by Elly Teman, author of Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self
Surrogacy has now made it to the cover pages of Newsweek and The New York Times. Whether discussing the prevalence of surrogacy in India or among American military wives, the bottom line is that these women are being unfairly judged in the press as unfortunate and untrustworthy. The Indian surrogate mothers are depicted as desperately poor, clearly doing it “just for the money” and as being rehabilitated, as social work cases, by the agency that arranges the contract. The US military wives are accused of greedily using military health coverage to finance their for-profit pregnancies. And in recent accounts of disputes over custody and parental rights between surrogates and intended parents, it is implied that many surrogates change their minds and decide to keep the baby.
Headlines announcing these stories, using phrases such as “outsourced wombs” and “wombs for rent,” also suggest that these women are doing little more than temporarily lending out a body part in exchange for money. Why the cultural unease with surrogates? Why do surrogates a priori need to be depicted as victims or as evildoers?
Together, these depictions make it clear that the idea that a woman could carry a baby for nine months and then willingly relinquish is still difficult to stomach. We may have forgiven Juno because she was so young and because she conceived accidentally, but when an adult woman makes such a premeditated decision we explain her actions by pointing to a culprit: irresponsible behavior, low IQ, financial desperation, or greed.
Not only do these depictions give surrogates a bad rep, but they also do a disservice to the complex and by no means trivial efforts that surrogates invest in the surrogacy process. Surrogacy is not for the faint-hearted or for those interested in easy money; it necessitates emotional and cognitive skills that go beyond a conventional education. In my ethnographic research on surrogate motherhood arrangements I have learned that surrogate mothers are skillful multi-taskers. They bravely face the mood swings, painful injections and health risks of the fertility treatments. They “carry” their contracting parents’ baby with responsibility and awareness of how much the parents are counting on them, all the while continuing to care for their own families at home.
Achieving a balance between caring for the baby growing inside them and simultaneously preparing themselves for relinquishment is no simple task; it involves strategically planning out what to allow oneself to feel at every moment. It also takes a mature, practical attitude and a clearly articulated self-awareness for a surrogate to maintain a close, yet respectful relationship with her contracting parents. Using a mixture of optimism and previous experiential knowledge of pregnancy and birth, surrogates often find themselves soothing anxious expectant parents who themselves are trying to come to terms with the lack of control they feel over the pregnancy. Surrogates must be emotionally insightful in order to show an understanding attitude towards these concerns yet they must also continuously communicate to the intended parents where their limits are. Any woman who completes this journey should be admired for her skill in managing the multiple emotions and complex relationships that surrogacy entails. She should be respected for the hard work she does with her mind and her heart, not just her womb.