Midway through Mike Birbiglia’s latest one-man show, The New One, the ceiling above the stage opens and various baby paraphernalia cascade onto the stage floor. An oversized stuffed bear, a breast pump, a receiving blanket. A mobile, a pacifier, foam alphabet blocks. As Birbiglia picks through the neonatal rubble, he attempts to explain the seismic changes in his life post-baby. The scene places Birbiglia in what could easily become clichéd terrain—the trope of the new dad who can focus only on the downsides of life with a new child—but he doesn’t go there.
Birbiglia is best known for his one-man show and subsequent film Sleepwalk with Me, a comedic portrayal of his real-life sleepwalking disorder. As protection against his own renegade sleeping self, Birbiglia devised a nighttime ritual that entails a tightly zipped sleeping bag and two oven mitts affixed to his wrists with duct tape. When he became a dad, Birbiglia augmented his bedtime protocol: to his sleeping bag and oven mitts he added a fitted sheet—with a single hole cut out for his head—to be tucked tightly around him by his wife every night at bedtime. Birbiglia sleeps alone in a room that his wife locks from the outside, to protect their daughter from her sleep-rampaging daddy. In addition to this nightly cocooning, Birbiglia’s long and tortured march to fatherhood also required him to undergo fertility-enhancing surgery. Trapped in his bed with Muppet-like appendages for hands—big baby Birbiglia swaddled like his swaddled little baby down the hall—he seems emblematic of the deprivations that many 21st-century parents endure in order to have and raise healthy children.
The Farm, Joanne Ramos’s debut novel, presents the polar-opposite scenario: What if, instead of tying yourself up in knots like Birbiglia in order to be a parent, you didn’t have to make any sacrifices at all to have a baby? The Farm focuses on Golden Oaks, a fictional facility in upstate New York that promises its customers a healthy baby without the muss and fuss of enduring one’s own pregnancy and parturition. The Farm’s handpicked surrogate mothers, dubbed “Hosts,” receive state-of-the-art nutrition and health care, plus a weekly paycheck, while they incubate the embryos of their high-end “Clients.”
Ramos’s capital-C Clients and capital-H Hosts—the latter referred to by the Farm’s staff primarily by assigned number—lend the novel the ominous atmospherics of a work of speculative fiction. However, very little futuristic speculation is actually on display: surrogacy clinics already exist, both within the United States and internationally, where would-be parents of sufficient means may purchase the services of a surrogate to carry and bear their baby. Ramos’s novel is thus not so much an answer to “what if … ?” as it is an incremental—yet more-than-incrementally disturbing—projection of a future just beyond the world that we have already wrought: a near-future parable of where our free capitalist market in human babies might take us.
As such, Ramos’s tale is properly cautionary. The novel focuses first on Jane, a struggling single young mother from the Philippines, who is hired as a nanny to “sleep train” a wealthy Upper East Side infant—a boy doubtless bound straight for Philips Exeter and thence to Columbia. Unbeknownst to Jane (spoilers ahead), she is also being vetted and groomed as a potential Host at Golden Oaks, aka the Farm. Many of the Farm’s Hosts are poor, black or brown, or immigrants, or some combination thereof. The Farm’s clientele are mainly white one-percenters born in the USA, but some are über-wealthy international Clients. This means that though The Farm’s main action takes place in the United States, Ramos does not omit reference to the thriving international market in gestational surrogacy and so-called reproductive tourism.
Nor is Ramos’s exploration of the outsourcing of traditional parental roles confined to the functions of gestation and birth. Delegated pregnancy is an option that modern medicine only recently afforded to would-be parents. But many other aspects of parenting—more specifically, of mothering—have long been susceptible of delegation to third parties. Well before the latter-day medical advances that introduced the possibility of, in effect, borrowing or purchasing a “surrogate womb,” parents could engage surrogate hands to bathe and diaper—and surrogate breasts, to nourish—their newborns. From a Darwinian perspective, breastfeeding one’s own offspring might seem to be a core survival function for mammalian mothers, regardless of species. Not necessarily so for Homo sapiens. As humans developed hierarchical differentiations of tribe and social class, the feeding of one’s newborn could be “delegated” to others, without medical or technological assistance. All parents needed were the ways and means—the power or money—to do so.
According to the 15th-century English writer Sir Thomas Malory, even the legendary medieval King Arthur was, in infancy, wet-nursed on surrogate breasts. In Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin admonishes King Uther that “ye must purvey you for the nourishing of your child.”1 It is unnecessary to explain why Lady Igraine, Arthur’s mother, cannot nurse him: like the Farm’s Clients, Lady Igraine has more important matters to attend to than breastfeeding. Merlin offers up Sir Ector’s wife as a nurse for baby Arthur. Sir Ector “will put his own child to nourishing to another woman,” Merlin tells Uther, so “that his wife nourish yours.”2 Thus begins a baby-nursing analogue to a pyramiding scheme: a royal baby is passed along to be nursed by a knight’s wife, who in turn passes off her own baby to a servant to be nursed. But what happens at the bottom of this pyramid? What happens to that last, least fortunate baby?
Ramos’s novel is an incremental—yet more-than-incrementally disturbing—projection of a future just beyond the world that we have already wrought.
Esther Waters, an 1894 novel by George Moore, provides the answer. Moore’s novel does the unusual work, for the 19th century, of depicting the life of an illiterate female servant. The tale’s titular protagonist is impregnated by a fellow servant and forced to leave her post. After she has her baby, she learns that she can make enough money for the upkeep of her own child only if she signs on as a wet nurse for a richer woman. When Esther is first solicited as a nursemaid, her new employer is disappointed when Esther insists that she must find a nursemaid for her own baby before starting work. But upon further consideration the wealthier woman relents: “‘Of course you must arrange about your baby … It will be better so,’ she added under her breath, ‘for two have died already.’”3 Here Moore depicts the fate of that last, unlucky baby: a struggle for unlikely survival.
The cultural acceptability of delegated wet-nursing practices has varied widely both geographically and over time. Only since commercial baby formula became widely available, in the 20th century, has a controversy arisen over whether it is culturally and politically correct for the biological mother to nourish her newborn with formula rather than with her own breast milk. This is a heated debate: parents who tout the salubrious benefits of breastfeeding criticize other mothers who turn to formula rather than breastfeed their own children. Only as of the late 20th century, with the post-formula breastfeeding revival, has the practice of nursing one’s own child become a societally important part of motherhood.
Ramos’s character Jane gets caught up and, indeed, turned culturally upside down, in this absurdly theoretical debate. Jane is still breastfeeding her own newborn, Amalia, when she begins her live-in work with the UES family, “training” their infant boy to sleep quietly through the night. In a moment of panic, desperate to keep her employer’s child quiet, Jane allows him to drink from her own breast rather than give him the milk that his mother assiduously pumped for him. Jane, caught in flagrante delicto, is fired for what her employer regards as inappropriate behavior. But the inappropriateness of Jane’s suckling her employer’s son resides in the culturally determined eye of the beholder. The impromptu work Jane does here as a wet nurse would have been overtly solicited less than a century before Ramos’s novel; instead it leads to her prompt dismissal. But Jane’s misfortune propels Ramos’s narrative: Jane’s next-most-feasible employment option is to sign on as a Host at Golden Oaks.
As Ramos implies, Jane’s new role as a Host is not fundamentally different from her role as a live-in child care provider. Whether as nanny or as “Host”—indeed even in her misunderstood moment as a wet-nurse—Jane could be described as a general practitioner of various “parental surrogacy services,” plainly a growth industry in the developed world. And despite the temptations lurking within Ramos’s larger scaffolding—which seemingly pits Clients against Hosts as “haves” versus “have nots”—The Farm does not devolve into oversimplification.
Ramos’s novel focuses on the lives of three women. Jane shares the main-character spotlight with Reagan, a well-educated white upper-class woman who chooses to become a Host as a fuck-you to her father, and Mae, a Chinese American executive at Golden Oaks who is looking to expand the operation. Reagan, considered a “limousine liberal” by her father, has perhaps the most unusual path of the three: she wants so badly to be convinced that her surrogacy is a mode of social justice that Mae, to encourage Reagan to “stick with the program” and regimen provided at the Farm, hires an actress to pose as Reagan’s ideal Client. The actress plays a self-made black senior executive who is struggling with infertility. None of the Farm’s diverse set of central characters experiences any dramatic personal or political conversion over the course of the novel; each remains true to herself. But Ramos’s three central women do ultimately prove to have a good deal more in common than initially appears to be the case.
Belle Boggs is another writer with a comprehensive view of the many parental functions that are—nowadays—medically possible to “delegate,” and of the emotional and financial costs and benefits of doing so. Boggs, who writes both fiction and nonfiction, also directs the MFA program in creative writing at North Carolina State University. In a 2016 collection of tightly linked essays, The Art of Waiting, Belle Boggs chronicles her struggles with infertility. Though she ultimately gave birth to a healthy daughter, through IVF treatments, Boggs reveals that she also investigated alternatives, including gestational surrogacy.
Boggs’s real-life exploration of surrogacy for herself reads a lot like the experience of gestational surrogacy that is depicted, fictionally, in Ramos’s novel. Boggs acknowledges that surrogacy—especially international surrogacy done in less economically developed countries for the financial “efficiency” of a Western person or couple—“reads like a metaphor for globalization at its most extreme.”4 Boggs admits, however, that if IVF had not worked for her, she would have considered outsourced surrogacy as an option. Of her friends who also considered—or used—internationally outsourced surrogacy to have children, she says: “I don’t judge their choices. I can’t.”5
Boggs, despite her ethical hemming and hawing, seems to view gestational surrogacy as a glass half full: a social and economic practice with a potential win-win outcome for the “Host” and the “Client,” rather than a necessary evil. In one essay, Boggs discusses the 2014 backlash that occurred after Apple and Facebook announced that they would cover the costs of their employees’ egg freezing so that female employees could continue on their career paths without worrying about their waning fertility. Facebook and Apple were criticized at the time for being emotionally exploitative, offering an alternative to relatively young pregnancy that doesn’t necessarily guarantee deferred-reproductive success—or happiness. But Boggs seems to be speaking right to (or from?) the semi-science-fictional world that Ramos crafts in The Farm when she concludes that “If our frozen embryos are part of a techno-utopia, I believe it is an empowering one.”6
Boggs seems to imply the presence of a collective, creative, artistic ethos that can, on occasion, surmount more superficial, less benign tribal allegiances.
Like Ramos, Boggs published a debut novel this year. However, she mostly leaves the subject of infertility out of it. The Gulf follows Marianne, a poet who finds herself running a Christian creative writing school in Sarasota, Florida. Its mixture of pristine beaches and rundown strip malls, working-class locals and affluent snowbirds sets up nicely what Boggs is trying to do here: establish Marianne’s atheist, liberal character and credentials in contrast to the gravitas of right-wing Christian poets and novel writers who attend her creative writing school. These student writers include a washed-up R&B singer attempting a comeback, a woman who pens memoir pieces about her numerous miscarriages, and a mother who composes poems solely from Terri Schiavo’s point of view. Schiavo, you may recall, was kept alive in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years while her husband, her parents, the US Department of Justice under the George W. Bush administration, and pro-life and other advocacy groups, litigated in multiple courtrooms over her “right to live” or “right to die.”
Here we perhaps begin to see evidence of Boggs’s decade-long journey with infertility creeping into her fiction: the creative writing school is financially backed by a religious corporation called God’s Word God’s World, and when it emerges that the corporation is staunchly pro–embryonic personhood, several characters, including the memoirist who writes about her miscarriages, begin to have strong misgivings about the motives of the school’s funders. It appears that artists—even Christian, Republican artists—grow uneasy at efforts to appropriate their inherently personal, creative work and redeploy it for the financial benefit of a corporate conglomerate—even if the corporation in question purports to likewise be both Christian and Republican. Boggs seems to imply the presence of a collective, creative, artistic ethos that can, on occasion, surmount—“Trump” if you will—more superficial, less benign tribal allegiances. Realistic or not, this hopeful notion undergirds The Gulf’s hints of optimism that maybe—just maybe—our nation’s current, metaphoric “gulf” might one day be bridged.
A case study in one aspect of our cultural and political gulf, Schiavo’s complex story is also inherently interconnected with the law and ethics of abortion. As the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg wrote of Schiavo in 2005: “Her lack of awareness actually increased her metaphoric usefulness. Like a sixty-four-cell blastocyst, she was without consciousness. Unlike the blastocyst, she was without potential. If letting her body die is murder, goes the logic, then thwarting the development of the blastocyst can surely be nothing less.” In other words: if the courts could have been convinced that (even) Schiavo must be maintained on perpetual life support, then surely every human embryo must likewise be entitled to assert a legally enforceable “right to life.” Whether supporting or opposing this premise, seemingly every major legal advocacy group and political player in the abortion arena converged upon the Schiavo case, which remained in litigation in multiple courts across the 15 years. After multiple appeals were exhausted, Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed on March 18, 2005; she died on March 31, 2005.
At the time of the cardiac arrest that led to her permanent vegetative state, Schiavo was undergoing fertility treatments. As there is zero evidence linking her fertility treatments to her cardiac arrest, Schiavo’s fertility treatment is arguably the most random and trivial aspect of her story. In light of Boggs’s experiences, however, she would never view anyone’s struggle with infertility as trivial. And as to the associations between the fragile, medically augmented “fertility” necessary to create new life and the medical apparatus necessary to perpetuate fragile lives or permit them to terminate: these associations are neither random nor remote. It was (one suspects) based on such associations that Boggs converted the worries and troubles of her own personal infertility struggles into a highly convincing character in Janine, the poet who writes as if from the brain of Schiavo.
The parents caught up in the recent college admissions scandal, although similar to The Farm’s Clients in that they too have ample money to throw at any obstacle, in fact did the utmost for their children in the way that Ramos’s moneyed parents-to-be avoid—at least at the very initial stages of parenthood—through surrogacy. The Varsity Blues parents, however ethically unmoored, have done all they can to help their students succeed, damaging their own good names in the process. This is not to say that we should feel sorry for them—their money will inevitably pave the road for their quick recovery. And yet, I do think it’s telling that the mothers are taking most of the flack here—Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman are being put under the public (and in Huffman’s case, the legal) microscope far more extensively and punitively than their husbands. Birbiglia, for all his posturing of sacrifice, leaves a key detail out of his discussion of the sacrifices of fatherhood: while he’s fast asleep, snug in a prison of his own making, his wife, on the other side of that locked door, is the only one left responsible when their baby cries.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.