Never mind the DNA: Is Debbie Rowe the mother?

A rumor about Michael Jackson's ex raises the question of how we define parenthood

Published July 1, 2009 7:02PM (EDT)

Now that we've all spent nearly a week reading sentimental tributes to Michael Jackson, listening and re-listening to "Thriller," and watching old YouTube videos of his performances, it is, of course, time to go back to speculating about whether his life was even more unconventional and/or screwed up than we realized. The latest news has "multiple sources" confirming that an L.A. dermatologist is the biological father of Jackson's oldest two children, and just to keep things interesting, there's also a rumor that Debbie Rowe is not their biological mother. Rowe's lawyer firmly denies the rumor, calling it "particularly hurtful and insidious," but the mere idea of it raises some interesting general questions about our image of motherhood.

The allegation here is that Rowe was impregnated via IVF with both donor sperm and egg, so although there's no doubt that she gave birth to Prince Michael I and Paris, she might not share DNA with them. Unlike the assertions that Jackson couldn't possibly be the father, which, prior to those multiple sources piping up, were largely based on the kids' relatively light coloring (a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, sure, but hardly conclusive evidence that they couldn't be biracial), the stickiness of this one depends on the impression that Rowe does not act enough like a mother. A Daily Mail interview from 2008 chastises Rowe, in typical Daily Mail fashion, for displaying photos of her pets rather than her children, rarely seeing the kids, and at one point deciding that terminating her parental rights would be the best thing for them. "Rowe worries more, it seems, about a young animal being led away from its mother than she does about the infants who were taken from her by the reclusive superstar." Harlot! The only explanation is that they couldn't possibly be "hers," because we all know there's no such thing as a biological mother who would entrust her children's care to someone else, and no such thing as parental love absent a genetic connection. Case closed!

Except for how none of that is true. And as a Broadsheet commenter said in another Jackson thread, "Amy Benfer recently blogged about all that childbearing entails, including 'recognizing grandpa's eyes, dad's nose and her lips.' However, in vitro technology is slicing all the different aspects of motherhood very granularly. Debbie Rowe 'nurtured in her womb for nine months, delivered through the mostly torturous process of labor' two children," but she may or may not have seen her features in them and in any case, chose not to be directly involved in their daily lives. "What defines motherhood?" asked the commenter.

Good question. Once upon a time, there were two clear answers that mostly covered it: There were mothers who got pregnant and gave birth to offspring with their DNA, and mothers who raised other women's children as their own. Not a lot of grey area, if we keep it simple and set aside quasi-maternal relationships with female relatives, nannies and family friends. But medical advances have brought us surrogates who aren't genetically related to their babies and men who can bear children, while societal changes have led to an enormous number of stepparents, many more same-sex couples raising children, and open adoptions that allow a child contact with both of her moms from day one. Having more than one person in your life with a legal, emotional and/or biological claim on the title of "mother" is not so unusual anymore.

And still, we persist in acting as if there is only one kind of mom out there -- the kind who gives birth to a baby that came from her own egg, plasters her walls with the kids' photos, is intimately involved in their daily lives, sacrifices everything for them, and could never bring herself to make the ultimate sacrifice of deciding that letting someone else raise them might be best. As Benfer points out, men who make a living translating reproductive rights controversies for our tiny female brains often hold up adoption as a simple alternative to abortion, yet when mothers do make the agonizing choice to step aside because they believe it's best for their babies, as Debbie Rowe did, they're vilified. What kind of mother would do that? What kind of mother would let Michael Jackson raise her kids? What kind of mother would [fill in the blank with your favorite judgment]? It's about time we realized there are all kinds of different mothers, and all kinds of different loving parental relationships that aren't as straightforward as they might have been in the largely imaginary good old days. Whether or not Debbie Rowe shares DNA with Michael Jackson's oldest two children -- and again, at this point, there is absolutely nothing but rumor to suggest she doesn't -- she is, without a doubt, their mother. In our race to dig up all the salacious gossip about Jackson that stayed under wraps while he was alive, let's at least acknowledge that that particular question already has a clear answer.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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