A Truly Inclusive Way to Answer the Question 'Where Do Babies Come From?'

By Noah Berlatsky
berlatsky_baby_post.jpg
Seven Stories Press

What Makes a Baby is, as you'd probably suspect from the title, a picture book intended to teach young children about where they come from. In other words, it's an origin story. And, like most origin stories, it's not just descriptive, but prescriptive. A story about where we're from tells us where we are—and where we should be going.

This is not precisely author Cory Silverberg's intent—or at least, it's not something he dwells on in the downloadable reader's guide. Instead, he explains, the book "invites the adult reader to share with a child the unique story of how that particular child came to be in the world, in their community, and in their family." The book is deliberately and insistently inclusive—which means that it does not presume a "normal" one-fertile-mommy-one-fertile-daddy household.

Indeed, the book doesn't even mention the word "mommy" or "daddy". Instead, What Makes a Baby explains that "Not all bodies have eggs in them. Some do, and some do not;" and that "Not all bodies have sperm in them. Some do, and some do not." Similarly, sex isn't so much tip-toed around as it is relegated to one unspecified option among many. "When grown ups want to make a baby they need to get an egg from one body and sperm from another body. They also need a place where a baby can grow."

Silverberg's goals here are very deliberate and (in the reader's guide) carefully spelled out. He wants to include all children, regardless of whether they have a mommy and daddy who had sex, or adopted them, or whether they have two mommies, or two daddies, or (as Silverberg mentioned in the guide) a trans daddy who gave birth to them, or any of a myriad of other possibilities. The book, then, tries not to impose one truth, but rather to open up possibilities and conversations.

And yet, the fact remains that What Makes a Baby presents a very specific vision. Much of this is conveyed by the illustrations of Fiona Smyth, who presents individuals, with or without uteruses, with or without sperm, as colorful, smiling, slick, amoeba-like outlines—a world of cheerfully, only-mildly differentiated, maybe nude frolicking bodies. The vision is also conveyed by the text itself, which describes the meeting of sperm and egg in deliberately non-gendered language. For Silverberg, the sperm does not seek out or find or enter the egg (which is the way these descriptions usually go), but instead, "When an egg and a sperm meet, they swirl together in a special kind of dance. As they dance, they talk to each other."

Smyth's figures look a lot like Keith Haring's, which isn't coincidental. With its rainbow of people and its ecstatic refusal to force any family into any norm, What Makes a Baby presents—both iconographically and philosophically—a version of gay, or queer, utopia.

In doing so, it helps to demonstrate why gay utopia—including, but not limited to, gay marriage—is important, and appealing for folks who don't identify as gay, as well as for those who do. It's hard to imagine a book like this without the shift in increased visibility, and increased normalization, of gays and lesbians and their families. But that increased visibility, and the opening out of ideas about marriage and children, also—in this book, and in general—creates space for all sorts of other formerly marginal families to be seen as no longer marginal. Adoptive families, families made up of grandparents and grandchildren, single-mother-headed families or single-dad-headed families—they all become simply families. The important question becomes not how close your family is to normal, but rather, "Who was happy that it was YOU who grew?"

As with everything, there can be downsides to the gay utopia and its ethos of acceptance. I was a bit put off by the two-page spread which presents Cesareans as simply another equally good option for birth, for example. Obviously mothers who give birth by Cesarean, and children born by Cesarean, haven't done anything wrong; I don't want anyone stigmatized for having to have an operation. But the fact remains that Cesareans currently in our culture are already treated as too normal. Compared to vaginal births, they're dangerous to both mother and child, and doctors perform then too often and for reasons that have little to do with medical necessity. I can see why you don't want to go into all that in a book for young children. But the fact remains that Silverberg's cheery, "it's all good" take on the birth process seems like it's not an especially good window through which to view this particular issue.

But that's really a minor quibble. More important, perhaps, is my nine-year-old's review...which consisted mostly of giggles. He's a bit older than the target audience, I think, and (as he informed me) he already knows the basic mechanics of where babies come from. But even if, like him, you've got a mom and dad who put you together in what has long been the most expected way, Silverberg and Smyth's colorful vision of inclusion is still a delight.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/05/a-truly-inclusive-way-to-answer-the-question-where-do-babies-come-from/275607/