Saturday, August 4, 2012

Review: Birthing a Mother by Elly Teman


 Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2010

Complete Title: Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self

It's about: (from the back cover) "Birthing a Mother is the first ethnography to explore the intimate experience of gestational surrogate motherhood.  In this insightful and beautifully written book, Elly Teman shows how surrogates and intended mothers carefully negotiate their cooperative endeavor.  Drawing on anthropological fieldwork among Jewish Israeli women, interspersed with cross-cultural perspectives of surrogacy in the global context, Teman traces the processes by which surrogates relinquish any maternal claim to the babies they carry even as intended mothers accomplish a complicated transition to motherhood.  Teman's groundbreaking analysis reveals that surrogates develop profound and lasting bonds with intended mothers even as they psychologically and emotionally disengage from the babies."
(I couldn't come up with a summary to rival that neat little abstract.)

I thought:  Yes!  Finally, a scholarly look at the surrogate experience!  The world of fertility and birth is such an emotionally charged one, and in my search for fictional and nonfictional texts about surrogacy I found nothing rational until stumbling upon Birthing a Mother on Amazon.  Most published and electronic material about this subject seems to fall clearly on one side of the fence; we have the "babies are a priceless gift from heaven and surrogates are the sweet and selfless angels who bring them" side, and then there's the radfem "surrogacy is by nature exploitative, patriarchal, and morally reprehensible" side.  Elly Teman examines the whole picture from the points of view of surrogates and intended mothers, all the while drawing in cultural, political, religious and feminist perspectives.  Her conclusions are enlightening.

As a surrogate myself, I did read this book with a certain bias.  It's easy for me to feel that I know the surrogate experience better than any researcher can, since I'm living it myself.  And my insider perspective makes some generalizations hard to swallow.  Ms. Teman extrapolates overarching ideas from interviews she conducted, and sometimes those ideas seemed... stretched.  For example, a good-sized section of the book describes a sub-conscious "body-mapping" process in which surrogates disengage from certain parts of their bodies, especially the uterus, in order to avoid bonding and connecting with the baby.  The theory makes sense in a way, and Teman develops it well, backing it up with surrogates' own testimonies: Israeli surrogates said that they didn't want to touch their own swollen bellies, that they sometimes forgot they were pregnant, that they were uninterested in viewing ultrasound images of the babies within them, etc.  But because I feel pretty confident that I haven't engaged in "body-mapping" myself (I still feel very connected to my uterus, thank you very much), it's hard for me to believe that it's a common, important part of the surrogate experience.  Then again, she does such a fabulous job of pointing out cultural influences, especially Israel's pronatalism, that I can't say for certain that she isn't absolutely right about the subset of women in her research. 

In general, I found Birthing a Mother refreshing and invigorating.  It's probably the most scholarly thing I've read since I graduated from college ages ago; rather than being a narrative or straight up information, it's a collection of well-organized, novel ideas that have been drawn from original research.  And there are SO MANY fascinating ideas!  The inner workings of the relationships that surrogates and intended mothers develop, the cross-cultural aspects that differentiate surrogacy experiences in different parts of the world, the examination of surrogacy as a postmodern form of reproduction, the potential for surrogate exploitation by the body politic... I learned so much from Birthing a Mother.  I came away from the reading experience in awe of the staggering workload Elly Teman must have shouldered for years to produce this book, and I'm grateful to her for it.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.  It's a must-read if you really want to understand the surrogate perspective.

Reading Recommendations: Get ready to dig in and think on this one.  If you're looking for a fluffier surrogacy story, try Then Came You.

Warnings: none

Favorite excerpts: My favorite conclusion, framing a surrogate's pregnancy/birth journey as a quest and addressing the question of whether or not surrogacy is exploitation:
"As Frank suggests in his examination of illness narratives, the 'truth of stories is not in what was experienced, but equally what becomes experience in the telling and its reception.'  The 'high' that surrogates say they feel at the end of the process can be seen literally as an effect of the heights of power they have reached in their experience of the quest.  This high represents the transcendent moment that is produced after the surrogate has disengaged her self from parts of her body, subdued her nature, battled material circumstances, and ascended in the pantheon of creation.  She has been joined together with the intended mother in a unity and has passed the tests of her sacred quest by showing courage and bravery.  Her 'high' is thus an effect of this moment of self-realization, an indescribable moment that may be likened to what Otto termed 'the experience of the holy.'  Consequently, although all signs may point to the surrogate's objectification and victimization, she experiences surrogacy as a liberating process in which she temporarily accesses what was once the feminine domain of creation."

What I'm reading nextThe Meaning of Night by Michael Cox