In recent weeks the airwaves have sizzled with stories about Nadya Suleman, the California woman who gave birth to octuplets conceived via assisted reproductive technology. In doing so, Suleman breached numerous mainstream social norms of motherhood.
First and foremost, in having eight babies, she went way beyond the two-child home that has become the standard for middle class-dom. There seems to be a Familial Least Common Denominator rule applicable to middle class parenting. You take the mother, put her in the numerator and put the number of kids in the denominator and you win points based on how close the resulting fraction is to one. If you're wealthy and socially well-placed, extra kids can be subtracted out in direct proportion to how much money and social cachet you have. You lose automatically if the numerator is greater than one--Heather cannot have multiple mommies!
Fuzzy math for sure, but Suleman got the math way wrong. The eight babies were, moreover, in addition to six that she already had at home. It is true that the media and the public have a longstanding fascination with multiple births and with large families (who can forget movies like “Cheaper by the Dozen” which seems to keep being re-made, TV shows like the “Brady Bunch,” or even those current reality shows about multiple sibs?) But there’s a point at which “yay” becomes “yuck”, and that happens right around the time that parents of the brood are revealed to be Other—outside of racial and class norms.
Early reports made Nadya Suleman out to be non-white. With all those kids, (and those lips!) she must be black, right? Just another welfare queen. I was at a birthday party out in Brooklyn back when the news broke and the disapproving whispers of the mostly West Indian party-goers seemed to confirm it –“she’s black, you know; making us look bad!” It was soon revealed that at some point she had been married to a man named Gutierrez. Aha, a Latina. They have lots of babies, too, right? But, no, wait, there’s more! She’s really, per her own account, half Arabic and half-Lithuanian. Oh (silence). One of those people from the nether-regions of the world. Not black. Not Latina. But only sort of white.
Besides breaching racial norms, Suleman breached class norms. According to media accounts, Suleman’s chief means of support for the years leading up to the birth of the octuplets seemed to be disability payments and food stamps for some of the children. How, people wondered, could she afford assisted reproductive technology? That’s for the wealthy, right? Scandal!
The media could posit few acceptable reasons for breaching norms in so spectacular a fashion, bearing and keeping so many babies. So... Nadya Suleman must be crazy. Men-tally ill. Some commentators suggested that Suleman might be suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Hooked on pregnancy,” as one writer suggested. Addiction to addition.
A significant aspect of what causes anxiety in the case of Nadya Suleman is her thoroughly post modern take on women's autonomy and choice. Suleman recreates multiply and serially without the need for sexual activity, marriage, or for the physical autonomy suggested by limiting childbirth. Suleman's child bearing is a figurative nose-thumbing at both the right and the left.
You can read more about the socio-legal anxieties engendered by Nadya Suleman and her babies in an abstract of a paper written by Professor Bridget Crawford (of Feminist Law Professors fame) and I at Multiple Anxieties.
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