When I bought this year’s work Christmas raffle tickets I made the quip I always make. “Don’t know why I bother – I never win!”
But this year I struck lucky.
No, it wasn’t the Gordon Ramsey dinner for two for me. It was a DNA testing kit. As I pranced around the dance floor with the magic box containing the swabs to send off to unravel the mystery of my genetic lineage, I joked that my results would come back 100% Irish culchie. But in a more sober moment, as a childfree woman, this DNA challenge got me thinking – are our roots biological and are our legacies mapped out in the twists and turns of DNA?
At a quiet moment between Christmas and New Year, between turkey stuffing and champagne popping, I’ll open up my raffle prize, swipe the cotton buds inside my cheeks, send them off and wait to see what secrets of ancestry my DNA holds. But what will the results really tell me? They’ll tell me a certain irrefutable biological truth – that I share certain genetic markers with other people that mean we have a common heritage from this or that part of the world. As a childfree person, it will also mark out another irrefutable genetic truth. My own contribution to our genetic journey as the human species ends with me. I am not a mother. I am a break in the sequence.
What does that tell me about motherhood? It tells me what I have known for a long, long time. Being a mother is about more than our biology. Of course, there is a strong bond between a woman who has born a child and that child. But I passionately believe – and have seen proof of it in the adoptive families I know – that strong bonds can develop between non-biological children and parents and this is a wonderful thing for the individuals and for human society more generally.
However, while family life – whether those families exist through nature or by nurture – often involves sacrifice and altruism by parents, I don’t think you can deny that procreation also involves a biological imperative to reproduce ‘me’. That procreative urge is driven by what Richard Dawkins calls the ‘selfish gene’ – as biological beasts, we are driven to survive as a species beyond our own demise. Also as human beings, we have a profound sense of history and continuity, we are attuned to our own narratives as individuals and as humans – we came from somewhere and we are going somewhere.
So when my DNA results return and I learn about the genetic strands that link me back to another story, will I then look forward and despair at the cutting of my own DNA thread when I inevitably kick the bucket? I don’t think so. Because, put simply, that human history is bigger than my biology and, unique to being human, there are ways we continue and pass on to the next generation without biology.
Through what we do, say and create in our lives here and now. My desire and impulse to continue is as strong as that of any parent. But it is aligned with George Eliot’s fervent prayer to