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Something Sinister / The Tone is Missing

from Sunday, November30th of the year2008.

There is something sinister to me about these long articles about couples who desperately want children who spend shits-ton of money to do in-witro fertilization and then end up using surrogates. Alex Kuczynski wrote a nineteen million word essay about her own baby journey in this week’s New York Times Magazine, in which she explores her infertility and eventual decision to use (?) a surrogate to bear her child. She writes:

Couples often erect a barricade of privacy around the process to avoid the questions from friends and family members, and their ceaseless, useless volley of suggestions: You just need to relax. Did you try acupuncture? Soy milk makes you infertile. You’re in front of your computer too much. What’s the problem with all you career girls? Did this cycle work? Are you pregnant this time? How many shots? Where? A low whistle: Boy, you must really want a child. You must really want a child. As if that were a bad thing.

Well, sugar lumps, you can always just adopt one, like, how hell of gay people aren’t even allowed to do now in Arkansas. In her article, the idea of adoption only comes up as something other people do. Adoptive mothers, as it happens, were the most supportive of her when she was feeling things like: “Would I really be his mother? Was the key to motherhood carrying the baby?” Now, if I were an adoptive mother and this lady called me up talking about, “Would my child grow up and shout, ‘You can’t tell me what to do “” you didn’t even give birth to me!’?” I’m sure I would have cussed her out before God, AT&T, and everybody. I was directed to read Dan Savage’s article, in which he writes about Arkansas:

That state’s Proposed Initiative Act No. 1, approved by nearly 57 percent of voters last week, bans people who are “cohabitating outside a valid marriage” from serving as foster parents or adopting children. While the measure bans both gay and straight members of cohabitating couples as foster or adoptive parents, the Arkansas Family Council wrote it expressly to thwart “the gay agenda.” Right now, there are 3,700 other children across Arkansas in state custody; 1,000 of them are available for adoption. The overwhelming majority of these children have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their heterosexual parents.

See, this is where I feel a huge cultural disconnect between these people (Arkansas people + Surrogate Mother People) and me. If there are 3,700 (!) kids in state custody in Arkansas alone, why would you even begin the process of thinking about going through 11 cycles of I.V.F. and dealing with a surrogate and paying her ass $60,000!? It’s a total scam. Then the idea that this whole state is saying, right, well, a child would be better with married parents than with a single parent, OR with unmarried couples both straight and gay? Obviously it’s code for “no gay adoption,” but it’s actually much more sinister than that when you think about it for longer than ten seconds. What is the vision of the world that these people are espousing? If they’re so upstanding, where are the 3,700 wholesome, non-toothless, married couples in Arkansas? Is 2009 going to be like supermarket sweep, with families adopting these Arkönsubörn at high speeds? Good luck with that. Anyway, the thing in the times is pretty wild and well worth reading. I read it once and wasn’t bothered too much, and then the second time started freaking out at paragraphs like:

The bigger Cathy was, the more I realized that I was glad “” practically euphoric “” I was not pregnant. I was in a daze of anticipation, but I was also secretly, curiously, perpetually relieved, unburdened from the sheer physicality of pregnancy. If I could have carried a child to term, I would have. But I carried my 10-pound dog in a BabyBjörn-like harness on hikes, and after an hour my back ached.

Beg pardon? What 10-pound dog? What hikes? Or how about:

After the second-month checkup, we walked home to my apartment for lunch. We talked about how she had played on her college tennis team. She was an accompanist for a children’s choir and brought her piano sheet music so she could practice. She played our Steinway while I got lunch.

There’s something about that sentence: “She played our Steinway while I got lunch” that reads like Gertrude Stein, first of all, but then when I realized that their little lunch date wasn’t going to descend into an afternoon of foxy boxing and tribadism, I started shouting at the laptop in my mind: “I still don’t know what dog you’re talking about” and “I bet you can’t even PLAY that piano!” and of course, roe and behold:

I stood outside the living room, holding a tray of tuna sandwiches and listening. I was numb. I can hardly play the piano. I never played on my college tennis team. Back in those days, I was smoking and dyeing my hair black. For Pete’s sake, I thought, this woman can do all those things “” and have my baby.

And again, it’s like, she can have your baby because her womb goeth, whereas yours goeth not. Shudder. Go to Arkansas and grab one of those babies and write a travel journal. In the department of writing about childbirth, while reading this Alex K. article I couldn’t stop thinking about Daniel Raeburn’s article from a couple of years ago in the New Yorker talking about his stillborn daughter, which contains some of the most heartbreaking and intense writing:

Someone once said that William Carlos Williams was sitting by the bed of one of his patients when she died. He turned to look out the window and saw a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside white chickens. I saw a salt-stained sidewalk under the funnel of a street lamp, a beige plastic armrest beside a blue blanket, my left foot in a black boot slipping in my wife’s red blood. Irene was in the breech position and she came forth rump first. Our midwife said, “Push,” and Rebekah pushed, and pushed again, pushed so mightily that at the apex of her effort the red hole in the center of Irene’s exposed butt opened and a black turd slithered out. Rebekah expelled Irene in a final burst, and I watched the prunelike baby, embalmed in gore and ichor, flop into the hands of the midwife. The nurse snipped the bobbing umbilical cord and whisked the body out of sight. The nurse who’d induced Rebekah had tried to warn me. “The tone,” she’d said. “After they’ve been dead for a few days, they don’t have the tone. The tone is missing.” What she meant was that my girl would feel lifeless. She had no blood pressure and so her face splayed flat in my hand, like a deliquescent tomato. I placed my thumbs above Irene’s eyelids and eased them upward, intending to look into her eyes, but the milky, unfathomable slivers awed me and I stopped. The unknitted plates of her skull grated and clicked as I cupped my palm and rounded her face to its likeness, which I recognized. It was not like looking into a mirror. Facing a mirror you see merely your own countenance; facing your child you finally understand how everyone else has seen you.

Gah. I remember exactly where I was when I read that, too.

I am right now in Iceland, happily working away on a mini-vacation in Snæfellsness. It’s only three hours away from Reykjavík but it feels like a whole universe away. I am really feeling the severity here:


  • Considering Alex Kuczynski’s well-documented obsession with cosmetic surgery, I am unsure what she hopes to gain by cursing a child with genetics that she herself has found so unsatisfactory.

  • Roe was splendid to that an Icelandic site? Do you feel just a little odd mocking the mispronunciation of LO or was it just too delicious to not use? Clever clever boy. Are you bringing some LO back to me? yr mom

  • What Dan said. And shame on “The NY Times” for thinking that kind of onanism is relevant or interesting to anybody but the most self-absorbed monster. If that’s who they think their readership is, I hope they’re swept away with the coming wind.

  • Nico- I think you’re conflating a whole bunch of issues. I totally support the right of gay couples to adopt, and find it hard to countenance the situation in Arkansas and elsewhere. But I don’t think that gives me cause to criticize the choice of Alex Kuczynski to use a surrogate. I’ve had a very tough journey myself, and I’ve realized that everyone has to find their own way.

    Nico responds: True, I am totally conflating. And I completely get the idea of wanting to have your own biological child. But imagine what it’s like to read the paper, as a gay, and see these two piles of people (women wanting children + children wanting moms) and then be told that you’re completely disqualified from the whole game. There is something . . . conflatable about it! But, I get wanting to have your own kid, and I can’t imagine how insanely difficult it might be (this is my other luxury, which is to never know the pains of childbirth…)

  • Today I operated on a neonate with Trisomy 21 and no connection between her stomach and the rest of her intestines. I couldn’t understand why we were doing the surgery, but I have learned that it isn’t my place to question the choices of others. Her mother is going to love her more than anyone ever could, and I guess that’s all that really matters in the end.

  • Thanks Nico. I greatly appreciate your response. And I hope in the future you’ll have the freedom to choose whatever you wish with regards to children…

  • i remember reading that nyer article also 🙁

  • You are entirely out of your depth.

    Nico responds: To write/think about the news that gets popped into my mailbox once a week?

  • i was horrified by kuczynski’s narcissistic article, and i think one can easily conflate the issues of adoption and ivfs. while couples may suffer great emotional pain for being unable to produce a biological child, it is entirely reasonable to also question why adoption is viewed as an inadequate substitute.

  • That’s the problem with blogs: too many opinions and too much prattery. Stick to your day job, Nico. G’bye.

  • I think the Times’ editors, certainly the photo editor, ‘got’ the third level of discourse in the piece, that is the superior smugness, despite the rationalizations, of the protagonista. Look at the details, the surrogate on her porch with a cracked foundation, a bemused dog…does it hear the baby kicking?..crap in the background that the photographer didn’t bother to tidy up….and then Alex on her manicured zoysia carpet in the Hamptons, her porch floor white-enameled to a shine, her nanny at attention…is she documented, d’ye think? … standing smugly at the end of a rainbow arc of expensively sculpted hedge….the photos say it all….Cathy knows something that Alex never will.

  • What irked me most about Kuczynski’s tedius article and accompanying photographs was its tone, which reeked of solipsism and poor taste.

    Lingering barely below the surface, methinks this woman has some serious issues of inadequacy, not only in the baby making department.

    Assuming she made the sandwiches from canned tuna, I find myself wondering…did she use light or white?

  • The Public Editor’s column in this Sunday’s Times devotes half its space to the Alex article….400 outraged readers wrote in, ..(in Irish newspapers, this phenomenon goes under the heading of…..”As a mother of seven..!”..and then indignant comment follows) …. and essentially validates not only the accuracy of your desconstruction of the article, but also your correspondents’ nose for smarm and cant. And, no, happily, Alex was not happy about the photos.

  • Nico:

    Apropos of what David Eyrise and then David said about your comments, and your response to Eyrise: it seems the point is that your comments tend inevitably to be callow and superficial, as is appropriate for most people your age. The difference between you and most of your contemporaries, of course, is that you publish your juvenalia on the Internet and garner a certain amount of notoriety from your the act.

    Read 1 Corinthians 13. Consult your older, wiser, better-read and trusted advisors. Don’t try so hard to be a taste-maker. Hunker down, Get your work done.

    All this is said with affection, actually, and without a trace of rancor, as I do enjoy reading your rants. But you must know that I enjoy them the way I enjoy hearing my children do so. Growing up in public is dangerous and, ultimately, foolish.

  • Dan: I respectfully commend Matthew 6:5 to your attention.

  • Duly noted! Thank you!

  • “Serious people” do not, in my experience, spend their time policing other people’s blogs–whether the blogger is 27 or 97. Not being a serious person myself– believing that high-spirits and frivolity have just as much a place in the world as learned discourse, finds the sanctimony on display above seriously funny.

  • Well, people can do what they want, I suppose. What’s to stop a person from turning what should be one of the most selfless acts in the world (raising and guiding another person into maturity) into a sideshow of selfishness? Our quests for immortality really cloud our judgements sometimes.