Nadya Suleman, AKA “Octo-Mom”, has had extensive plastic surgery to resemble another famous mother, Angelina Jolie. While her octuplets have turned into a national freak show and blog snark-fest, it’s not hard for me to follow her logic.
In the third issue of Exhale I discuss “Octomom” as a natural product of a deregulated fertility industry, and highlight a memoir by another mother whose judgement was questioned.
Today, you have to explain your decision not to utilize the new technology if you have even the vaguest desire to have children. Why suffer the stigma of being different in an increasingly conformist society, where being married and childless is seen as more odd than being a never-married parent, a single mother of many?
From a front-row seat, I saw how the sexual revolution impacted my parents’ generation, who came of age and married in the fifties. It hit like a hurricane, breaking apart marriages, spawning a generation of latchkey kids, sending women to conciousness-raising groups and out into the work-force. In the same way that the pill ushered in both the sexual revolution of the sixties and the feminist resurgence of the seventies, the fertility frenzy has impacted society of the nineties and aughts; the outside of the envelope is being pushed further and further out. The business world, education system, dating conventions and even family pecking order rely heavily on the idea that the fertility industry is a safety net. When I started a new job at 35, I was warned, off the record, not to get pregnant the first year, then brightly advised: “That’s what we have our fertility benefit for.”
But it doesn’t work for everyone; it didn’t for me. In my recent interview on Belief.net, sparked by my last month’s Exhale column, I wonder if the answer isn’t advising young women to freeze their eggs, but rather, retuning society to make it easier economically for young women to start their families at more appropriate ages: http://blog.beliefnet.com/beyondblue/2009/01/christina-gombar-an-interview.html.
The Right to Reproduce?
Nadya’s case raises the very uncomfortable issue of whether or not having as many children as she wants, by whatever means, is as much a feminist issue as abortion rights. In the Guardian, Jennifer Block wonders if it’s not time to “take a close, hard look at our healthcare priorities. While we have the technology and expertise to keep a 1.5-pound premie (Suleman’s tiniest) alive outside the womb, standard American maternity care is resulting in poorer and poorer outcomes for the vast majority of mothers and babies.”
Birthing versus Parenting
“Any fool can have a child.” Our new president’s words, not mine – said on the campaign trail, speaking to an African American audience. Properly raising children, President Obama says, is another issue entirely. Perhaps for their own safety, it’s a blessing that Nadya Suleman’s children will be living in a fish bowl.
In a blog post titled, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” author Karen de Balbian Verster discusses her dilemma after witnessing the abuse of one of her daughter’s playmates. She also sites an alcoholic woman who boasted of abusing her dog, but succeeded in adopting a Chinese infant.
De Balbian Verster asks: “I wonder why we as a society allow people who are unfit parents to become parents in the first place? It’s a slippery slope, I know, but shouldn’t there be some conditions in place before one has a child? Things like another parent, mental health, financial stability? It seems like too little, too late to worry about these things after the child has been starved in the basement, burned by cigarettes, or sexually abused. But since we can’t seem to ban assault rifles, I’m afraid licensing parents must remain a futuristic concept.
An “Unfit Mother” Reflects
Polio survivor Anne Finger was told she was unfit to give birth: it was dangerous, she was disabled, she was unmarried. Her 1990 book, Past Due, a Story of Disability, Pregnancy and Birth tells what happened when she defied standard advice.
After suffering polio as a toddler, Finger grew up subject to one butchering operation after another in the vain attempt to bring life back to her atrophied leg muscles. Because of her horrendous experiences with the medical establishment, when she decided to become a mother, she eschewed traditional medicine and chose midwifery, despite the fact that she was an atypical, and potentially high risk obstretric patient. The midwife miscalculated, the labor went on too long, and her son wound up inhaling his own fecal matter. Death, or a life sentence of severe disability was predicted by the angry medical establishment that she finally reverted to.
Despite her son’s full recovery, Finger’s trauma – first under the knife of post-polio childhood surgeries, then a well-meaning midwife unequal to the task of her complicated delivery, and finally, the shaming of the medical establishment – scarred her: During those terrible days when her son struggled for life: “I do know that if he dies, I will think that technology is the monstrous, inhuman, a mad scientist’s creation; and if he lives, I will think it a miracle.”
One could as easily apply these words to the current fertility industry frenzy: “I have the places where I draw my lines about what I would and would not do; and other people … people I respect, have different lives. But I’m aware too of how social pressure can work to keep people in line: how when a technology is available it becomes harder and harder not to utilize it. If you’re over 35 and pregnant, you have to explain your decision not to have amnio, justify yourself.”
Overfertility in the Age of The Feminine Mystique
Richard Yate’s dark 1960 novel, Revolutionary Road, is now a gripping movie starring Kate Winslet. While the narrative is one of over-fertility rather than infertility, the story throws into dramatic relief how fragile and tenuousness is this largely taken-for-granted business of birth, for the child, for the mother. How destructive, yet somehow inescapable, the issue of maternal identity – for better or in this case, for worse.