Sunday, November 30, 2008

Baby Mama, NYT Style

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

What do we think about surrogacy, and couples or single women who pay another woman to carry their child? Alex Kuczynski, a New York Times writer and author of a well-regarded book on the cosmetic surgery industry (if you're interested, it's called Beauty Junkies - I haven't read it, but I want to) has a fascinating article in this week's New York Times Magazine about her own experience with gestational surrogacy, after she discovered that she could not have children. Surrogacy is not something that we think about, or discuss, very much, and if we do, it's in a humorous context, as in Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's recent movie, Baby Mama. The film is far from realistic (it was criticized by actual surrogate mothers, especially for the depiction of Amy Poehler's character as scheming and distrustworthy, a stereotype which plagues surrogate moms-to-be), and Kuczynski's article offers a fresh account of a process about which our society is decidedly ambivalent.

After four failed pregnancies, Kuczynski and her husband began to explore the possibility of gestational surrogacy. This is different from traditional surrogacy, in which the surrogate mother is also the biological mother. In gestational surrogacy, the surrogate mother simply carries (or gestates) the fetus, which is created from the mother's egg and the father's sperm. This process is much easier on everyone involved, Kuczynski writes. The surrogate mother is spared a genetic connection to the baby, and the couple involved can have a child which is biologically theirs. So although Kuczynski was not going to experience pregnancy, she was going to be a mother.

The surrogate mother, Cathy, was carefully chosen, and Kuczynski and her husband were present for ultrasounds, monthly doctor's appointments, and of course, the birth. Cathy and Kuczynski were from a similar class and background - they were both college educated, and married. Cathy had several children. But despite her connection with the woman who was incubating her child, Kuczynski found herself wrestling with questions about the meaning of motherhood, despite the fact that she accepted that pregnancy was "something Cathy was good at," something that she, for whatever reason, could not do.

"I worried that I was missing out on some great essential preparation," Kuczynski wrote. "What would I tell my son years from now? I was not able to produce you, so we outsourced you to someone with a better womb? Part of you came out of my tummy, but the rest of you came out of another lady’s tummy? Would I really be his mother? Was the key to motherhood carrying the baby?"

These are questions which have come up in my conversations recently, especially since I've begun to toy with the idea of becoming a birth doula. The home birth movement is adamant that childbirth requires a mother's awareness - she should not, if she can help it, take drugs for pain or numb the experience of birth, so that she can be fully conscious for the first moments of the child's life. My friends have reasonably challenged some of these assertions. It's nice to think that all women should be fully aware of childbirth, but in some cases, it's just not possible, and should we really be shaming women for their choice to lessen an incredibly painful experience? Are women who undergo non-elective ceserean sections poor mothers because they were not able to hold their babies in the first ten minutes of their lives? And what about adoptive mothers? The problem is knotty indeed, and surrogacy just adds another complication. Kuczynski's baby is biologically hers, but she still felt significant anxiety about the fact that she was not able to physically carry the child. What is wrong with our society, that we have such narrow, and such subtle, pressures to conform to certain ideas of motherhood? And I am fully willing to admit that the home birth movement may, inadvertantly, have contributed somewhat to the confusion of women like Kuczynski.

But the story doesn't end there. As the pregnancy progressed, Kuczynski reports that other women were actually jealous that she had escaped the experience of carrying a child - a reaction that she had not expected. Women said things like: “Well, thank God you didn’t have to give birth to that huge child!” Or: “You’re so lucky. Pregnancy is overrated.” Or even: “My God, Alex. You’ve really gotten away with some stuff in your life. But this takes the cake!”

"Did these women have such terrible pregnancies?" writes Kuczynski. "Did they all resent their big babies? Was not birthing a baby but still having a biological child really “taking the cake”? If so, the birth of Max [her son] revealed the ambivalence some women feel about pregnancy. It is a burden. It is scary."

So we have problems on both sides of the coin. On the one hand, it seems that we're not real women unless we have babies, and not real mothers unless we give birth to them. But on the other, pregnancy is an onerous process, one which can stall our careers, "destroy" our bodies, and make us very uncomfortable for a long period of time. And childbirth is presented, in a very unqualified fashion, as terrifying. There is a reason that so many women resort to drugs without experiencing labor at all - the media does nothing to make us think that anything about childbirth is pleasant. And all of this doesn't lessen the fact that even though Kuczynski's son is biologically hers, she still questioned the legitimacy of her choice.

The article is admittedly flawed. It's a heavy class issue - surrogacy is only available to the upper classes, and the idea of lower-class women carrying children for upper-class women is certainly problematic. And there's the question of how important it really is to have a child which is biologically yours - even though Kuczynski criticizes the culture that made her feel less like a mother because she hadn't carried her child, she spent thousands to have her own biological child when there are many, many children who have already been born unwanted. Kuczynski's position is interesting, and in many ways correct - our society creates an ideal of motherhood which is both arbitrary and damaging. But Kuczynski herself falls victim to the societal dictates that she critiques. So should we be mixing technology and conception, and can a woman's reproductive processes ever be appropriately commodified? What do you think?


At December 2, 2008 at 11:45 PM , Anonymous CristinaL said...

Technology is good for something – but at what cost? I was disturbed to read that Kuczynski spent approximately $100,000 for a biological baby, including the multiple I.V.F. treatments and surrogacy fees. I can’t help but feel that that money could have been much better spent. I know this is often said in protest of artificial conception, but I think it deserves to be repeated: there are so many children in this world who need to be adopted, 1.5 million in the U.S. alone. And yet, Kuczynski skirts the adoption option and even implies that an adopted mother is less of a mother.

I won’t nitpick the article further; fairly or unfairly, the NYT comment board has already done that. However, I do think it’s worth considering the role of the surrogate mother in Kuczynski’s case and in general. A recent post on this site critically questioned egg donation, insisting that it reduced the humanity of the donors. I ask: is it really any different for gestational surrogates? Does it not also reduce a woman to a commodity? If that sounds off-base, I urge you to look again at the pictures of Kuczynski and her surrogate. I think they may be more telling than any multi-page expose.

At December 3, 2008 at 12:16 AM , Anonymous Cated said...

It's also pretty sexist that these payments are only available to women.

At December 4, 2008 at 11:42 AM , Anonymous Rayven, 2X Gestational Surrogate said...

Thanks for making such a thoughtful and honest post about the article. As a surrogate mother, I so appreciate this sort of mentality rather than the droves of negativity I have been experiencing with it.

I liked the article on the whole, and have so much respect for what she went through in order to have her son. I do admit to cringing when I heard her talk so negatively about surrogates, however. Most of us are college educated and intelligent; and since many matches are made online, I will have to assume that we can use a computer :)

But I can fell her strength and her sorrow from her article.

As far as motherhood goes, it is an experience that is so different for all of us. I think we all need to stop beating ourselves up for our differences and start learning to celebrate them.


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