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The Future of Motherhood

As Childbearing Becomes Increasingly High-Tech, Will It Change What It Means to Be a Mother? We Gathered a Panel of Those in the Know--a Reproductive Biologist, an Adoption Specialist, a Social Scientist, a Mom and Her Daughter--and Let Them Hash It Out.

May 11, 1997|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Elizabeth Mehren is a Times staff writer and the co-author of "Overcoming Infertility" (Doubleday)

Motherhood. Difficult. Complicated. Joyous. Frustrating. Incredible.

Sound familiar? From around one table, this description brings instant agreement from five Californians who have gathered to talk about the future of bearing and raising children.

We review the vertiginous pace of the last quarter-century, when laboratory conception bolted from science-fiction fantasy to everyday event. Astonishingly, the idea of what has mistakenly become known as a test-tube baby--in vitro fertilization usually occurs in a petri dish--has become commonplace in less than two decades. Worldwide, more than 150,000 in vitro babies have been born since Louise Brown paved the way in 1978. Thousands more children owe their existences to a smorgasbord of other procedures, such as ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), in which weak sperm get a boost via direct insertion into an ovum, or egg donation, the process that enabled a 63-year-old California woman to give birth late last year to become the oldest woman known to have given birth. In addition, the well-established practice of banking frozen sperm continues to enable many women to become mothers without an active male partner. On the other hand, eggs refuse to freeze as willingly, and one member of our panel believes donation of eggs retrieved from healthy young women will continue to be "a very big business." Surrogacy provides another avenue to childbearing as, of course, does adoption.

After all this, we wonder, just what will a new century and new technological advances bring to motherhood? Will nontraditional approaches to childbearing somehow change our fundamental understanding of what it means to be a mother? Twenty years from now, will droves of adoptive mothers and birth mothers sit beside one another at graduation ceremonies of "their" children? Will our emotional loyalties be torn by the involvement of egg donors--anonymous participants in the conception process whom a child may one day seek to identify?

As it becomes more mechanized, what will happen to our myths about motherhood? Will we rethink our treasured assumption of mom's being someone who tucks you in and kisses you good night to that of someone who just stopped by to donate a little DNA?

These are among the complexities to be considered by the members of our panel:

Alameda County public health nurse Terry Lopez-Enns, 50, whose specialty is working with children with serious illnesses and disabilities, is a board member of the Independent Adoption Center (a national nonprofit agency that advocates open adoption). She is the stepmother of three girls, Christy, 20, Sandy, 18, and Brittany, 16, and the mother of 4-year-old Troy, adopted at birth.

Marjorie H. Charlop-Christy, 43, is a professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College who has made an academic specialty of the changing nature of motherhood. Charlop-Christy is also the director of an autism clinic, as well as a psychotherapist, essayist and mother of Kaitlin, 3.

Reproductive biologist Dr. Mitchell Schiewe, 38, spent much of his career fostering progeny among endangered species. Now he works with humans, running the in vitro fertilization lab at California Fertility Associates in Santa Monica. Schiewe has a 2-year-old daughter, Emma Jane.

Belen Salas Eller, 48, is the full-time stay-at-home mother of three daughters: Bobbie, 19, Magen, 17, and Kristie, 13. For 22 years they have lived in the same house in Cypress Park, the neighborhood where Eller was raised. She has always made it a point to be around when her kids come home from school, and she serves as a kind of home-grown Dear Abby to the army of children who congregate in her house.

Nineteen-year-old Bobbie Eller is not yet a mother--an exception, she says, among her friends. But she states without equivocation that she intends one day to have children, and although she won't be a full-time stay-at-home mom, she will model herself as closely as possible after Belen. In the meantime, she works at Pizza Hut and plans to attend Pasadena City College this summer.

*

One of the consequences of the "new biology of motherhood" could be tension between mothers whose only assistance in becoming pregnant is from their husbands and those who turn to techniques that make Bobbie Eller recall "Brave New World."

Charlop-Christy: I think there's always going to be rivalry when you have something that comes very easily to some people, and other people have to work hard for it. It's about misunderstanding. If you've conceived easily, it may be hard for you to understand the feelings of the woman who goes through the really complicated, difficult process of fertility treatment.

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