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Experimental kids

Family | It's a brave new world of alternative family models, but some "lopsided" children are beginning to speak out about what they missed growing up

Issue: "Looking at India," Dec. 9, 2006

At 7 years old, Katrina Clark was a precocious little girl. When adults asked her questions like, "What does your daddy do?" Katrina had a ready answer: "I don't have a daddy," she would chirp cheerfully. "My mother was artificially inseminated."

For a time, Katrina enjoyed her novel lineage. She liked the way adults admired her grasp of donor-conception biology, which she explained to them as frankly as if she were explaining Barbie dolls.

"I knew all about the birds and the bees and the concept of someone donating genetic raw material," said Katrina Clark, now 18 and a freshman at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. "I could understand it technically, but not socially and psychologically."

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As Clark headed into adolescence, however, all that changed. Her mother had told her that the man who had donated the sperm to make her was probably a college student. "When I got to be about 12, I realized that meant he was still alive, that I could pass him on the street one day and never know it. . . . Then I started observing my friends and their situations with their fathers. And it hit me that there might be something wrong with this situation."

Clark is among the first in her generation old enough to begin speaking out about growing up in the brave new world of alternative family models. Driven by the increasing use of reproductive technologies, the debate over same-sex parenting, and the acceptance of single and even "group" parenting, a growing panoply of new "family constellations"-as one psychologist has termed them-is raising questions: Where does society draw the line between adults' perceived right to parent and what is best for children? What role should the state have in defining parenthood? And with little data to measure outcomes, is the world steaming away too rapidly from the two-parent, mother-father model?

"Our societies will either answer these questions democratically and as a result of . . . serious reflection and public debate, or we will find, very soon, that these questions have already been answered for us," writes Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values (IAV) in New York. In her 2006 report, "The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash Between Adult Rights and Children's Needs," Marquardt cites evidence that governments worldwide are quietly pushing aside old-as-time familial identities such as "mother" and "father" in favor of legal terms elastic enough to accommodate everyone:

  • In Spain, where same-sex marriage was recently made legal, the legislature voted to replace the terms "mother" and "father" with "Progenitor A" and "Progenitor B."
  • In the United States, judges in donor-conception and surrogacy cases now must navigate the labyrinthine complexities of the planning, financing, conception, carrying, bearing, rearing, and genetics of a child, to determine which adults hold parental rights. (Commissions in Australia and New Zealand have proposed unraveling similar problems by allowing donor-conceived children to have three legal parents.)
  • In same-sex parenting and divorce cases, U.S. judges have declared non-relatives "psychological parents," even when a fit biological parent wanted the child.
  • In Vietnam, a state-supported hospital is considering setting up a community sperm bank due to demand from single women who want a baby but wish to remain unmarried.

On that front, Katrina Clark's mother was in the vanguard. "She was one of the pioneering women who went into [artificial insemination] as a single parent," Clark said. Throughout early childhood, Clark developed coping mechanisms to deal with the utter absence of a father figure in her life. She would tell herself that her father was dead or that the college student whom her mother had chosen from among other potential donors was probably too young to take good care of her, anyway. "It didn't occur to me that he was aging along with me," Clark said.

But when Clark hit middle school, parents of one friend divorced while another friend reunited with her long-lost dad. Katrina found herself yearning for the chance to experience not only life's greatest joys, but also its deepest sorrows. In the divorce case, "I was almost jealous. I knew I could never feel that pain," she said. "And not only would I never feel that pain, I would never have the chance to reunite."

Such emotional wounds are just one negative outcome chronicled in studies of children who grew up in single-parent and fatherless homes. Writing in The Weekly Standard, W. Bradford Wilcox, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a resident fellow at the IAV, ticks off a partial list of U.S. and international studies that link fatherlessness to higher rates of suicide, teen pregnancy, and criminal behavior:

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