How Important Is Biology To Your Definition of Family

Dawn Davenport


How important is biology to your definition of family?

Are you still a “real” family if you lack a genetic connection to your children?

I was talking with a couple last week about their options for creating their family.  Given her age and their lack of success with IVF, the options we were focusing on were donor egg, donor embryo and adoption.  This couple’s pain was palpable.  At one point, the woman lamented with a choking voice that it looked like now that she would never have “a real family”.

The last thing this couple needed from me was a semantics lesson.  They were hurting, and it was clear that what she meant was that she would never have a biological connection to a child.  That sucks.  For her, it really really sucked.  It wasn’t at all what she had planned for her life, and she was grieving this loss big time, as well she should.  It isn’t fair.  They don’t deserve this.

It is my hope, however, that as they continue to grieve, they may eventually come to a broader definition of family.  And from where I sit, biology has little to do with it.

Most folks don’t give a lot of thought to how families are formed.  Let’s face it, most folks don’t have to.  But for those who are forced into this thought process, it’s easy to fall back on the all importance of biological connectivity.  After all, if we gave any thought to it at all when we were younger, we thought in terms of pregnancy, comparing our kid to our baby picture, and carrying on the family name.

There’s nothing wrong with craving that genetic connection.  Most of us do.  The problem comes when that door is closed, and we’re forced to make peace with a different choice.  It ain’t always so easy.  I think the rub comes when we are forced to distinguish what our fantasy of a family is from the reality of what our family will be.

When I was a young mom with only one child, we had a neighborhood play group.  One of the moms announced after the birth of her second child that she finally felt like a family.  Apparently, in her fantasy, a family consisted of a mom, dad, and two kids.  It kind of ticked me off that my life and family structure didn’t qualify as a real family by her definition.

There are so many ways to be a family.  I play tennis with a woman who is a number of years older than me.  She told me one day, that she and her husband had never been able to have kids, so they poured their energy into each other and into community services that help kids.  Currently, she tutors at an after school program for low income kids and he coaches a middle school tennis team.  They seem to be one of the happiest couples I know, and by anyone’s definition, they are a family.

I heard back from one of the first couples I consulted with years ago.  About a year ago they became parents through egg donation.  They struggled with the decision for years.  She wasn’t sure she would “connect” with a child that “wasn’t hers”.  She wrote that she knew now that this beautiful boy was 100% hers in every way.  I don’t think she’s in denial; I think she redefined family.

I’ve blogged many times about adoption and the meaning of family. (Adoption is Not the Same as Having a Child of Your OwnChristopher’s MomThe Myth of Love at First Sight. Suffice it to say, that in my mind, biology and genetics don’t count for much when it comes to my definition of family.

I don’t know where the couple I was consulting with last week will end up.  While there is no “right” way to resolve the conflict between fantasy and reality, I firmly believe in the power of getting educated and getting connected.  We provide the education through our website, radio shows (we’ve done a ton of shows on all the options you may be considering so check them out), and infertility and adoption videos.

We live in a time that provides multiple ways to connect with others who have walked down the path you might be considering—support groups, discussion forums, blogs, and videos.  It may not always be possible to find an in-person group, but by golly, it is possible to find a group online for any choice you are considering.  We focus on finding and listing support groups and blogs of all stripes.   If you are thinking about egg donation immediately get yourself over to the support group and discussion forums at Parents Via Egg Donation.  If you are considering single parenthood, run, don’t walk, over to the Choice Moms site.  If embryo adoption is an option, check out the support groups listed on our embryo donation page. We list the best of the best blogs on any of these options, both on the resource page and on my blogroll.  (If you know of some great blogs that we’ve left off, post them in the comment section and I’ll add them.)

P.S. Connect with me on Facebook and Twitter.

Image credit: BC Gov Photos

19/10/2010 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 37 Comments

37 Responses to How Important Is Biology To Your Definition of Family

  1. Avatar Mikki says:

    Wonderful post, Dawn!
    For each woman I hear from who is feeling great loss about potentially embarking on motherhood alone because it’s not the family definition she’d envisioned for herself…I hear from two more who relish the opportunity to create a family in so many ways today.

    Mikki Morrissette

  2. Avatar Damita says:

    I think everyone has a different view on what family is, family for me is my immediate family, my husband and my close set of friends (they are my family in my eyes)

  3. Avatar Krissi says:

    This is a really wonderful post! I was adopted and I know through my experience, my mom definitely redefined what it meant to be a family adopting my twin sister and I well into her 50s. We had siblings old enough to be our parents and there was always a generational gap but biology was thrown out the window when it came to our love and support for one another! Thanks for this!

  4. Avatar Lisa Rouff, Ph.D. says:

    I really appreciated this post. As both an adoptive mother and a therapist who specializes in infertility issues, I agree with your argument that expanding our definition of “family” is necessary and liberating, as it allows us to consider so many other options. And it is also shows us, as some of the other comments have pointed out, how large our capacity for love really is, whether genetics are involved or not! Thanks for such a wonderful website and resource, I refer people to it often!

  5. Avatar Ann says:

    I have 12 children and a husband. Only three of these people share my DNA.
    I Love everyone of them more than words can convey… Not
    One more or less than any other…. How we all came together
    Is so unimportant to me… Some a bit more interesting….. However the circumstances
    When someone places a child on your arm and tells you they are yours
    It’s a miracle!

  6. Avatar marilynn says:

    The way Laura described feeling like they were merging two families is the best way to think of it because that is actually what is happening. Not because she happens to be adopting 4 siblings but because raising a child that is not your own offspring means raising a person from another family so you are most literally joining two families together. From the perspective of the person raised they have the two families they are related to biologically maternal and paternal relatives and their adoptive maternal and adoptive paternal relatives. Its a real party and the more room and respect that’s given to their maternal and paternal families being as important and the adoptive maternal and adoptive paternal familes the more secure they are going to feel that they can just be themselves and be worthy of love and attention without having to loose the non-adoptive family. Very respectful

    The same goes for someone who has a child with a donor because the donor is the other biological parent and the donating parent’s family is the child’s maternal or paternal family joined with the rearing bio parent and their partner if they have one and partners family. Just because we can’t see their family or don’t know who they are does not mean they are not real relatives or that they do not belong to their own bio family – multiple families are coming together.

    I think the mistake lots of open minded and well meaning adoptive parents or people raising donor offspring tend to make is leaving it up to the person to get in contact or stay in contact with bio relatives because in all likelihood they are not leaving it up to the person to get in contact or stay in contact with the relatives of the people raising them, they just have to go where the people raising the take them and they just end up having to interact with their non bio relatives as a matter of course which creates familial memories and bonding from just having dinner together etc and good family bonds strengthen through intermittent contact and the sharing of information letters emails etc. Familial contact that grows from childhood experience that become childhood memories is just not something people generally give kids a choice on. Like eating vegetables or taking a bath, contact with family frequent or sparse is something people just force kids to do, yet they’ll leave contact with bio family entirely up to a kid who’d rather be skateboarding than writing or visiting his grandmother or bio siblings. The unintentional message will be that the rearing relatives are more important family than the bio family – their relatives don’t deserve the same level of contact or interaction and so the familial bonds and childhood memories never form and the rearing family may a little bit like that and like the fact that they can say they left it up to the kid and they really have not shown much interest. I think its certainly easier to let it go especially because there is unlikely to be much resistance but they are learning that the rearing parent does not think their other family is very important just by the differential treatment an they’ll learn that there there are parts of them that the rearing parent wishes were not there or that they’d prefer to ignore or replace or superimpose their own family over and then the kid is not really getting accepted for who they are they are just being incorporated and blended until that part of them is just hidden or repressed. Careful saying stuff like “they’re mine” cause it implies offsprring or of one’s body not my adoptive kid and over time its like pretty clear to them that they think of them as if bio and wish they were bio and then its like they’d prefer if I was their bio kid, they’d prefer it if I did not have another family bio parents and relatives, they tell people I’m theirs and don’t correct them if they assume I’m their bio child, they prefer the assumption go uncorrected because it is no body’s business and they like how it feels when people don’t think or know that they have another family and little by little every incorrect assumption by a stranger that is allowed to stand is like a little slap in the face to their bio family that is not allowed to be acknowledged even conversationally especially conversationally with the grocer or other person. This is all complex feed back I get when I’m helping people look for their relatives. Some loving inclusive words and thoughts meant to really make them feel fully part of the non bio parents family can unintentionally make them feel like the part of them that is related to outsiders is unimportant and often worth hiding. The way Laura described her attitude is like the dream adoptive parent attitude that I’ve heard lots of adopted people and donor offspring wish for but none or few get to have.

  7. Avatar Lisa says:

    Very much liked this article. I have called our journey from where this couple sits to now our Evolution. Though we would not have wished for it, it has stretched us far beyond our comfort zones, and we are all the richer for it.

  8. Avatar Stephanie says:

    Thanks for the beautiful post Dawn. I couldn’t agree more. As a product of adoption, I can say with certainty that “family” can have a zillion meanings. My family is just as much as a family as ANY family! In fact, I wrote an article about this topic exactly and why I believe that it is love, not blood that makes a family. In case anyone cares to give it a read!

  9. Avatar Erin says:

    Right now I define my family as my dh and 4 fur babies. I hope hope hope to soon by able to define it as me, dh, 4 fur babies, and a human baby. Right now I hope she/he comes from me and dh. I know that I may need to broaden that definition. Hope I don’t have to, but I’m listening to your past podcasts, or do you call them radio shows, and am trying to get prepared to expand that definition if we need to.

  10. Avatar Vivi says:

    I loved this idea of redefining family. My family may not look like everyone else’s, but we are a FAMILY. Love the podcasts!!!!

  11. Avatar Wanna kid says:

    right now i define it as my, DH, and 3 furr babies. We are complete, but I sure hope there will be some not furr babies in my future.

  12. Avatar Rick C. says:

    Sweet blog!

  13. Avatar Maggie says:

    We are in treatment. I don’t know where we will end up. I am open to ALL definitions of family. Wish my husband was.

  14. Avatar Wanda says:

    I’ve had to define family very broadly throughout my life due to being raised by an aunt and having tried to get pregant for 10 years. We will be trying either egg donation or embryo donation real soon. If we are lucky enough to get pregnant, that child will become my definition of family. Thank you for your terrific show!!!

  15. Avatar ava says:

    I think part of my problem with moving forward is that I don’t have a realistic understanding of as you say the biological connectivity. In my mind, biology was/is everything. Now biology has failed me, so I must redefine. I will check out the blogs you mentioned and will check out the shows you’ve done too. Maybe they will help with educating me, which will be good irregardless what we decide.

  16. Avatar Elizabeth G. says:

    I feel for some of the comments cause I was there for so long. I am past it now. We are in the process of embryo adoption and if that doesn’t take we’re jumping into regular adoption. probably ehtiopia, cause we just listened to that podcast on adopting from ethiopia. It was awesome. I’m just ready to be a mom!!!!!

  17. Avatar Winnie says:

    My reeality certainly is nothing like what I dreamed about and you are right, it sucks. I am making progress though. I’m listening to your podcast, reading back through your blogs, and checking out the videos. It still sucks, but maybe not as much. Adjustment can be tough.

  18. Avatar Kerry says:

    Beautifully written! I so agree.

  19. Avatar marisa says:

    Such a great post!

  20. Avatar Suzette says:

    I love this. I love thinking about the idea of expanding our definition of family. My husband and I are approaching the decision of using donor eggs since we have had 3 failed IVF cycles with my eggs. He wants us to consider adoption. I hadn’t thought of embryo adoption, but we need to consider that too. I know you’ve done a bunch of shows on that option, so we’ll be listening to them soon. You are so right that I never imagined my family this way. I always thought I would find my hero when I was in my early 20s and have 3 kids by the time I was in my early 30s. My family for many years was my and my dog and 2 cats. Now my family has expanded to include a wonderful man and his 2 cats. I have to admit that unitl I read and thought about this blog, I would not have called us a family, but we really really are a family as we are. So now I have to expand my definition further. You are right, I have to make peace between my fantasy and my reality. Thank you and mostly thank you for your show and website. You have been a trusted companion on this awful infertility journey.

  21. Avatar Sunshine says:


    I too had that thought when I first started looking at adoption books in the library. I was surprised to travel to another shelf, and then to find out that the adoption shelf was right next to the drug abuse and child abuse books. The pregnancy and parenting books were a few shelves away, all warm and fuzzy near the books about schools or something. It was really quite strange. I wonder what Dewey was thinking.

    Dawn, thanks for a great post!

    ICLW 128

  22. Avatar latina girls mom says:

    I don’t know how I define family. Like an earlier poster said, I could have been the woman you were talking to. I know I don’t define it as just my husband and I.

  23. Avatar Laura says:

    My husband and I are adopting a sibling group of 4. They are a family themselves. We are merging our family (us + dog) with thiers to create a new family. We could not love these kids more!

  24. Avatar Kelly says:

    I related to your annoyance that your friend’s definition of family didn’t include yours. I didn’t get married until I was 40 and knew it would be difficult to get pregnant. However, we also knew that at least one of our children would join our family through adoption. It turned out that both did and I am perfectly fine with this and was from the beginning. I didn’t shed many tears over the lost biological connection and love my children no differently than I imagine that I would love a bio child. It only bothers me when others, who don’t know the joys of adoption, impose their judgment on my family like we settled for second best. From the rude comments such as: “But, you will miss out on the experience of giving birth” or “I really admire you as I don’t think I could love a child that wasn’t mine” or stories about others who have gotten pregnant after they adopted (or ‘just in time’ while they were in the process) to the ‘I’m so sorry for you’ look that some people give when they discover that my children were adopted. Fortunately I run into more and more families who were also formed by adoption and can share firsthand the joy this brings.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Kelly, once when my youngest, who is adopted, was a toddler, a neighbor said to me, “I don’t think I could love a child that wasn’t mine.” I replied, “I don’t think I could either.” It was only after I replied that someone pointed out that she was making a reference to my daughter. I don’t love all children indiscriminately. Truthfully, after a big sleep over, I’m usually pretty glad that the kids that aren’t mine are going home. I love MY children–and biology is not required.

  25. Avatar Donna-Jean says:

    I remember the first day I happily determined to consider adoption. I went into the public library and sought the adoption books. I figured they’d be next to the books I’d been pouring over – the pregnancy books, childbirth books, baby books. No – instead, they were in another section, next to the books on drug abuse, child abuse, and rape. It was jarring. I felt as though I was suddenly considering some kind of aberrant behavior. (The Dewey Decimal System does a disservice to adoption.)

    Fast forward to the day I walked into a hospital room to greet my child’s birthmother after I got to see my daughter for the first time, or the time I met the pregnant young woman deciding to place her unborn son with us. I remember thinking that I’d never play-acted these meetings as a little girl practices being a mommy with her dolls.

    Now as the mother of three children (two adopted by us, one born to us) and one on the way from another country, I look back on the journey and I’m so grateful for every step. I cannot imagine my life without my beloved children. I hope the woman in your story doesn’t miss out on what being a family can mean.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Donna-Jean. After all these years involved in this field and author of a book on adoption which in is most public libraries, I had never given any thought to old Dewey’s view of adoption. Now, I’m ticked!

  26. Avatar Jamaican Momma says:

    Growing up my “family” included parents, three siblings, foster infants, occasionally a cousin, and close friends who felt more at home with my family than with their own family. My mother was “mom” to the neighborhood kids and to my school friends. She’s “Auntie Lin” to the neighbor’s son. My husband and I are in the adoption process so we are more cognizant of what a family could mean. We are very active in our church and realize our child(ren) will have “grandparents”, “aunts”, “uncles” and “cousins” galore who are in no way biological or even legal family members. One of my sisters never plans to have children – biological or adopted. She and her cat are a family plus she is part of the much larger extended family. One family at a time we can work to expand the definition of family.

  27. Avatar Heather says:

    Another well-written post. Thank you!

    “The problem comes when that door is closed, and we’re forced to make peace with a different choice. It ain’t always so easy. I think the rub comes when we are forced to distinguish what our fantasy of a family is from the reality of what our family will be.”

    This is so true. I have both adopted and biological siblings, so I truly do know that there is no difference in how I think of them and how we define our family. Yet when we decided after several failed IVFs that biological children were not in the cards for us, I experienced grief like I never knew existed for the reasons you summed up above. It doesn’t mean that I’ll love my adopted child any less, it’s just that having that door close before you are ready really, as you said, sucks.

  28. Avatar Nonna says:

    I loved this. I could have been the women you spoke with. I love the concept of making peace with the reality of what my life will be like rather than the fantasy. Thank you for this. I will start going through and getting educated and connected. I know that is what I need to do. I don’t know where I will end up, but I know I need to do something.

  29. Avatar Liz says:

    Thanks for including single moms in this post – I do sometimes feel left out of people's definitions of family!

  30. Avatar Debbie says:

    We had 4 (bio) kids when we adopted our youngest child. I new that I could love her, but I could never have known how much I would love HER. She is totally ours and we love every little facet of her. You can visualize what your family might look like, but you can never know that complete and utter love until your in the moment and experiencing it. Now we are adopting a little boy from Haiti that we have met and see how we love him. I never visualized this when I dreamed of a family…My family is very different than anything I could have dreamed and I love it!

  31. Avatar Kerry says:

    Family can be imediate family members or anyone who is close to you that sticks with you through everything

  32. Avatar jkl says:

    I totally agree, but I imagine a lot of it depends on your experience. I’ve known enough people, including an uncle, who were adopted though to know biology isn’t all there is to family. As someone dealing with infertility though I also know what it’s like to really want that biological connection, at the same time from experience realizing it’s not the only route to expanding my little family (my husband and a cat).
    I’m also not a huge fan of when people term a couple trying for kids as “starting a family”, almost as if the couple aren’t a family without children.
    I guess your definition of family is largely based on your own experience, seeing other families and how you feel about your own situation. That’s my take on it anyway…

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