Breaching Baby Norms
The more we hear about the Nadya Sulemon, the recent mother of octuplets and six other children, the more the public sentiment turns against her. Most multiple births are greeted with caring concern for the babies and parents. Mothers of multiples are typically women who, in their desperation to become mothers, seek fertility treatments after multiple failed pregnancy attempts. However, this year’s public multiple mom doesn’t match the typical demographic.
Why has the tide of public sentiment turned against Sulemon? From a sociological viewpoint, Ms. Sulemon has breached the norms of motherhood.
When the news first hit, it generated an outpouring of concern for all eight infants and the mother. We were fascinated that they thought it was seven fetuses and they were surprised at the existence of the eighth. Curiosity then turned to the mother and her circumstances. How long had she been trying to conceive? Who was her husband, the father? How would they support all those kids?
We were then told that she already had six children. Then we found out that her ex-husband wasn’t the father of any of the children. Then we discovered that she lives with her mother and supports herself through disability payments for a back injury. It also emerged that the sperm donor is someone she knows and that a fertility clinic helped her conceive the babies.
What norms are being broken here?
- Women who pursue fertility treatments and are implanted with multiple embryos typically do not already have one child, much less six.
- Mothers-to-be are usually married or have a partner with whom they will share parenting.
- Most of the time the parents have a job that will support some or all of their financial needs.
- Sperm donors are usually anonymous unless they are the woman’s partner.
- And finally fertility clinics usually follow guidelines and policies of reasonable implantations to avoid risky multiple births like this one.
In her interview with Today's Ann Curry, Ms. Sulemon mentions that she hopes the sperm-donor father of her children will want to know his children some day. This would deepen the breach of norms since sperm donors are not typically involved in knowing or raising the people their sperm may help create.
Fertility issues are relatively recent societal phenomena, thus these norms are new and contested. Yet when this case became public, the outrage it created reflects the strength of these norms. Typically, when norms are breached, society works to repair the breach through various means-- including punishing the offender.
Kaiser health care members have voiced concerns that they are in effect paying for her medical care and the millions of dollars that are supporting the preemies as they continue to grow. Californians have voiced concerns that their taxes are paying for her disability payments, and some have expressed skepticism about how someone who supposedly has a serious back injury could carry so many pregnancies. The many mental health professionals commenting in the media analyze her every statement and call into question her mental health status and question the (many) incongruities in her statements.
Most of the breaching repairs to date are aimed at discrediting Sulemon’s behavior as pathological and irresponsible. More than one story mentions the salience of her behavior “in the current economic climate”-- as if different economic times would have resulted in a different set of responses.
Many of the responses to this situation are focused on the financial burden of having fourteen children. While watching the interview, I was struck by how much this woman looked and sounded like a famous mother of many children, Angelina Jolie. Child-bearing is normative when you can support your own children, or, stated more bluntly, if you’re wealthy enough, you can have as many children as you like since you can “afford” them. The public reaction to Angelina Jolie’s non-traditional reproduction and parenting choices isn’t nearly as negative, in part because she can support her brood and has a partner with whom to share the responsibilities and the joys.
Famous, wealthy, or middle class women who become single parents by choice through adoption, fertility treatments, or handy friends, do not face the scrutiny that poor women do. In this case, society is taking part in the financial support of this family because the mother receives tax-payer subsidized disability payments, food stamps, and tens of thousands of dollars worth of health care.
These outcries are breaching repairs, geared to clarify and reinforce our norms about child-bearing. Will we reinforce these norms enough to change our laws? Will we as a society insist that fertility clinic policies are more ethical, sensible, and enforceable? However, stating in legal terms that poor women have different rights from wealthier women would clearly be problematic.
What other informational tidbits will come to us about this situation and how will we handle them? Will we use new information about Sulemon as further evidence of “irresponsible behavior” and cast ourselves as judge and jury to restore the norms of society? Or will we retain some of the caring and concern that usually accompanies news of multiple birth events?