01 May 2008

Choosing Family

This review is sponsored by Mother Talk: I received a copy of the book and an Amazon certificate.

I hope Alexandra Soiseth writes another memoir that will take up where Choosing You: Deciding to Have a Baby on My Own takes off. She's got some stories to tell, and despite the fact that I found some elements of her story-telling to be disappointing, I closed this book wanting to know more.

Choosing You endeared itself to me almost immediately. In the introduction, Soiseth explains how she welcomed her donor (sperm) into her family while getting ready for her first insemination. Olaf, the donor, sat at her dinner table nightly. She made conversation with the large steel container that had shipped the sperm she chose from Denmark. This is the kind of quirky detail that makes Soiseth's story remarkably engaging: as she describes the conversations she had with her running buddies, the interactions at parties, relationships with old friends and family, the details show real people out and about in the world. Not all the characters here are likeable all the time--but they're all the more likeable, on the whole, for their flaws.

This isn't a book that dwells much on the particulars of pregnancy-by-insemination. Soiseth, in fact, appears almost shockingly unaware of some of the legal and practical issues involving sperm banks and the possibilities for openness down the line. What Soiseth does here is chronicle her journey to motherhood: her longing for motherhood, her pregnancy, her delivery, her postpartrum depression. And all this is set in the context of her life. She has an amazing ability to create community and family beyond biology. A central set of characters is the extended family of her childhood best friend. This other family is family to Soiseth.

Is family about blood, or not? This is a story I'd love to hear Soiseth tell from several angles. She gathers family to herself, yet the passionately yearns for a blood connection to her child. She chooses donor sperm so that her child will look like her, look like her biological family. I had a complicated reaction to this theme: in many ways, I define family as those you choose, not those with whom you share DNA. Yet I treasure Curious Girl's longing to know her first parents, and I see how the biological question marks, and points of difference, are important to her. Important to me. So family is about blood, too. I want to know more about how Soiseth is continuing to talk about blood and family with her daughter. (You can see some of these issues hinted at in one of Soiseth's Literary Mama essays.)

I read this book twice now: the first time, I was disappointed. It wasn't the book I expected it to be. I had assumed more discussion of insemination politics and legalities, more dicussion of stories for her daughter about her donor father. I enjoyed the writing, but I was disappointed in the story. Reading some of the other reviews at the Mother Talk site, I realized I had perhaps been disappointed by my own assumptions. So I re-read. Soiseth's book is the story of her. It's not a story about how she talks to her daughter, it's not a story about insemination. It's a story about one woman's sense of self, one woman's ability to define herself, one woman's struggle with how others view her weight and how she views her body.

I hope she'll tell some other stories, too. But this set of stories takes us into the quotidian joys and struggles of someone making their own choice: take it on its own terms, and enjoy.

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