February 15, 2009

Breaching Baby Norms

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

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. clip_image009Californians 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?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Breaching Baby Norms:


The bible tells us clearly that we are not to judge others, but simply lift them up through prayer. These children will need many, many prayers in the coming months and years. The mother and grandmother will also need our prayers as this is an enormous responsibility wherein an example will have to be set. We can only hope that Nadya is able to see the errors in her thinking patterns and correct her economic stability status before a program like child services steps in to handle her responsibilities for her. Again,the children are not responsible for the mistakes of the mother and the kids will surely need as much care (financial or otherwise) as they can get, but I believe that prayer should be our top priority at this point.

I was watching the news one day, and heard all about Sulemon. I couldn't believe it! I didn't know that she was getting money for a back injury. I think you brought up a good point when you said "How someone who supposedly has a serious back injury could carry so many pregnancies?" That really has to make you think. In my Sociology class we read a lot about norms in the chapter we just did. Sounds as if she is breaking all the norms as a mother of mutiple children. I think people should really watch out, you dan't want kids in a home where a mother can't take care of them. I however don't think that we can have a law saying who can and can't have children. People are suppose to have equal rights, and if that law were to pass chaos would surely break out. For now, I think we must support the mother until she gives reasons not to. She has already had all the kids, we can't go back in time and change that. There is no point in holding a grudge of something you can't change.

I too am a single mom by choice and became pregnant with twins. They are my only children and I am happy with two. I made my decisions very carefully and knew I had the means to support my children regardless If I had one or two. I am very aware of the IVF Process and the ethics surrounding implanting multiple embreyos. I can say that most of the clinics in the US would not have made a decision to implant all of those eggs but I dont think there are any laws prohibiting doing so. That probably should change to prevent something like this from happening again. It puts us into some rough water ethically and opens up the discussion surrounding choice, rights and when does life begin.
The more I learn about the circumstances about Sulemon the more I feel sorry for the children. They did not have a choice in this matter and they will be victims of both their environment and the criticism of the general public. I feel that Sulemon made some very selfish decisions on her part in every aspect of deciding to have more children. First, she had more than enough children to take care of and already had her hands full. Any more by choice would be unfair to her existing children and deprive them of a stable and nurturing environment even if she could afford them. There is just not enough time to go around to give your children proper care when there are that many (before she had more) . 2.) It was dangerous to her (Thus her current children and the babies in her womb were in danger of losing their mother) 3.) It was dangerous to her babies to plan on a multiple pregnancy with so many fetuses. If they all survived, you could almost count on children with disabilities ( I have to wonder about that in terms of knowing she would get extra money from the government for children with disabilities. 4.) She was already on food stamps,she lives with her mom whom will most probably lose her home
5.) Her other children will have to bear the responsibility of helping with the other children and will have a very stressful home environment. 6.) As a mom to twins, I know how hard it is to take care of multiples. I love every minute of it and it is damn challenging and that is just with twins. This household will have to be watched very closely because of the stressful environment.
So she has already had the kids and as I mentioned before it was not their choice. They deserve all the care that they can get and they deserve to live in an intact family with their mother and their siblings. They are going to need a lot of help and support. Its done. I think we need to put this behind us and come up with solutions to prevent it from happening again. But it wont be easy. Where do we draw the line. What is too many children. One, two three or twelve.

With all of the news about the octuplet mother, this article makes a lot of sense combined with what the major headlines talk about now-a-days. They are definitely taking her situation out of control simply because she does not fit the typical situation. Sure her situation is an extreme case considering shes breaking so many different "norms" in this situation, but the fact that she now has this huge responsability I'm sure is not being helped by the fact that she is given so much banter about her decisions.

I believe we will reinforce the norms about fertility clinics and having 8 children at a time. Many people want to make sure that fertility clinics are ethical so this issues will not appear again. Nadia cannot afford her babies and they are the most important issue. It is not just that she did not follow the norms for having children it is because she had so many that she cannot take care. One person cannot possibly take care of 14 children physically, emotionally, and economically.

Just one who has been is those shoes could say it...

While it is more scientific than nature thing, do not believe that if God had not allowed not happen?

I'm over the whole octomom thing! The media gets something and runs with it. I do feel that she is mentally ill to even consider still having children when she already had a small army. It's actually sad when you really stop and think about it all. It's just like Miss Drake states, lots of prayer.

This whole story is pretty crazy and kind of sad. Just think of how these children are going to feel, having to grow up in the spot light with a mom who is known for having 14 kids while living off the government, not a good situation. I believe that her decision was unlogical, unless you are famous, how are you going to support 14 children? It is normal to have a few children but not 14! This article is a good source for anyone who believes that her decision was smart. Living off of disability and everyone else's money? Is that right? Who am I to judge, I just don't see anything good for the children coming from that.

WOw! Thats crazy how people can do that now and days. Make a baby without even needing a husband. Call me old fashion but I still think that
you should be married if you want to have kids. Kids have to grow up without a mother or a father. I think that octomom is crazy. This is why o
our economy sucks, because we have people living on welfare. I feel bad for all of her kids and I think that she is mental ill. I think
that fertility clinics should limit how many kids you kids. can have. By how much money you bring in and do you have a stable home. If they
don't they shouldn't be letting someone give birth to

Women are producing babies in different ways. Some are adopting and some are paying to have someone carry a baby for them because they can't bare a child. There are even some that don't want to have a man in their life, so they choose to buy from a donor bank to impregnate them. In any case, women are having children in many ways. If they are happy and can take care of the child, then it shouldn't be a problem. But if someone is getting money for "hurting their back," then I agree, how could they keep getting pregnant?

After reading about fertility and fertility rates in my sociology text book, women are choosing to reproduce in different ways. And because this is out of the "norm" women are being judge for it, which isn't right.

I hate "judging" people, but the whole thing does sound crazy.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Is "God is Dead" Dead? | Main | How Young Can Your Grandma Be? »