99 Problems Side view of a crawling baby wearing taco pajama pants

Published on May 10th, 2023 | by Cheryl Klein

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Don’t Eugenics Your Kid: On the Nature of Nurture

1.

John Allen Rubio had three children whom he killed, with help from his wife, believing they were possessed by demons. Journalist Laura Tillman writes about Rubio in The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, describing his childhood as a series of devastations interrupted by moments where things might have gone another way. 

His mother drank and used drugs while pregnant, and stayed addicted throughout his life. Tillman notes that as a baby, Rubio never crawled, and walked late. His father did not care for him. Alternately abused and neglected, Rubio struggled developmentally and emotionally. Social workers and others at his school called for interventions, but nothing much came of their observations. A special ed teacher praised his progress, particularly in language arts; maybe that was why his jailhouse letters to Tillman years later spoke his knotty truth so clearly. But when he had visions of his dead grandmother as a witch, his mother validated his hallucinations rather than getting him help.  

I listened to Tillman’s description of Rubio’s childhood on audiobook in my car, as my nine-month-old, Joey, drank a bottle in his carseat. I’d been fretting over the milestone checklist that Kaiser sent a week before every well-baby visit. “Well baby” is an almost aggressively positive term, but for worriers like me, the mere presence of the survey in my inbox provoked thoughts of unwellness. 

Joey was born at 32 weeks and adopted after an uneventful month in the NICU. Other than catching a string of nasty colds at daycare, he’d been a healthy, happy baby so far. At nine months—seven months adjusted for prematurity—he was dragging himself around the floor on his arms with surprising efficiency. Recently I’d even seen a bit of hands-and-knees crawling. 

Come on, I silently coached him. Crawl. Don’t grow up to be a murderer. 

A baby on his hands and knees, viewed from above

2.

He babbled. He ate solid foods. He responded to his name…most of the time.

Check, check, check. But there were a couple of things on the list that he wasn’t doing. I could not remember seeing him “hold one toy in each hand and bang them together” or “raise his arms to be picked up.” I panicked. 

I imagined a referral to early intervention—an institution I was all for, in theory—and an extensive evaluation that would reveal other hidden deficiencies in my baby. 

I texted my infinitely patient friend Keely about my fears. Keely had four kids, the youngest a micropreemie, and knew more about child development (and about my long history of catastrophizing) than most. 

I confessed that I worried about Joey in light of his first mother’s issues. Sarah, the mom who’d carried him for seven months and placed him in our care, was kind and perceptive and resilient and artistic. She also had a long list of diagnoses that made her life more difficult. What if she’d passed some of them to Joey?

Did I think he would grow up to be a murderer? No, not really. But did I wonder what troubles might lie coiled in his DNA? I did.

Keely was firm on this matter: Don’t eugenics your kid. Nurture is way more important than nature.

I already knew that my fears were threaded with ableism. I’m not sure what to say about that other than I’m working on it. And to be clear, my own DNA leans toward cancer and addiction, toward diabetes and various amorphous mental health problems. If they’re slightly less frightening to me, it’s because they’re the devil I know, and the devil my parents and grandparents knew. But if I’d reproduced naturally, I would undoubtedly be worrying about those things instead of Sarah’s things.

What didn’t occur to me until Keely said Don’t eugenics your kid was that I was also gripped by a fixed mindset. When I pictured the regional center, I imagined a big cinderblock building, a sort of brutalist highschool gymnasium, full of colorful mats and nice therapists who would politely tell me my baby had [insert big, life-altering diagnosis here]. And/or a mysterious set of delays that would haunt him his whole life. 

What I did not picture was that these hypothetical therapies might…work? 

Nurture is way more important than nature, Keely said. How much so? The verdict is still out, but I saw her point: I was not a helpless bystander waiting for a big reveal about Joey’s future. I was one of the key people creating it.

3.

How did I arrive so late to this truth?

I was raised on meritocracy myths and bootstraps capitalism. As a kid, I practiced gymnastics and learned how to fling myself into the air and land on my feet. I studied, and so I got into a good college. My parents supported my hard work, and nurture—that is, the impact of their efforts and my own—appeared to be intact.

But then I grew up, got pregnant, and miscarried twins. Rationally, I didn’t blame myself, but in every irrational way, I did. I thought I was dying. I sort of wanted to be dead, except I knew that couldn’t be true, because I was scared of dying. I wanted to die so I could stop worrying about dying.

The only way out was Zoloft, therapy, and writing my way to a new belief system, which was that Sometimes shit just happens. 

My new worldview was liberating. By the time I got breast cancer a year later, I genuinely believed it was not my fault. Soon, I had a DNA test to prove it (nature). I had a genetic mutation that gave me an 85% lifetime risk of breast cancer. To people attributing cancer to using the wrong deodorant or eating acidic foods, I said a mental fuck you. 

What I didn’t realize was that, when my mental pendulum swung hard in the direction of nature/shit-happens, I cast myself as a helpless prey animal.

I used to work for a nonprofit that helped people leave gang life. A staff member who was a Jesuit priest and social worker spoke at one of our monthly meetings. He cited a study showing that just one kind person could make a significant positive impact on a person’s life. I saw proof of it all around me. The clients who were truly turning their lives around—the ones who’d enrolled in college, gotten their kids back from foster care, stayed sober for years, or taken on leadership roles at the organization—had a trail of trauma behind them, yes, but they could also recall the people who’d loved them well. 

Keely’s admonition also reminded me of a snippet I’d read by psychiatrist and attachment parenting proponent Dan Siegel, who noted that while adoptive parents might not have a role in their children’s genetics, they did have a role in their biology, simply because children’s brains were still forming. 

I’d listened to the tale of John Allen Rubio and thought about the secrets that lay between the skull and the self, when in fact it was just as much a story of people and systems that had failed him.  

An eight-year-old boy dressed in a naval officer's uniform points a Nerf gun at the camera

I’ll never know the exact nature/nurture cocktail that makes up Dash, my eight-year-old, but I know that he’s sensitive like his other adoptive mom and me. He’s a goofball like her, he loves role-playing like I did as a kid—although it’s not like he was there when I was pretending to be Pippi Longstocking, so maybe that’s nature. When I clock his spatial skills, I think of his birth mother, a hairstylist, and what it takes to work in a three-dimensional medium.

When Joey was younger, I told the doctor that although he was rolling front to back, it seemed difficult for him.

“It’s like he doesn’t know what to do with his arm, and it keeps getting in the way,” I said.

“You can help him with that,” she said.

I went into his nine-month appointment slightly concerned that he wasn’t clapping. 

“It’s more of a one-year thing,” the doctor said, “but you can help him with that.”

Why did I treat milestones as if they were closed-book tests, to be conducted in sterile environments on babies raised by wire-monkey mothers? Why had I cast myself in such an insignificant role? 

If I taught Joey to clap, I would literally be shaping his brain. That was possible. In trying to protect myself from what I couldn’t control, I’d forgotten I had agency. It was as if I couldn’t let myself fully believe I was raising him, with a village that might or might not include an occupational therapist at some point.

4. 

On the night of my birthday in early April, Joey crawled the length of our living room. He was a little wobbly, but within days, he’d abandoned his zombie-style scoot and decided crawling was his preferred mode of transportation. He got faster and faster. 

Thank god he won’t be a murderer, I thought. 

A baby reaches to grab a book from a bookshelf

I’d read lots of things about how crawling was good for babies’ brains—something about the alternating motion, the internal math it took to gauge distance. Every time he slapped his palms to the floor and made his way to me or his brother or me or the cat food, I felt like he was mainlining vitamins.

One particular article about crawling stuck with me. Granted, it was from a kid gym, but it noted that even for babies who never crawled before they walked (the vast majority of whom are not murderers, I should add), crawling had great benefits. Good news, the gym said: Kids loved to play crawling games, and toddlers in their classes got on their hands and knees pretending to be animals. 

The ship of influence hasn’t sailed—not when kids are three, not when they’re teens, not when they’ve spent decades in prison. The ship of control was never more than a ghost ship. 

My anxiety about Joey’s milestones hasn’t fully abated. Maybe it never will. But I’ve been trying to carve out a little time most days to play clapping games with him. He flails his arms up and down happily, and bangs on things with one hand, but he hasn’t clapped on his own yet. I think he’ll get there. I’m trying to have faith in both of us.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her MUTHA column “Onesie, Never Worn” was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2022. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.



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