The Ovarian Lottery

On my drive home from work last night I heard a snippet from StoryCorp that touched me. A young woman shared that she had only met her father once when she was four years old. Many years passed and when he couldn’t be found she and her mother concluded that he must be dead. Until she Googled him as an adult and found a booking photo — he wasn’t dead, he was in jail in Oregon.

An hour later I was scrolling through Facebook and stopped at a Humans of New York photo. The woman shared her story of meth addiction, her regret that she had stolen her kids’ childhood and her lack of confidence that she could recover. I read and reread this quote:

I’ve cheated my kids out of normal lives. My seventeen-year-old daughter is in a home for teen moms. My twenty-one-year-old son is in jail. My eighteen-year-old daughter is doing OK. She’s got a job at FedEx and goes to college. She hates drugs and thinks the world is a good place and that nobody is out to hurt her. She wants to help me. She wants me to come live with her when I get out. I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Two stories of families torn apart by drugs, four children whose lives had origin stories that were miles away from my experience, either mine or my children’s. I thought about it, how hard it must have been for those children and how I couldn’t possibly understand it.

I shared the two stories with my family as we were driving home from dinner and my son — sweet, sensitive boy that he is — said, “Mom, I’m not sure which would be worse, growing up without a parent or growing up with parent who is a drug addict. I’m lucky, dad is awesome.”

He is lucky. He has a dad who has stayed and loved him constantly since the day he was born and he has a mom who won’t drink more than a glass of wine without worry. And it is luck because he didn’t do a single thing to be worthy of it. Just like those other kids didn’t do a single thing to end up in their situation. The circumstances of one’s birth are the ultimate dice throw. The ovarian lottery.

I heard that term for the first time listening to a podcast about the failures of family-owned companies in the second and third generations of ownership. Warren Buffet used it to describe the unlikely odds of having it all work out in your favor. And yes, even though I sort of understand the science behind genetics, that our building blocks are based on the building blocks of our parents, no child ever said, “Yeah, put me there, that looks right.”

Nope, by the time you’re old enough to understand the ovarian lottery — old enough to know that things are different for other kids — you have gained appreciation or grit. Or you haven’t. Because you can’t do anything to change who your parents, are you can only play the hand you’re dealt. I just hope my kids recognize the stacked hand they’ve received. Not because we’re perfect, far from it. But because even on our worst day we’re here and we’re all in. 

And I was reminded yesterday that not every kid can say the same thing.