Posted Monday, Jan. 3, 2011, at 1:58 PM
KJ , I couldn't agree more about Melanie Thernstrom's piece on her very 21st century family. Thernstorm wore down my default cynicism with her generosity, sensibility, and openness. Her good spirits contrast brilliantly next to Ross Douthat's sour, cold-hearted assertion that we should return to an era when young, unmarried women were coerced into giving babies up for adoption, so as to spare white upper class people the hassle of using reproductive technology to get babies that look like them. Like you, I find the obsession with having babies in a narrow, society-approved way to be distasteful at best, but usually pretty creepy with a side dose of nosy.
Thernstrom and her husband and her extended family seem like great people, and their choices make sense to me. What I found upsetting in her story was all the ways the patriarchal nuclear family paradigm was enforced on Thernstrom by the agencies, medical staff, and nosy bystanders in her life. The technologies used to make babies nowadays are very 21st century, but the attitudes on display come straight out of an era when people picked up their babies from the maternity home (often leaving behind a distraught, depressed birth mother who was made to feel she had no choices), took them home, and pretended they were biological children in order to keep up appearances with the neighbors. The tube so you can pretend you're breast-feeding weirded me out as much as it did Thernstrom; all that sort of thing does is reinforce the idea that you're not the "real" mother unless you perform certain behaviors that we associate with biological motherhood.
And of course, now as back then, there's this pressure to erase the work and sometimes the very existence of the women who actually have the babies. Back in the maternity-home era, girls were sent away to give birth and then instructed to pretend it never happened. Thernstrom received similar pressure to ignore the surrogates and egg donor, in hopes they'd just go away. Most distressing to me was the advice she got not to seek out surrogates who would be compensated for their labor. Feminism 101 moment: Not compensating women fairly for their work is one of the ways that a sexist society denies that women's contributions matter. Kudos to Thernstrom for going with her instincts over all this advice; I believe she's created a model for the ethical use of new-fangled reproductive technologies.