Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Getting the Low-Down on High-Brow Motherhood and Surrogacy

This week’s column looks at why ‘motherhood’ isn’t considered a serious subject to write about, the cultural and legal mess surrounding surrogacy, and the special bond we share with our friends’ moms.

Name-Place-Animal-Thing is The Wire’s culture newsletter.  If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing here

Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

What defines a mother? Is it the act of carrying and birthing your own baby and then raising it to adulthood? What about surrogates who carry babies that don’t share any genetic material with them? And what about countries that say that children born through foreign surrogates don’t have the same nationality as their biological parents – who’s the mom in that case?

Why do we think that motherhood is a boring, ‘light’ thing to write about?

The week after Mother’s Day seemed as good a time as any to engage with these questions.

§

The serious business of writing about motherhood

Motherhood needs to be recognised as an intellectually rigorous task. Credit: Abi Porter/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Where’s the deep, moving, ‘serious’ literature about motherhood? In a Longform podcast, Sarah Menkedick, author of a forthcoming book about, well, motherhood, told her host that the idea to write it was partially prompted by the dearth of such stories in the first place. Menkedick was pregnant and felt like she was searching for a canon that didn’t exist or wasn’t readily accessible.

Why, though? In an op-ed for the LA Times, Menkedick lays out her explanation:

“Patriarchal culture has reduced motherhood to an exercise no serious artist would tackle as a subject. The result is not only the marginalization of motherhood as a literary topic but the real-life marginalization of mothers, obscuring the difficulties of childcare, the intensity of birth, the complexities of working and writing as a mother, and the profound ways having a baby changes a woman’s life, body and mind.”

Motherhood and its preoccupations are all around us and yet the images that being a mother conjures up are babies, toys, a Mothercare storefront and diapers. It’s all about the baby, but what about the human who undergoes a physical and intellectual transformation while producing the baby?

Even if we consider the dramatic, often tragic, depictions of mothers in Bollywood and Ekta Kapoor’s soaps, the mother’s role is understood to be instrumental or always in relation to others – throw your nationalistic ideals onto this maternal woman, watch the ideal daughter-in-law work to keep her family together through turmoil, watch a mother display utter devotion to her children and husband.

The inner life of a mother has somehow been dismissed as non-existent or at the very least uninteresting. And this is not just in literature, the idea of being a mother is associated with ‘settling down’ or as the less polite of us might put it ‘becoming boring’. But as the constant torrent of articles on human developmental psychology already indicates to us: motherhood (being a parent in general) is not only about the physical and financial labour of raising a baby but also an intellectual task that requires constant decision-making for someone who is completely dependent on you.

Menkedick argues that this dismissal is due to the fact that motherhood is a ‘woman’s experience’ and so does not merit the same intellectual engagement that is simply rewarded to most male writers who write about ‘manly’ things like ‘war’.

In her words, she feels the need to qualify “my book is about motherhood” with statements like, “but you know, more than that! It’s about stories, and self, and the meaning of home.”

However, “What male writer feels the need to atone for essays about, say, war? I imagine him hurrying to clarify: ‘But really they’re about the human struggle, triumph over adversity, and the meaning of self.’”

§

The low-down on surrogacy

Being a surrogate works like any other paid job – despite countries’ efforts to keep surrogacy ‘non-commercial’. Is that really surprising? Credit: eltpics/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

As the biological and social understanding of motherhood changes to accommodate increasingly mind-boggling scientific developments, it only makes sense that countries take stock of how their legal frameworks deal with questions of surrogacy and adoption (transnational as well as by same sex couples).

The ‘who, what, where, when, why, how’ set of questions is becoming increasingly complicated to answer when it comes to surrogacy.

  • Who can and cannot employ a surrogate – Single moms and dads? Same sex couples?
  • What is the nationality of a child born through a surrogate in a country that is different from where its commissioning parents live? ( Take a second to consider the business-like implications of using ‘commissioning parents’ as a phrase.) What rights do surrogates have when their bodies are a commercialised product?
  • Where is surrogacy legal and which countries have restrictions on people from other nationalities employing surrogates in their countries? Where is surrogacy becoming an industry?
  • When (if ever) is it okay for a surrogate to keep the child she carried instead of giving it to the commissioning parents? When is it okay for parents to decide they don’t want the child they commissioned? When (if ever) do the parents of a child born through surrogacy tell their child how it was born?
  • Why is surrogacy considered taboo in some countries and celebrated as yet another version of parenthood in others?
  • How can countries, surrogacy agencies and commissioning parents ensure that the surrogate they hire was not coerced into the job? How do commissioning parents and surrogates find each other in countries where surrogacy agencies are not allowed to advertise?

This article in the Economist provides a general overview of the debates surrounding surrogacy today, and in doing so also highlights the globalised nature of surrogacy.

After India banned foreign couples from hiring Indian surrogates, its booming industry simply shifted to other countries where the practice is still legal and surrogates can be hired for cheaper. It’s somewhat jarring to realise that the business of carrying a baby functions like any other cheap labour-seeking business model, be it manufacturing sports shoes or IT engineering. So now, Nepal, Cambodia and several African countries are emerging as the nodes of the global surrogacy industry. The easy movement of capital and information makes it relatively easy for them to find each other, except the transnational movement of the physical child itself remains a legal issue in several countries (Italy for instance made a commissioning couple give up their child for adoption since it was born through a surrogate in a different country).

The matter-of-fact, dry reportage of this article does not mask – or dwell – on the commoditised nature of childbearing that commercial surrogacy takes for granted. At first, the idea of ‘commissioning parents’ and ‘agencies’ that connect potential surrogates with interested would-be parents (like any other profession that requires an agent, like acting) seemed novel and uncomfortable and a symptom of our ‘modern’ times. But then I realised, mothering – in various forms – has always been available for purchase. Wet nurses and nannies are part of the same phenomena. And in a way, surrogacy follows the same racialised paths – Western couples in wealthy, developed countries turn to women in developing countries to take on the labour of pregnancy, just as colonial rulers (and wealthy privileged natives) outsourced the labour of breastfeeding and raising children to wet nurses and nannies, respectively.

Like what you’ve read so far? Please consider subscribing here if you’d like to receive regular updates from this column.

§

Being a mom – to your children and everyone else’s

Why are mothers subjected to rigid expectations that don’t seem to apply to fathers in the same way? Credit: Ralph Kayser/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

I like to think I have wonderful relationships with several of my friends’ moms. I can often be found at a friend’s dining table, shoveling rasam-rice or dosa into my Punjabi mouth as I whine, “But auntie, I don’t know what to doooo…” about some arbitrary problem. There are long phone calls and brief check-ins and sometimes secret discussions about aunties’ daughters (aka my friends).

And so Rivka Galchen’s piece titled ‘My Friends’ Moms’ really struck a chord with me. It’s a beautiful personal recollection of some of the friends’ moms Galchen interacted with, what they taught her, the small bits and pieces she remembers of their houses and her impressions of the women themselves.

In the penultimate paragraphs, she writes:

“We have so many parents in addition to our own, if we’re lucky. I’m thinking just now of the mom of another friend from childhood, the mom who taught me how to blow my nose. I spent thousands of hours in her home, which had a grain of rice with a poem written on it, and a red plate that was brought down only when it was someone’s birthday. I know all these moms did and do have names. But part of the special lighting of childhood comes from how small the cast was; maybe for this reason, names seem nothing, relations everything.”

The piece also raised some questions for me: Is mothering an instinct that some people just can’t turn off (and don’t want to either) or is it more that as children we see most women as maternal, seeking them out and plugging them into roles that they may not actually even want to embody at that moment in time. Maybe there have been times when my friends’ moms were exhausted from handling their own lives and their children when I happened to pop by and asked for yet more mothering – but they provided it anyway.

As Zadie Smith acknowledges in her latest novel, children don’t often see their mothers as people with competing priorities or interests, they just selfishly want their moms to be just that – their moms. But both Menkedick’s new book and the increasing prevalence of surrogacy promise to expand the idea of what it means to be ‘just a mom’.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at [email protected]
If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing to Name-Place-Animal-Thing.