WATERFORD, VA. — "Mom, how's this supposed to make kids feel?" Sophia was waving a Newsweek with a cover on "The New Science of Sex Selection." Showcased inside were families who had "too much" (two or more) or "enough" (one) of one gender to cast their demographics to the whim of their own reproductive capabilities.
Enter the brave new world of gender engineering.
From its humble beginnings, with techniques not unfamiliar to cattle ranchers, it has evolved into the more ethically challenging practice of creating a bunch of in vitro embryos for gender-deprived parents to choose from.
Say you have a girl already and want a boy. Say your Petri dish contains four of one and three of the other. Say, "goodbye girls."
They call it "family balancing."
With solid reporting, engaging sidebars, and crackerjack graphics, Newsweek had it covered - well, almost. For a young teenager with an inquiring mind - that is, thinking beyond the movies and malls - the story had some holes.
I'd encountered those holes before, when Sophia's older brother Matthew came home from a day in 10th grade to share this revelation: "Mom, I looked around my classroom today and realized a third of us weren't there." He'd come across some statistics - the number of births (around 120 million) and the number of abortions (more than 45 million)since 1973. Then he'd simply done the math.
My children know their mommy's history: former radical feminist/abortion rights activist who had a change of heart and turned pro-life, but not before having an abortion herself. They know we're one of countless families with a missing place at the table. And they know it's OK to talk about these things.
Sophia's question wasn't breaking new ground then - just a visit to that pockmarked territory of mixed messages we unthinkingly send our kids.
It's something I've been wondering since my conversation with Matt - how the Millennial Generation deals with living in a world of rapidly increasing "reproductive freedom." It must be a scary thought: What if I were the one they didn't want?
But Sophia wasn't finished: "And what about when people say stuff like, 'Two's all I can handle,' like having kids is such a drag?"
She didn't have to explain. As a megamom, I hear this stuff all the time from parents taken aback by our family size (we have 12 children by birth and adoption). It makes me wince - especially when their kids are around. What must they think to hear their parents say they drive them crazy?As a Montessori teacher, I was taught to see the world through a child's eyes, hear with a child's ears - as employee sensitivity training is used by corporations to eliminate all those nasty "isms" waiting to sabotage good working relationships.
But who will champion the children?
I remember the 1972 première issue of Ms. Magazine carrying an article famous enough as feminism's defining statement to be included in their 30-year anniversary issue. In "Click! The Housewife's Moment of Truth," writer Jane O'Reilly designated - with great success - the word "click" as shorthand communication for that moment of illumination when a woman suddenly sees something commonplace as an act of oppression. She wrote that the velocity of clicks is increasing, making American women angrier: "Not redneck-angry from screaming because we are so frustrated and unfulfilled angry, but clicking-things-into-place angry, because we have suddenly and shockingly perceived the basic disorder in ... the natural order of things."
Today our children live in a world rife with their own "click" experiences. Are they becoming angry? While we haven't heard a lot of O'Reilly-like howls, perhaps in nonverbal ways they are howls. Maybe that's what self-mutilation - whether "decorative" or self-injurious (as in the disorder known as "cutting") is all about. Maybe clicks factor into a lot of self-destructive behavior.
At least they are cause for reflection among kids. The Millennial Generation is markedly more pro-life than their parents, according to a January 2003 New York Times/CBS poll. I, for one, believe this generation will one day do some moving and shaking of its own.
But today, even among the most secure and poised, the clicks must take a toll. Instead of striving for family balance based on numbers, we could begin helping our sons and daughters find balance in a world no longer informed by scriptural perspective - "Children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward" - but by cover stories on how much it costs to raise them and send them to college. Not to mention how easy it is to pick and choose which sex to keep.
Looking more closely at the Newsweek pictures of parents desperate enough to plunk down up to $20,000 to guarantee a boy or a girl, I turned my focus from their jubilant smiles to their older children - whose expressions ranged from ambivalent to grim. Are they wondering, like Sophia, "How's this supposed to make us feel?"
• Barbara Curtis's latest book is 'Lord, Please Meet Me in the Laundry Room.'