Evidently I wasn’t the only one who nearly choked on her Sunday morning pancakes reading Alex Kuczynski’s article “Her Body, My Baby” in the New York Times Magazine in November. Judging from the letters to the editor and the blogospheric clamor, the article, a meditation on the writer’s “adventures with a surrogate mom,” caused an epidemic of indigestion. Kuczynski suffered through 11 IVF procedures and four miscarriages before finally arranging to implant the embryo made by her egg and her husband’s sperm into the uterus of a Pennsylvania woman named Cathy Hilling. But Kuczynski, the wife of a billionaire investor, managed to leave most readers fuming at her yoga-filled leisure, her “euphoria” at not having to endure the lumpy discomforts of pregnancy, her surprise that her babysitter, as it were, knew how to use a computer, and myriad other examples of trophy-wife narcissism.
The Times’s editors helped make sure that readers were offended by the gap between Bergdorf egg and Wal-Mart womb. The photos—one of an ungainly Hilling sitting on a run-down porch (which, she later objected, was the only dilapidated section of her house) and another of Kuczynski, svelte and coiffed on the manicured grass of her Southampton home with a dark-skinned baby nurse standing at attention nearby—couldn’t have been more provocative if the editors had shown the writer planting a stiletto heel in her surrogate’s back.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering, after perusing the 300th online comment decrying the inequality between employer and employee, whether these objections were too easy. Not that the typical income gap between surrogate mothers and parents isn’t troubling. In this globalized era, infertile European and Asian couples increasingly outsource their embryos to poor mothers in India. If that doesn’t make you cringe, try the recent Newsweek report that military wives are turning to surrogacy to earn needed cash, sometimes making more than their soldier-husbands do in a year.
Yet the truth is that surrogates—Americans, at any rate—show few signs of feeling exploited. On the contrary, these proletarians pity their managers. Many working- or lower-middle-class women who become surrogates already have three or more kids of their own. These women don’t just love children; they adore the whole leaky, clumsy, achy mess of pregnancy and childbirth. On surrogacy website forums, “surro-moms” download sonograms, post pictures of their bellies, muse about their IMs (intended mothers), and decorate their posts with rainbows and butterflies.
In other words, despite their radical line of work, surrogates tend to be profoundly conservative when it comes to their female identity. They experience the sort of visceral fulfillment in pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood that their better-educated and wealthier sisters find somewhat alien. Don’t get me wrong: most educated women want to have kids, or will want to at some point. Kuczynski describes a “mad desire that seemed to defy logic”; I suspect that the majority of female lawyers and editors will recognize the symptom.
But the mental and emotional universe that the surrogate occupies is different from that of many infertile mothers-to-be. To be part of the educated middle class is to discipline primal urges, to order life in a way that tends to preclude Sarah Palin–style maternalism, and, in many cases—often unintentionally—to rule out kids altogether. It’s no coincidence that Kuczynski has an aerobic look in the Times photo, or that Hilling appears overweight; as Liza Mundy reports in Everything Conceivable, this is often the case with surrogate moms. Here’s the bottom line: the woman in need of a surrogate is depending on and soliciting a notion of female physicality that she herself has spent much of her life evading, perhaps even condemning.
But the Hillings of the world may laugh last. In developed nations, less educated women are reproducing at much higher rates than their college-educated sisters. Demography may yet trump inequality.