Who’s your Mommy?

Technology, parentage … and family


Though some sources give the phrase a somewhat different origin,1 to me it’s a sure bet that it was a genealogist who first asked the question: “Who’s your Daddy?”

The so-called NPE (non-parental event, which can be anything from somebody foolin’ around to an unrecorded informal adoption to a stepson’s choice to use his stepfather’s surname) is an all-too-common phenomenon for any family researcher.

Now, however, we have a new question to ask: “Who’s your Mommy?”

Try plugging these facts into your genealogy software:

Husband and Wife can’t have a child naturally because Wife can’t carry a child to term. Husband and Wife secure an ovum from Donor, who is anonymous, and the ovum is fertilized by way of in vitro fertilization using Husband’s sperm. Husband and Wife contract with Gestational Carrier, who agrees to have the ovum implanted, carry the ovum to term and give birth, and to give up all rights to the child. Child is born, Gestational Carrier signs the required court papers relinquishing any parental rights she may have, and Child goes home with Husband and Wife, with a birth certificate reflecting Husband as father and Wife as mother.

Too far-fetched for you? Think it can’t happen? Those were exactly the facts of a case argued yesterday afternoon before the New Jersey Supreme Court.2 The case, In re T.J.S.,3 doesn’t pit Husband and Wife against Gestational Carrier. And it doesn’t pit Husband and Wife against Donor either.

No, the adversary who faced off against Husband and Wife was the New Jersey State Registrar of Vital Statistics — and the State’s argument was that Wife shouldn’t be listed as the mother of Child on Child’s birth certificate without going through the formality of an adoption. Never mind that an infertile man can be listed as the father on a birth certificate merely by consenting in advance to the fertilization of his wife’s egg with the sperm of an anonymous donor; the infertile woman who consents to the use of her husband’s sperm to fertilize the egg of an anonymous donor has to go through a full formal adoption.

The question the Court has to answer in T.J.S. — who’s the legal mother in cases of assisted reproduction — is a hot topic in the law, and has been for some time. A full 10 years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that “advances in medical technology have far outstripped the development of legal principles to resolve the inevitable disputes arising out of the new reproductive opportunities now available.”4 Some states have concluded that “she who intended to bring about the birth of a child that she intended to raise as her own–is the natural mother.”5 Other states have dealt with the issue by statute — some allowing gestational carrier contracts6 and some prohibiting them.7

Set aside the legal arguments for a moment — since surely we’re not in a position to resolve them. Let’s look just at the genealogical issues here. How technology is wreaking havoc on the relational databases we use to record our families… and how we as genealogists define what is — and what isn’t — a family.

Let’s deal with the easier of these issues first. I use The Master Genealogist as my primary genealogy program. In that program, it’s easy to enter Child with Child’s birthdate and birthplace and Husband as father. It’s just as easy to enter each of the three women into the database and assign different roles to each one to precisely define the nature of her relationship to Child. Donor can be Mother-Biological. Gestation Carrier can be Mother-Birth. Wife can be Mother-Other.

And that’s where my brain explodes. Mother-Other? The only woman who has cared for that child since the day he was born in the summer of 2009, who changed his diapers, wiped his tears, fed him when hungry, nursed him when sick, cuddled him, watched his first steps, heard his first words, rocked him to sleep? The only woman he has ever called mother? Mother-Other?

I understand the fascination we all have with our ancestors — those from whom we descend. I wouldn’t be a genealogist if I didn’t share it. We want to know who we are, where we come from. Sure our bloodlines are important to us. I wouldn’t be as tall as I am without my mother’s height genes. Half of my siblings wouldn’t be blond with blue eyes if my father hadn’t brought those into the mix from his German parents.

But my family history doesn’t depend on bloodlines. My family history was written, instead, by people. People who raised me, or raised my parents, or their parents, or their parents, back as far as there have been people raising other people. I would still love the smell of a summer garden and have that smell instantly transport me back to a magical time in my life even if the woman who took me by the hand and walked me down to her garden with saltshaker in hand when the first tomatoes of the season were ripening on the vine hadn’t been my blood grandmother at all. And I would love and miss her just the same.8

Do you remember the Baby M case9 that was all over the news in the late 1980s? A New Jersey father whose wife couldn’t have kids contracted with a surrogate mother to bear a child for him and his wife to raise. His sperm was used to impregnate the surrogate, so the baby was her child as well. She changed her mind when the baby was born and a legal battle raged for years. The biological mother won the battle — her parental rights weren’t terminated and she was allowed visitation — but she certainly lost the war. Because when that little girl grew up and turned 18, she went to court and asked that her biological mother’s rights be terminated and that her father’s wife — the woman who she thought of as Mom — be allowed to legally adopt her.10

Blood may make a lineage. But it’s not what makes a family. And it’s family that makes me a genealogist.


  1. See Paul Farhi, “Conception of a Question : Who’s Your Daddy?,” Washington Post online edition, 4 Jan 2005 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A46032-2005Jan3.html : accessed 1 Mar 2012).
  2. A videorecording of the argument will be available in 30 days at the Supreme Court of New Jersey Oral Argument Archives, part of the New Jersey Digital Legal Library, hosted by the Rutgers Law Library.
  3. In re T.J.S., 419 N.J. Super. 46 (App. Div.), certif. granted 207 N.J. 228 (2011). The Appellate Division opinion can be read online for free here.
  4. J.B. v. M.B., 170 N.J. 9, 22-23 (2001).
  5. Johnson v. Calvert, 5 Cal.4th 84, 93, cert. denied, 510 U.S. 874 (1993). See also Culliton v. Beth Israel Deaconess Med. Ctr., 435 Mass. 285 (Mass. 2001).
  6. See e.g. 750 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 47/1 et seq..
  7. See e.g. Ind. Code Ann. § 31-20-1-1.
  8. Opal Robertson Cottrell — called Mama Clay by one and all — died 17 years ago this month. Virginia Department of Health, Certificate of Death, state file no. 95-011808, Opal Robertson Cottrell (1995); Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  9. In re Baby M., 109 N.J. 396 (1988).
  10. Whatever happened to Baby M?,” The Bergen (N.J.) Record, online, 4 Jan 2010 (http://www.northjersey.com/news/Whatever_happened_to_Baby_M.html : accessed 1 Mar 2012).
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19 Responses to Who’s your Mommy?

  1. Susan Clark says:

    I could not agree more! Something of a hot button with me. There are days when some genealogists (blessedly only a few) remind me more of dog or horse breeders and their pedigrees than human beings researching other human beings.

    And don’t get me started on lineage societies that prohibit both adoption and DNA testing.

  2. Barbara Schenck says:


  3. Celia Lewis says:

    Very thought-provoking post Judy – hope some of the legalities can be sorted out in an ethical way soon, as this will be continuing. It reminded me of my paternal grandmother (b.1879 Netherton/Dudley, Staffordshire, Eng.) – she refused to count the 9 adopted children (adopted before 12 days old, by the way) in her many many many descendents. “They don’t count – they’re NOT my grandchildren” she would say very dismissively, in front of them and their parents, even though the kids would call her Grandma… Sigh.

  4. Well, this may explain the budget problems in New Jersey. Also another example of why I don’t use genealogical software. I will never have to enter “Mother-Other” into Word.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      How would you enter this situation, Rondina — in Word or anywhere else? How are we as genealogists going to record and report these assisted reproduction cases, especially since these children sure as heck aren’t going to match the parents who raise them on future DNA tests?

      As for the budget, well, all I can say is that the sixth or seventh time the woman representing the State wasn’t able to answer the question of what the State’s interest was, this NJ taxpayer wondered why the State had bothered…

  5. Reading this complete article, Judy, has caused me to rethink a whole lot of what I think of as ‘family history’ and of ‘genealogy.’ Can a person ask more from an article? To cause each of us to carefully rethink some of our prior ‘assumptions’ of how the world works is a high level of accomplish for a writer. Thank you for this experience. ;-)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The issue certainly makes me think, Bill, and if we can all think this through, then the genealogical community as a whole may be able to figure out how to handle these thorny problems.

  6. Great article – it really hit the nail on the head for me. This is why I have quite a number of people in my database (TMG, by the way!) who are not related to me by blood. For the most part this is on my Mom’s side – and these are all people who were family to her. Thanks for saying it so well!!

  7. Sharon Meeker says:

    Good article. Thought-provoking for sure. As to the practical issue of entering “Mother-other” into your database, TMG allows you to define your own Tags, so you could use whatever title you think appropriate in such cases: Mother-Donor, or whatever. I don’t know whether someone would actually want to do this, but it is possible.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, Sharon. I know I can create any role name I choose. It’s the problem of having to choose, and of trying to choose appropriately and accurately, that’s mind-blowing.

  8. Amen and amen!! I’ve always had a problem with those who get so hung up on “nature” rather than “nurture”, so to speak. I consider myself a family historian more than a genealogist and you just explained why:)
    However, the problem within our software remains a problem for me as well.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      We sure need to address the role-naming conventions with these alternative family structures, don’t we?

  9. Karyn says:

    What a wonderful article – thank you! This is an issue close to my heart. I was a maternity nurse for many years, and several of my colleagues chose to become surrogates (some biological mothers, some not). They are amazing women, and watching them hand the gift of a child to that child’s parents is one of the highlights of my life. I know that in their cases the parents really honored their gift, and in many cases have created a role in their child’s life for the woman who carried them. It’s a complicated, but beautiful, thing.

    As for wording, I think I’d use something like Mother-Nurturer, or maybe Mother-Life. I thought of Mother-True as well, but that might not work for some people. It definitely isn’t straight forward. I’m glad there is some flexible software now that allows us to record the realities. It’s such an important part of the story.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Those surrogates are certainly angels, Karyn.

      What I think we all need as genealogists is clarity in words and labels. We put such emphasis, as we must, on biology that we haven’t thought through the increasing number of families where biology is secondary if it’s there at all.

  10. Nancy Maxwell says:

    Scientific genealogy comes down to biology. When it comes down to feelings and biology, biology must take precedence, and biology must be reflected on the ancestor chart and family group sheet. A non-biological relative is still non-biological regardless of the role he or she plays in people’s lives. This is NOT to discount the value of the non-biological relative AT ALL; it has value and meaning. But it should be placed in proper perspective.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      And a biological relative is ONLY biological, if that’s the only role he or she plays in people’s lives. Genealogy is art, not science, and to the extent that it’s scientific it’s the science of families, however they are created.

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