Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nadya Suleman Gives Motherhood a bad name.

It was only a few short week ago when the news wires were all a twitter about the birth of eight children to a mystery mom in California. Since that initial report the story has metastized into the epic horror story that is Nadya Suleman. It is interesting how one woman can combine so many cultural bugaboos in to one perfect storm of warped celebrity scandal. She is a single mother to six other children with a foreign name who is unemployed and living with her parents in a three bedroom house. This being year of mortgage meltdown, her parents were foreclosed on their second house which Ms Suleman used to occupy. The cherry on top of this little drama was the revelation that Ms. Suleman is on public assistance. With no job and six children she drew almost $500.00 a month in food stamps from the state of California. But it gets better, of the six children at home three have disabilities and qualify for federal aide. Thus we have an unemployed single mother who is $50,000 dollars in the hole for student loans, living in the home of her bankrupt parents, ( the parents walked away from a cool million in liabilities) who will now attempt to raise fourteen children under eight, three of which already have special needs. By the way she intends to go back to school sometime after the entire brood arrives home.,0,7610365.story

It is hard to imagine a woman who could combine so many misogynistic tropes into a single pop-cultural reference. She is a black hole warping the very fabric of our celebrity space-time continuum. The woman is seriously weird. Of course she landed on the TV machine in a big way with Ann Curry. The peacock network splashed Ms. Suleman’s visage all over every available timeslot and audience it could think of; and why not it was the news equivalent of a train wreck spilling into a nuclear power site and setting off a Chernobyl type explosion.

This was the “miracle” of modern in vitro fertilization gone horrible rogue (standards?! we don’t need no stinkin’ standards!) crunching into one woman’s obsessive and possibly narcissistic needs for recognition and realization. This story is a keeper. Ms. Suleman is going to be crashing around our collective culture and unconscious like a bull elephant in heat for some time to come.

Like it or not Ms. Suleman’s excellent misadventure has opened up a huge cultural can of worms. Exactly what combination of cultural expectations and warped thinking combined to create this flesh and blood artifact? The woman is a fun-house mirror reflection of our social norms; specifically the norms of femininity and motherhood. If motherhood really does “complete” a woman then exactly why are we so freaked out when one woman pushes this meme to its logical extreme?

One of the more interesting tidbits in the story was how Nadya’s parents were powerless to prevent or curtail her quest for multiple progeny. Ms. Suleman had undergone five other IVF procedures before the procedure that resulted in the octuplets. Exactly when did Angela Suleman's pride in becoming a helpful grandmother start to become panic? What exactly was going through granny’s head when her daughter announced her intention to have IVF via sperm donor? Nadya was already separated from her husband at the time and none of children she would bear would share her (future) ex’s DNA. Unlike most women Nadya made a conscious decision to become a single mother, a single mother who was on workman’s compensation. Quick question; exactly how does an unemployed woman on workman’s comp afford IVF?

Still Nadya had an advantage in that she clearly wanted to be a mother. Exactly who, if anyone, had the right to tell her no? If one uses the argument that she was unqualified because of her economic situation that becomes problematic. Plenty of women of insufficient means have children that they can’t support. Are we going to have a means test for motherhood? Instead of food stamps, WIC, and other forms of aid is the government supposed to begin imposing contraception or worse yet abortion on economically destitute women? Is adoption a real alternative? Where do we get the right to strip away a woman’s child just because she is an economic burden on the public coffers?

What of the argument that fourteen children are just too many for a single mother to handle? The difficulties of trying to raise eight children at once do give a person pause. Still, we seem to have less of a problem with Duggar family and their seventeen children than Ms Suleman’s family of fourteen. The Duggars are the subject of a TLC reality T.V. program. No one complained when the Discovery Network came in to support their life-style by building them a large house to live in. In 2004, Michelle Duggar won the "Young Mother of the Year Award" in Arkansas. ( ) It will be a long time,if ever, before Nadya Suleman is so honored in California. Still other than the presence of Mr. Duggar what is the difference between Nadya and Michelle? Why is the Duggar family held up for praise whilst the Suleman family held up to ridicule? Before the Octuplets Ms. Suleman was spacing out her children just about as well as Mrs. Duggar. Still one doubts that the “Quiverfull” movement ( ) is going to come to the defense of Ms. Suleman the way they have come to the defense of the Duggars. It is the little matter of the missing husband that was suppose to rule over her and provide the genetic material for the Suleman children.

How would we look at Nadya if she was still married? Those Octuplets were “snowflake” babies. She made a conscious decision to bear all six of her frozen embryos, under other circumstances she would have been a hero to the religious and political right. What a difference being poor, unmarried, and non-white makes. The woman really does manage to be a funhouse mirror of our political, moral, and religious obsessions. Neither the left nor the right nor the squishy center can feel comfortable embracing this woman’s choices. She has taken up the messaging of our culture; the expected norms of womanhood, motherhood, family and returned that messaging in a bizarre manner.

In her own offbeat way Nadya has followed the program and the expectations of our culture. We expect women to love and desire children. She checked off that expectation in a huge way. In her interview she mouthed all the right words. So why the disconnect between her words and the ugly facts on the ground? Why has the public at large and media labeled this woman as a loon? She fulfilled her part of the social contract hasn’t she? She performed her duty as a woman, the highest possible duty, that of becoming a mother. She is absolutely obsessed with having and raising children, why are we not putting her on a pedestal? The woman went the extra distance to achieve her goal; she knowingly placed her own life on the line to achieve it. She rejected the option of selective abortion, why are the right-to-lifers not singing her praises? What is it about this woman that creeps us out?

Ours is a very strange culture and a very odd polity. There is no way Nadya Suleman would have been allowed to adopt eight kittens or puppies from the local animal shelter with her background, never mind children. Yet she found a way to bring eight more human lives into her household. If fourteen cats of various and sundry description were cruising around the Suleman household Animal Control Officers would have good justification in removing them from that situation. Attempting to remove the fourteen children from that house, assuming the state goes that route, will be far more difficult. What is considered an unacceptable situation for small furry creatures is, at this writing, perfectly acceptable for fourteen children and some adults. This is a very odd state of affairs.

But that is what makes this whole Suleman drama grist for the gossip mill. We get to talk about social and political expectations in a non-partisan and indirect way. What are our expectations of motherhood and parenting? What exactly makes a good mother and a healthy home situation? What responsibilities does the individual have to the greater society when it comes to reproduction? Does the larger society have any right to impose its norms on an individual and if so when and why? We are dealing with a very fundamental biological imperative, that of reproduction here, do we really have the right to interfere with it? Should we revisit the whole notion of “infertility treatment?” Maybe the Pope is right here and we are getting a little too clever with our interference with natural processes. Our technological skills have far outstripped out moral and ethical ability to handle them. We keep getting surprised by the unintended consequences of our technological advances. Is there any rational solution to this conundrum?

Perhaps not; we are dealing either in the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply or the Darwinian imperative to pass on our gene set. Either way we are dealing with a profound force that is not amenable to the persuasion of sweet reason. Perhaps we will use the strange case of Nadya Suleman to begin a conversation about how to deal with the knotty issues she has presented to us. More likely we will stop talking about this and move on to some other obsession from the wild, wooly and wacky world of celebrity. Did you hear about the latest about…?

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