Last week, two extreme examples tested the limits of what society deems acceptable motherhood: Nadya Suleman, the 33-year-old who delivered octuplets in California two weeks ago via in vitro fertilization, and Ranjit Hayer, the 60-year-old who gave birth to twin boys in Calgary after receiving fertility treatment in India. And, as tends to be the case when limits are tested, so too are hypocrisies revealed.
First Suleman, a tragic example of a woman overwhelmed by celebrity culture. Watching her on NBC’s Today was like watching Angelina Jolie’s doppelganger—same hair, same expansive lips—to the point the Internet was quickly awash in speculation the new mother had cosmetic surgery to resemble the actress. Other strange similarities exist. They’re both 33 years old. Both have admitted to experiencing troubled childhoods. And both have displayed a passionate desire for families whose size far exceeds the current norm. Suleman said she intended to have “only” seven children through in vitro fertilization but now has 14 under the age of seven. (“You take risks, and it turned out perfectly,” she explained.) Jolie has six children through adoption and birth and has expressed the desire for more.
Of course, few question Jolie’s motivation or capacity to be a good mother. She and partner Brad Pitt have the wealth to afford the retinue of help to care for and the multi-roomed mansions to shelter their brood. And no one asks the two superstars with high-octane careers, as they do Suleman, whether they have enough time to lavish individual attention on their children. The unmarried Suleman, with no visible means of support and a history of mental illness, represents the sinister side of a cultural mania for “babies” (as opposed to raising children) so entrenched that First Lady Michelle Obama wasn’t in the White House a week before rumours began circulating she was pregnant, despite the fact she’s 45.
Suleman’s comments to interviewer Ann Curry were filled with the kind of narcissistic parenting bromides that would be laughable were they not so deluded: “I’m providing myself to my children,” said the woman who plans to return to school for her master’s degree. “I’m loving them unconditionally, supporting them unconditionally. I’ll stop my life for them and be present for them… And how many parents do that?” The language was eerily similar to that Jolie used on Good Morning America just days earlier discussing how her children are her priority. “I’d say kids first, kids, woman to Brad and then my work internationally,” she said, adding: “But I wake up every day just the happiest mummy… I don’t want to wake up one day and say I had my career that expanded so much longer and I did that many more films and miss out on all those other things in life.”
No wonder Suleman is bewildered. The same media that follows Pitt and Jolie’s peripatetic lives with children in tow, pays the couple millions for photographs of their newborns and speculates feverishly about when their next addition will land, has vilified her as a monster, a drain on the social system and the environment.
Suleman appeared defiant about facing harsher judgment as a single mother, noting that dual parents of children born through IVF are more “acceptable” to society. She has a point. Many have become celebrities in the new hyper-fertile-family reality-show genre: Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, an Arkansas couple with 18 children, star in TLC’s 17 Kids and Counting!; Jon and Kate Goselin, parents of twins and sextuplets, have exploited their fecundity on Jon & Kate Plus 8 and their best-selling book Multiple Blessings; and most recently, Betty and Eric Hayes’s show Twelve at the Table explores the challenges of raising ten children under the age of 12, including one with cerebral palsy.
Suleman had hoped to jump aboard that gravy train. She hired a publicist and was angling for an appearance on Oprah, her own parenting show and the deluge of freebies heaped upon multiple-birth parents since the Dionne quintuplets were born in 1934. When Nkem Chukwu of Houston became the first woman to give birth to octuplets in the U.S. in 1998, her family was given use of a six-bedroom suburban home, a battalion of volunteers helped care for the seven surviving babies, and they received a lifetime supply of Pampers.
Proctor & Gamble isn’t delivering a lifetime supply of anything to Suleman, even though the needs of her children are as great. Nor is Ranjit Hayer about to land any endorsement deals. Aside from the fury that her lifelong desire for motherhood has cost the Alberta health system a bundle, her advanced age has many apoplectic that she will not live to see her children become adults. What is curious, though, is the absence of any mention of her husband’s age. Or maybe not. There’s a socially unquestioned assumption that the mother, not the father, does most of the backbreaking work of child-raising. More, though, it’s assumed that a good mother has to be a young, healthy mother, which is not true. Just as it’s assumed the Hayer twins will suffer as a result of being raised by people old enough to be their grandparents, though that’s far from the worst fate a child can face. Just ask Barack Obama.