In the NYT Magazine on January 2, Melanie Thernstrom’s “My Futuristic Insta-family”, about third-party reproduction in a particularly complex form. Thernstrom, unable to produce viable eggs and liable to serious complications if she attempted to carry a donated egg, investigated surrogacy, egg donors, and carriers. She and her husband both wanted two children, so in the end they opted for finding a single donor and two carriers; the donor’s eggs were fertilized (with her husband’s sperm) at the same time, and then fertilized eggs were implanted, again at the same time, in the donors. The resulting babies, a girl and a boy, are essentially the same age.
While it’s not too hard to describe the situation, there are no brief expressions to refer to most of the roles and relationships involved. There’s only one man in the situation, but four women. And what of the children, who are genetically siblings (with the same source of genetic material on both the male and female sides), and in fact resemble twins?
Thernstrom confronts the issues:
Everything about third-party reproduction can suggest you are not the “real mother” … and torment you. Or nothing can, if you don’t allow yourself to see it that way.
“I’m the only mother,” I’d correct people brightly, again and again. “Actually, there is no biological mother,” I’d sometimes add, in a tone that I hoped suggested Isn’t this interesting rather than You are an insensitive fool. “You see, both the donor and the carrier contributed biologically to each child, so the term cannot encompass this situation.” Third-party reproduction creates all kinds of relationships for which there are not yet terms. For example, there is no word to describe the relationship between our children and the carriers’ children, but it feels to me that they are, somehow, related. They are gestational siblings; they don’t share a mother, father or genes, but they were carried in the same body and they learned its fathomless chemical language.
There is also no word to describe our children’s relationship with each other. Our children were born five days apart — a fact that cannot be easily explained. When people press me about their status (“But are they really twins?”), the answer gets long. The word “twins” usually refers to siblings who shared a womb. But to call them just “siblings” instead of “twins” also raises questions because full genetic siblings are ordinarily at least nine months apart. And our children could be considered the same age because they were conceived at the same time (in the lab) and the embryos were transferred at the same time. If the person continues to quibble about whether they really qualify as twins (as, surprisingly, people often do), instead of asking why it matters, I announce airily that they are “twiblings.”
Portmanteau to the rescue!
(On a distantly related question, I was astonished to discover a while ago that parents of opposite-sex twins are often asked if the children are identical twins. I suppose that the only temperate answer is a simple “No”, but I would find it hard to be that temperate.)