In a colorful album that lives on the arm of our green sofa, there are dozens of pictures of us and our family. There’s me and my husband Andy with my Russian godmother at Longwood Gardens. There’s a few of us posing with our niece on New Year’s Eve 2019. Photos of the many kids who call us uncles. Childhood pictures from trips to Disney World. Some holiday photo collage cards. And then towards the end of the collection, right across from a picture of me and my sister hugging Mickey Mouse, is a small gray and white print that takes some difficulty deciphering. It’s a small polaroid containing our names and the date it was printed. “Brandon Ambrosino + Andrew Swiatowicz, 8-3-22.” Above the wording is a picture of a blastocyst, the one we transferred into our gestational carrier last August, the one that didn’t survive to full term.
I often wonder whether it’s silly to include the photo in our family album. Maybe my therapist will one day encourage me to remove it. But for now, it’s there. She’s there. The doctors performed genetic testing on the embryo, so a nurse called to tell me the sex. I was happy to tell my husband when he came home from work that he was going to get his wish and become a Girl Dad. That’s what I wanted, too. Still do.
Our wish hasn’t been granted yet. We keep working, however, to bring it to fruition. As of January 2022, in the hopes of bringing a child into the world, we’ve worked with three fertility doctors, two therapists, dozens of nurses, three egg banks, four attorneys, and countless labs, all to the tune of more than $100,000. Of the forty eggs we purchased and fertilized, only three resulted in embryos that were healthy enough to transfer into our carrier. The first time, the embryo didn’t implant. The second time, it did — she did — but then, for whatever reason, didn’t make it.
The term used to describe our relationship to the children we hope to have is “intended parents.” My husband and I intend to be parents, regardless of how elusive that goal may seem. And it does, by this point, seem almost hopeless. Our reproductive narrative, as Danielle Tumminio Hansen would put it, has not gone according to plan. We have, despite doing what the expensive experts told us to do, suffered loss. Suffered trauma. Perhaps this was why I was eager to host a symposium on Hansen’s book Conceiving Family: A Practical Theology of Surrogacy and Self — I wanted to find new ways to understand and process and hopefully begin to heal the reproductive trauma my husband and I have experienced. To that end, engaging with Hansen’s book has been deeply rewarding. Her reflections on the possibilities of writing new endings to narratives of reproductive loss are encouraging, as is her acknowledgement that “there can be multiple endings to the reproductive story beyond the one initially assumed” (28).
I also appreciate the challenges Hansen issues to the popular American understanding of the nuclear family, which is the current dominant model for parent/child relationships in the US. Instead, Hansen argues, family might be better understood as “a unit of social belonging that utilizes consonant dependency care in order to ensure that each member can thrive as a self-composed of body, desire, and agency” (129). By moving away from a “patriarchal understanding of reproduction as a genetic connection,” as well as essentialist arguments about gendered reproductive roles, Hansen aptly and provocatively suggests that all reproduction is assisted and all children must be adopted into the families that care for them (110). At the end of the day, Hansen tells us, there are many ways to conceive family. Heterosexual intercourse, or technologies that offer “the closest possible alternative,” (107) are not the only or even best options, even though popular cultural assumptions might lead us to believe otherwise.
Hansen’s book also offered me language to discuss my relationship with our carrier, a relationship that does certainly have to navigate some murky ethical terrain. (Our carrier is a family member. I will refer to her as Z.) It was important to me and Andy that Z never feel exploited or used by us or our doctors. We have always understood her to be giving us an invaluable gift, and we strive to explicitly honor the gift and giver. Early on in our fertility journey, I shared some reflections on IVF and ethics on social media. Immediately, a group of people accused me of working to bring about a Handmaids Tale-esque dystopia in which I forced certain women to carry my babies for a stipend. I was devastated because I didn’t understand my relationship to our carrier as one of power, but one of allyship—my husband and I and a woman who love us are working together to bring a new child into the world. In Hansen’s framework, while exploitative forms of surrogacy, which she calls injurious and resistive, do happen, what we were practicing was constructive surrogacy. We view our carrier as “a subject who desires to influence another’s reproductive narrative in a particular way”(73). And so while I understand the concern, voiced eloquently in a response by Melanie Jones, that because of the power dynamics at play, constructive surrogacy is difficult if not impossible to put into practice, my own experience in working with Z has shown me that it can be done.
Given how much I’ve benefited from interacting with Conceiving Family, I echo Grace Kao’s sentiments and wish that Hansen would have included same-sex couples in her theological analyses. I understand Hansen’s reasoning for focusing on heterosexual couples: in contrast to same-sex couples, heterosexual couples only turn to third parties for assistance with procreation when their “original plan” doesn’t work out (6). And yet, as my husband and I are painfully aware, gay couples, too, know what it’s like to have our “original plans” for fertility thwarted. Andy and I never expected that almost four years after we cut our first check to a fertility clinic, our carrier wouldn’t yet be pregnant. Time and again, we have had our reproductive assumptions disrupted. Like many heterosexuals who will read Hansen’s book, Andy and I know what it’s like to feel helpless, disempowered, confused, and angry over our reproductive traumas. By bringing these feelings into dialogue with the similar ones felt by heterosexuals, perhaps a fuller picture would have emerged about human struggles with infertility.
Further, the line between heterosexual loss and same-sex loss is blurry to me. Although there are salient differences in our respective experiences, my husband and I experienced the same reproductive loss as our carrier. We all lost our embryo. I sat with Z on both transfer days as we waited for the call. We shared the same hopes, the same prayers, the same devastation. We processed our grief in the same real time. Z experienced that loss in her body, and I, sitting next to her with my arm around her, experienced that loss in my body, too. These experiences cause me to wonder, along with Susan Reynolds, what becomes of the relationship between intended parents and carrier when the “‘functioning womb’ has become yet another site of loss” for all hopeful parties. “Can this yet-wider circle of grief open up to accompaniment?” she asks. I believe it can. Z and her husband have shared our burden of grief, and we have in turn shared theirs. Our vulnerabilities, as Hansen would say, are connected. Rather than seeing this reproductive trauma as limited either to the intended parents or the carrier and her husband, we understand that grief wounds everyone within its reach.
Reynolds also shares that she “suffered three miscarriages before ultimately giving birth to three daughters.” At early stages of that journey, Reynolds “equated future healing with the birth of a living child.” And yet, as she discovered, “when that hoped-for day finally came … I realized with surprise that the sting of loss remained.” Perhaps Andy and I will learn this ourselves when, at some point in the future, we add pictures of our child to the album that contains a photograph of the one we never got to meet. Maybe by that time, we will have language to fully describe our relationship to the picture taken August 22, 2022. Right now, though, words fail us. We simply say something like, “This a picture of our embryo the day we transferred her into our carrier. She didn’t make it to full term.” But even this is inadequate for expressing the kaleidoscopic range of emotions we experienced from the moment we were given the photo to the moment we learned the pregnancy failed. As Reynolds notes, a ritual says to those in mourning, “We have been here before. Come: let us show you what to do.” But, sadly, no one has shown me and Andy what to do. And therefore, I agree with Reynolds when she claims, “Without a socially recognized way of drawing such losses into a larger communal story, the pain of loss is compounded by isolation, loneliness, questions of meaning, and an aching sense that one’s grief is illegible to [their] community.”
While Reynolds focuses on the role of liturgy in healing after reproductive trauma, Karen O’Donnell turns her attention to the body’s role in “post-traumatic remaking of the self.” Like Hansen, O’Donnell resists “cultural assumptions about the significance of genetics in producing family,” and therefore does not think that bodies wounded by reproductive loss can be reconnected with merely by, say, “physically touching the surrogate’s belly.” Rather, she argues, “the primary way in which the bodies of those who have been traumatised through reproductive losses can be reconnected with and retrained, is through the embodied nurture that creates a familial bond.” This nurturing, she rightly asserts, may or may not be genetically linked. It may also extend beyond families and take place in whatever communities to which the traumatized belong, as Hansen notes in her response to O’Donnell. I hope our reproductive narrative ends in parenthood, but it might not, and if it doesn’t, it’s important that we find creative ways to reconnect with our bodies and the bodies of those who nurture us. We are already off to a good start. Thankfully we are surrounded with family and friends and nieces and nephews and godchildren who shower us with love and affection on a regular basis. I pray we never forget how extraordinarily blessed we are to experience a wealth of embodied love.
Collecting and editing this Syndicate collection has been challenging, not least because we were trying to get the symposium ready during a global pandemic. But on a personal level, whenever I sat down to work on this collection, I was confronted with my own reproductive narrative. Not being a parent brings me an enormous amount of pain—pain that is exponentially compounded when I wonder whether I will ever get to hold a child of my own. I’m angry and heartbroken at my current childlessness. And because I am a Christian, I bring my anger and heartbreak to God and I hurl it at him and I curse him for seeming to not do anything about it. But then, because I’m a Christian theologian, I wonder if there’s anything God can do about my childlessness, and whether and to what extent he is even involved with my reproductive story in the first place. I then read Kao’s words—“I do not believe the experience of infertility ‘should’ be the type of thing that leads someone to question either the existence or goodness of God”—and wonder if I’m too capricious and melodramatic to be a good Christian theologian.
Of course, Kao is right. The childlessness I experience because of, among other things, my homosexuality is not God’s “fault,” and therefore it does not call God’s goodness into question. I know this to be true. And yet, as she acknowledges, “the painful experience of infertility nonetheless does lead” me to question God’s goodness. What I’m left struggling with, then, is whether framing infertility in terms of theodicy is helpful or hurtful. I agree with Kao that such a framing can be and often is harmful, particularly when punishment/reward language is deployed. However, I also agree with Hansen that there is value in being “curious about our lives,” which means being curious about how God relates to the good and bad in our lives.
So what is the best way to theologize God’s relation to what I experience as one of the “bads” in my life? First and most importantly, rather than theologize in ways that push toward any outcome intended to explain or justify our struggle to become parents, I choose to stay curious about how God is accompanying us while we creatively respond to our reproductive trauma—a trauma which, I believe, took God by surprise, too.
I think Hansen’s suggestion to Kao is instructive here: that in theologizing infertility, we might “shift the emphasis from outcome to process,” from answers to questions. I know that God is still abundantly compassionate despite my struggle with childlessness. But what I really want to know is whether God wants me to have children, if God thinks I’ll be a good dad, if God got excited when we first got the “you’re pregnant!” phone call, if God cried when we got the second call. What I really want to know is whether God likes the name we picked out for the daughter that we’ll never get to meet or if God thought we should have gone with the other name. What I really want to know is whether God hates the discriminatory structures that are rigged against LGBT intended parents, that throw up barriers in front of us at every step of our reproductive journeys.
I also really want to know if Jesus longed to be a parent, and if he introduced that longing into the Godhead. Jesus spoke glowingly of children. The gospels remember him inviting children to himself and focusing some of his key teachings on the kids who were playing nearby. He explicitly taught “the reign of God as a children’s world,” where children are the “model recipients” and moral exemplars of the Basileia tou theou.1 When Jesus says, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them,” I hear his desire, his eagerness to be surrounded by kids. Of course, he is relativizing what we think of as family relations: “Whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”2 But it’s notable that he doesn’t include children in this metaphor. Maybe that’s because he sees all of us—himself included—as children of the Father in Heaven. Or maybe it has something to do with the pain that he feels about his own childlessness, a pain that is too visceral to be assuaged with a simple theological reflection on chosen family. At the end of his life, when he hung dying on a cross, did Jesus regret and mourn the fact that he never had the chance to hear children address him the way that he addressed his own abba? Perhaps, one might reason, these thoughts are too this-worldly, too low to be ascribed to the man called Christ. And yet even the highest Christology has childlessness right at its heart: the Son will never, ever, regardless of his desire, be the Father. So maybe God understands me after all.
Why did our carrier suffer a biochemical pregnancy? Why didn’t a day-seven embryo survive? When and where will our reproductive journey end? I don’t need theological answers to these questions because the medical ones are sufficient. But the questions about God’s accompaniment, about God’s emotional solidarity with all of us on this emotional roller coaster, about God’s relationship with the embryo that is perhaps maturing even now in God’s own eternity—these are questions that I find valuable in bringing before God, even if God has nothing to offer me except the quiet assurance that he understands … that he understands …
I am grateful for the opportunity to wrestle with these and other questions with five thoughtful and gracious scholars. I am confident the essays collected in this symposium have much wisdom to offer our theological communities as we continue to think through the complicated issues that emerge when reproductive technologies come to bear on our understandings of personhood, family, and human belonging.