Anne Grunstead and family
Valeria, Anne Grunstead and Bobby

The Art of Letting Go of Old Notions

and Embracing a New Reality

By Beverly Prince-Sayward

Anne Grunstead shared an article with Gay Parent Magazine in June of 2015 titled “An Open Letter to My Son’s Sperm Donor.” Much to her surprise, it was ill received by readers.  So Gay Parent Magazine interviewed her to find out what happened, who she is, and what did she really wish to express that perhaps did not get across to readers the way she meant it.

Gay Parent Magazine (GPM): Tell me about your family.

Anne Grunstead (AG): My wife Valeria and I met 16 years ago via the Yahoo! Personal ads. In 2006 we got married in Canada and that marriage became legal here when Illinois started recognizing gay marriage last year.

Originally when marriage became legal in Illinois we talked about renewing our vows here. But in the end we decided that we wanted our friends and family to understand that our original Canadian wedding was a "real" wedding and that while we were thrilled to have legal recognition here, our personal commitment went back to that original ceremony - so no need for a do-over.

Our son Bobby was born in 2008 to my wife Valerie via artificial insemination and the use of donated sperm.

GPM: Did you know before he was born that Bobby had Down's Syndrome or did you find out at birth? What were your reactions and how have they changed in the past seven years?

AG: Based on a heart defect that was found during an ultrasound we knew there was a 90% chance he had Down syndrome.

In the beginning we were devastated. I assumed I was destined to spend my life taking care of him. I expected he would understand very little about his day to day life.

Once he was born, our concerns about his intellectual development took a back seat to his heart condition. His heart was in much worse shape than the prenatal tests indicated and he had three open heart surgeries in three years. He was also hospitalized 20 times in that time frame. During that time I just wanted him to survive.

He has been much healthier in the last four years and his development has taken off. My preconceived notions were very wrong. He understands what I say to him and is very engaged in his world. He has a great sense of humor, loves cars and balls, is very well-liked at school, and if you're not careful he will charm you into doing all sorts of things for him.

GPM: In your article you shared with Gay Parent Magazine, you mentioned how your definition of parent changed when you spent time by your son's hospital bedside for his heart surgeries. How old was your son at that time? Did this affect your feelings about parenting yourself as well as your definition of the sperm donor's role in your family?

AG: When Gay Parent Magazine shared the article, I got a lot of negative comments for bashing the sperm donor. I was very upset because that was the last thing I intended to do. However, when I reread the article after that feedback, I understood the comments. My intent had been to write an article about how I had first bought into and then realized the fallacy of Bobby needing a father. The article came off as though I were blaming the sperm donor instead of narrow social norms. That was bad writing.

As the non-birth parent I felt some insecurity about my place in Bobby's life. I assumed that Bobby would grow up thinking of the donor as his father and I felt a sense of competition about that. But then in the first couple of years of Bobby's life, things changed. I had chosen to have a child with Down syndrome. In doing so I had committed to protecting Bobby from those who would be cruel to him. I was the one who sat with Bobby in the hospital and took him to doctor's appointments, etc. Those things felt like very tangible evidence that I was a real parent. I realized that there was no reason that Bobby needed to grow up thinking of the sperm donor as a father because Bobby has two very devoted parents in my wife and I. I needed to break free of some social norms that were keeping me from feeling like a full-fledged parent.

I never resented the sperm donor in all of this. He was a man who had done us a wonderful turn in allowing us to have Bobby. It just took me a while to start thinking of him in the proper context - not as a father but as a man who helped us along our journey. I understand that the skewed thinking was one way – he never intended to be more than a donor, I was the one hung up on the notion that society expected there to be a father in the equation.

GPM: How has parenting been so far in your viewpoint? Is it a struggle to have a child with special needs? Have there been any surprising plus sides?

AG: The medical piece has been the most challenging. My partner and I both worked full time when Bobby was born so we had to do lots of juggling when he was in the hospital. We also had to invest in a nanny which set us back financially.  However, the biggest challenge is the social bias against kids like Bobby. Providing him with a good education is a never ending struggle. And sometimes people are mean. Just today, a little boy at the playground commented that Bobby's face was ugly.

To my surprise, the intellectual delays have been the least of it. The milestones come slower, but when they do come the celebrations are amazing. Bobby's diagnosis has forced me to not compare him to other children and that is tremendously liberating. 

Plus, moving at your own pace has its advantages in our society. At 7, he has never asked me to buy him anything. He doesn't care about Christmas or birthday presents. He is all about experiences that are fulfilling to him, and the experiences that make the cut involve personal interactions. He is incredibly mindful.

The Down syndrome community is also very supportive. One personal growth I've had is that I have met many very conservative moms through social media. And while we don't discuss politics, we do come together around our children. I have been pleasantly surprised at how much of a non-issue my sexuality has been. I think these moms respect me as a mother, I respect them back, and that's as good of a place as any to start building bridges.

GPM: I'd like to capture the sentiment in your statement from your article you shared with Gay Parent Magazine: "My wish is for all of society to take this view. We would all be happier and more centered if we lived our lives being thankful and cultivating the relationships we have instead of focusing on relationships we’re missing. Bobby is a boy with two mothers. He is the progeny of a sperm donor. I don’t feel the need for you to ever be any more than that in our family. So as things stand now, I am guessing you shouldn’t wait by your phone for a call. But you can still expect my good energy."  In your family, in your lives, have you had the experience of wishing or focusing on a relationship that doesn't exist? If so, how did you realize to let go of that and embrace what you do have?

AG: I was sexually abused by a brother when I was young. I didn't tell my family until the last few years - decades after my parents died. My siblings were largely unsupportive when I did tell them. I kept revisiting those relationships, hoping to gain some healing but I eventually realized that they were sucking me dry. I made the choice to let those relationships be what they were and focus on my wife and son.

GPM: What are your hopes and goals for Bobby now and in the future?

AG: I would like Bobby to have adult relationships, romantic or otherwise. I want him to have a job he cares about and works hard at. I want him to live in a community home with other adults with Intellectual disabilities or perhaps have his own place with a roommate or partner. He is always likely to need some extra help, but I want him to be in charge of his destiny.

GPM: If you were to give advice to parents new to having a child with Down's Syndrome, what advice or sentiments would you share with them?

AG: It's the same advice I would give to any parent. Relax. Do your research on what supports your child needs, but don't live and die tracking milestones. Before I had Bobby I thought parenting was all about imparting my knowledge and giving structure to my child. I did not realize how much I could learn from Bobby. But you will lose a lot of those lessons if you don't take the time to appreciate the person your child is, free of social or academic impositions.

This article was first published in Gay Parent Magazine’s September-October 2015 issue #102. Order a single issue or subscribe.

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