Want a Scary Pamphlet?

Around week 13 of the pregnancy, HusbandMan and I had a genetics counseling session. This was both more and less high-tech than it sounds. The counselor, a cheery, pretty woman named Anya, ran through our family histories to determine which genetic disorders The Kid might have a chance of inheriting.

From what she learned, she would suggest a battery of tests that were technologically impossible when HusbandMan and I were ourselves in utero, among them a triple screening, which checks for two types of Down’s Syndrome (extra chromosomes on the 18th and 21st pairs) through blood tests and also uses a diagnostic ultrasound to measure nuchal translucency (the fluid beneath the skin behind baby’s neck); as well as tests for spina bifida, spinal muscular atrophy, and the moodily sci-fi-sounding Fragile X, which, as you knew quite well in middle school, afflicts “retards.”

Anya went about the assessment by flipping over the 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper on which I had filled in our basic stats and, in ball-point pen, sketching a rough dual family tree. It looked like something your drunk uncle might lay out at the kitchen table one night to convince you the family is, indeed, related to Charlemagne.

On this family tree went the grandparents with Alzheimers and diabetes and emphysema; the aunts and uncles with strokes and heart disease; the parents with cancer; the second cousin born with a missing finger and a half, which is probably a bit inconvenient but is also kind of cute; and the most common ailment—the impressively multigenerational, cross-family prominence of alcoholism.

The easiest question was also the broadest: “Is there any chance you two are related?”

I burst out laughing. “That would be funny! Can you imagine? Dear lord. The poor kid.”

Anya looked startled. HusbandMan cleared his throat and said, “No, not a chance.”

Based on our family histories, she gave us her suggestion (the triple screen; weeks later we would also test for SMA and Fragile X) and a handful of pamphlets. We went back to the waiting room; soon I’d get needled and drained by the phlebotomist.

The room was full of pairs, women and men and sometimes women and older women, presumably the grandmothers of the tots-to-be. The more pregnant a woman appeared, the grumpier her countenance. I wondered what new and exciting ways of expressing Don’t fuck with me or I will KILL you I was going to learn in the last months of pregnancy. I liked the idea. I’m always seeking clear ways to communicate.

As HusbandMan checked his phone for messages from work, I read through the information Anya had given us. Each pamphlet was a trifold of horror delineating the complications and pains of genetic disorders. Feeling resentfully well informed, I decided to share the misery. I fanned out the pamphlets like a poker hand and offered them to HusbandMan.

“Want a scary pamphlet?” I said, too loudly. Several people stared.

HusbandMan raised his eyebrows. “Uh, yeah. No. But thanks.”

Anya’s question about the possibility of our being related struck me as funny, but of course there are lots of people who are related who do have children. There are many genetic disorders among these populations, which are relatively “closed”—by religion, culture, geography or a combination of all three; among them are the Amish and certain sects of Ashkenazi Jews.

HusbandMan and I had, actually, done genetic testing before. Along with a bottle of really nice wine and a long weekend in Maine, for our 10th anniversary we got ourselves genetic testing kits through the Genographic Project. By tracing our mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to child, we would find out something about our deep ancestry: where our genes, and more specifically the women who walked around with them, were 30,000 years ago. Our genetic information would also be stored (anonymously) in a global database. Who knows what we’ll learn about our common ancestral past—and its potential for the genetics of the future—from this database. So we swabbed the insides of our cheeks and mailed off the samples.

You know what we found out? We’re white people. I know—we were shocked too.

But no genetic test yet available can answer the question Anya didn’t ask us: What do you fear The Kid might inherit that won’t show up on these tests? Because some of these things are nature, and some are nurture, but most are probably some melding of the two and impossible to tease out, at least at this stage of our knowledge (and perhaps never).

We’ve talked about how with The Kid I’m going to restore height to the Bartoo line, and he’s going provide the Pinkowskis with lips for the first time in history. The Kid is sure to be smart, and he’ll probably artistically minded and pretty athletic. We hope he’ll be curious, compassionate, and good with his hands. We hope he’ll make things and grow things.

Like all expectant parents, we can imagine the best of ourselves distilled into him. We fantasize about raising a person who embodies all that we love in each other and have made peace with in ourselves.

But what if the opposite were to happen? What if instead all our worst qualities were to combine and duplicate? In short, what if we were to make a jerk? A genetically determined jerk? A mean little troll of a guy, with a quick temper and long periods of depression, who is flighty and scared, self-righteous and indecisive, self-pitying and bossy? Who is hypoglycemic and has bum knees? Who is a drunk? And not a fun drunk—the kind you have a blast with but worry about the next day—but a real dickhead of a boozer—the kind who picks fights and throws stuff and gets racist?

There’s a universe of The Kid’s development we have no say in, despite his being half me and half HusbandMan. And the independent entity he’s going to be several months? That’s when the nature/nuture issue will really start to play out.

In the end, all the genetic tests came out fine. Now we only have to spend the next 18 years doing everything we can to foster the development of a decent human being.

I wish there were a test to determine whether we have what it takes to do it.

5 Replies to “Want a Scary Pamphlet?”

  1. “But what if the opposite were to happen? What if instead all our worst qualities were to combine and duplicate?”

    Your post made me laugh, because I was obsessed with this happening when I was pregnant. I was sure he was going to inherit every bad trait from each of us and it would be really scary. But really, I think the chances of that actually happening are nearly 1 in 500,000,000. (you’ll get lots of those great numbers) Turns out my son got all these fantastic traits that neither of us have. Who would have thought that could happen?

  2. Oh, that’s good, I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, I know he will be his own person, with characteristics independent of ours, but I thought that might only manifest later when he’s been around a bit…nice to know it can show up so early.

  3. Jenn, i loved this essay. I could totally see you in the waiting room, asking aloud, “Wanna see a scary pamphlet?” and startling the genetic counselor with your laughter, and contemplating the genetic possibility of having a jerk with bad knees and a taste for liquor. (which, of course, you won’t. You’ll have a tall, smart, artistic, athletic child with lips. bravo!)
    hope you’re enjoying every minute…

  4. One thing is for sure from my vantage: the Kid will be whip-smart and capable of verbally thrashing everyone in his/her peer group! S/He will make them laugh, and s/he might well make them cry. But s/he won’t be able to be ignored!

    Love you both!

  5. Thanks, Lisa! I have a tendency to crack jokes when things get tense…here’s to a tall kid with lips!

    Jamie, from your description he sounds like a hellion. Yeah, that about sounds like the kind of kid we’d produce. Sigh.

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