Ever heard of the 1993 play “The Twilight of the Golds”? It’s about a conservative Jewish family who are generally opposed to abortion, until genetic testing reveals that a pregnant member is likely to give birth to a homosexual child. How far do their pro-life convictions go? I’ve not seen the play, but from what I’ve read about it, the prospect of bringing into this world a gay child severely tests the family’s abstract convictions, and reveals the family to be moral cowards.
I thought about that play while reading Cristina Nehring’s astonishing account in Slate of raising her Down syndrome daughter Eurydice as a single mother (the child’s father abandoned them after seeing that his newborn daughter was disabled). Her essay is a response to a new book by Andrew Solomon. Nehring writes:
“Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger,” writes Andrew Solomon in his often incisive and occasionally exasperating new book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. The arty gay son of pharmaceutical millionaires, Solomon is intrigued by the difference at the heart of parent-child relationships. Why, he asks, in several hundred interviews with exceptional families, “do parents devote themselves to raising children who are nothing at all like the ones they thought they could love?” Why do they commit their lives to kids with Down syndrome, dwarfism, deafness, autism, multiple disability syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other “alien” features? And why, most puzzlingly, do they sometimes “end up grateful for experiences they would [once] have done anything to avoid?”
Nehring admits that had she known that the baby she was carrying had Down syndrome, and would later develop leukemia, and that she would be left alone to care for the child, she would have considered suicide as a rational response. But now, Eurydice is four, and Nehring sees things differently:
Wherever she goes, she brings people together—imperiously gesturing to cantankerous couples to sit down together and lifting their palms onto each others’ thighs, reconciling warring classmates by joining their hands, and charming child-leery adults with flirty smiles and studious imitations of their idiosyncrasies. Her gifts are the opposite of my own: Where I am shy, she is bold; where I am good with (known) words, she is good with drama, dance, and music; where I am frightened of groups, she loves them, and the children in her preschool compete hard to sit by her side at lunchtime as the nurses in her hospital petitioned to be assigned to her room.
Am I “cheerily generalizing” as Solomon says of other Down syndrome parents, “from a few accomplishments” of my child? Perhaps I am. But one thing I’ve learned these last four years that possibly Solomon has not: All of our accomplishments are few. All of our accomplishments are minor: my scribblings, his book, the best lines of the best living poets. We embroider away at our tiny tatters of insight as though the world hung on them, when it is chiefly we ourselves who hang on them. Often a dog or cat with none of our advanced skills can offer more comfort to our neighbor than we can. (Think: Would you rather live with Shakespeare or a cute puppy?) Each of us has the ability to give only a little bit of joy to those around us. I would wager Eurydice gives as much as any person alive.
Later in the piece, Nehring notes that Solomon, for all the wisdom his interviews with parents of “different” children gave him, reveals himself to be a coward:
When all is said and done, Solomon mainly wants to bank an A-1 baby. While quickly regretting the “economic privilege” required for the engineering of his perfect offspring [N.B., Solomon is wealthy and gay. — RD], he becomes “extremely deliberate about the egg selection.” Having prepared the ground for his reproductive missions by marrying his partner in a “shot-gun wedding” at the ancestral estate of the late Diana, princess of Wales, Solomon sifts donor profiles, consults attorneys, and flies around the globe to negotiate optimal parenting conditions.
But when the boy is born and needs a not-uncommon 5-minute CT scan, Solomon is ready to flee. Not merely does he panic, but he finds himself “try[ing] hard not to love” his newborn and has visions of “giving him up into [the] care” of an institution. All this within moments of a very small question being raised about the perfection of his child. All this from the author of Far From the Tree.
Read the whole thing. An astonishing piece.