through a divorce, our family is definitely not traditional or nuclear in any way anymore. And I think that because there are so many different kinds of families out there, the community at large becomes our family. And certainly after our children were born I discovered this sperm donor registry and over the years have come into contact with three other families that share the same sperm donor through the Fairfax Cryobank in Virginia, and through Facebook we've all been in contact, sharing pictures over the years of our kids.

And they all have different situations. There's a woman and her partner, and they have two children. And then there's another woman in Australia, who has a daughter. And then there's another single mom, who used the donor. And we've all just been keeping contact over the years and we're planning on meeting up and letting our kids meet for the first time this summer.

We're all - all our kids are around the same age - from 1 to 4 years old. So, there's five of them. So yeah, we're all going to meet up and - we're all very open to it, and it's just been a wonderful experience because it may alleviate some of the concern over our children in meeting their biological father, if they're able to meet their biological siblings and have that connectedness with each other.

And then also, us as parents having a support network, having families that are not the norm. So, it's just been a wonderful source of support over the years, to have other people to relate to, because it was a very lonely experience, going through the process of artificial reproduction. So, just having this bond with people, even though we've never met in person is just, just a very warm feeling. So I'm grateful for that. Grateful for the Internet and Facebook, because it just - it really brings people together.

LYDEN: That's a wonderful story, and thanks so much for sharing it. What questions do your kids have for you about who's the family? Does that come up?

TESTA: Not really, not yet. I'm - their father and I are very friendly and amicable and we co-parent, successfully co-parent the boys, and share custody. And so, they love their father very much and enjoy spending time with him and they enjoy spending time with me. They haven't asked a lot of questions yet because they're just - their language is still emerging. But I'm starting to talk to them about their body parts. And so, eventually, in the next year I'm going to, you know, start talking about how babies are made and just start bringing up terms, like, donor and sperm and eggs. So those words are familiar when the actual questions come up of how they were born.

LYDEN: Carrie Goldman, what advice would you have for people who might have questions about starting a family that doesn't look traditional?

GOLDMAN: You know, it's amazing how things rarely work out the way we plan initially. When I got married we had a plan. We'd get married, we'd have a baby, or more. And, you know, that's not the way it worked out. And we ended up looking into adoption, and something that I - I'm preparing for the day when Katy says to me: You decided to adopt after losing a baby and so, obviously, I wasn't your first choice. And I thought a lot about that over the years, and how will I answer her, because the fact is, we did first try to, you know, conceive, and then we adopted. My answer for her is going to be: just because you weren't first choice doesn't mean you're not first best. You know, second choice does not mean second best. And I'm going to try and explain to her that families grow and change and they come to us in a lot of mysterious ways. And if she measures whether or not her family's OK or normal or right by, is it traditional, then she's using the wrong measurement. What she needs to look at is, is she loved? Is she supported? Will we stand there for her no matter what? And I can say that's true, not only of us, her adoptive family, but her birth, too.

And in that respect, I'd like to say to her that there's never such thing as too many people who love you in this world. And if so your family involves sperm donors or surrogates or, you know, birth parents, and all these are people who have a connection to and a stake in your future and your life and your happiness, then that's beautiful, and that's a family.

LYDEN: Carrie Goldman is the mom of three girls, and her blog is Portrait of an Adoption. She was with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Jay Rapp is the dad of two girls. He was with us from WUSF in Sarasota, Florida, where he's traveling at the moment. And Tina Testa is a mom 3-year-old twin boys. And she was one of our listeners who reached out to Facebook, and she was kind enough to join us from member station KAUZ in Tuscon, Arizona. And I want to thank everybody for speaking with us today.

GOLDMAN: Thank you.

RAPP: Thank you.

TESTA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: And that's our program today. I'm Jacki Lyden, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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