Book Review: Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self
By Elly Teman
University of California Press, 2010
362 pages, softcover, $21.95
Reviewed by Molly Remer, MSW, CCCE
A scholarly work of passion and depth, Birthing a Mother is an in-depth look at the experience and feelings of Jewish surrogates and intended mothers in Israel. The book explores both perspectives—the unique experience of being a gestational surrogate and that of the intended mother. (The term “surrogate mother” is not considered a desirable one and this is clearly explained in the text, the surrogate is not the mother of the baby and this is reinforced over and over again by both surrogate and intended mother.)
Divided into four broad sections chronicling the surrogate journey, a special focus of Birthing a Mother is the intensive strategies employed by surrogates to dis-identify from the pregnant identity (the pregnant body) and focus the attention and bonding experiences on the intended mothers. Surrogates and intended parents both were very careful to identify the surrogate’s role as “container” for the baby, not as a maternal role. No surrogates in Israel use their own eggs and this was significantly emphasized—i.e. “maybe if it was my own egg, I would feel differently, but I know that this is not my baby.” I was very interested to read that this process actually leads some surrogates to choose elective cesareans (after having normal, vaginal births for their own biological children), feeling that to give birth to the baby vaginally might remove some of the containing elements and connect them physically to the baby in an undesirable way.
As the title would suggest, I was touched by the book’s passionate emphasis on the process of birthing a mother. The surrogacy experience was most often defined as this process—as giving birth to new parents by carrying their child and surrogacy is often seen as a profound gift (by both sets of people involved). And, indeed, most often the surrogates noted feelings of grief and dismay at having to give up the relationship with the intended mother following the birth, rather than “giving up” the baby. With the “container” identity firmly in place, most surrogates did not view the experience as a “relinquishment” of the baby at all, but as placing it into the arms of its rightful parents. As one intended mother stated, “You are not just giving birth to children; you are giving birth to new mothers and to new and happy families.”
A work of medical anthropology and women’s studies, rather than a book designed for birthworkers, Birthing a Mother has an academic feel and occasionally reads like a dissertation, but for the most part this style does not become overly cumbersome. The tight focus on the experiences of women in Israel made me wonder how stories and feelings would change cross-culturally. As someone who is admittedly not very informed about domestic surrogacy arrangements, I remain unclear how applicable the book’s observations and conclusions are to the U.S. population.
While not specifically directed at birthworkers, nor at surrogates or intended mothers, Birthing a Mother is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in exploring the intricacies and unique challenges of the surrogate experience.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.