Thursday, 19 March 2009

Thoughts On Mother's Day

Mother's Day is fast approaching, and the nation is in the grips of the usual sentimental idealisation of the maternal role: daytime television shows compete to find 'Britain's best mum', while the shops are full of cards, gifts and flowers.

For those mourning their mothers, and for those who are remembering a lost child, however, this slow buildup to Mothering Sunday serves only as a painful reminder of all that they are missing. Just last week, Prince William gave a moving speech about the continuing impact of his own mother's death. "Never being able to say the word 'Mummy' again in your life sounds like a small thing. However, for many, including me, it’s now really just a word - hollow and evoking only memories." The Prince was speaking on the occasion of the launch of the Child Bereavement Charity's 'Remember on Mother's Day' campaign, which asks people to spare a thought for those mothers bereaved of a child, and those children bereaved of their mothers, this coming Sunday.

Yet it is not only these significant anniversaries that can serve to remind us of what we no longer have. Sometimes the most trivial of events can precipitate us abruptly back to an earlier loss.

Last summer, a fantastic new cafe opened around ten minutes walk from our house, serving the most wonderful cakes, pastries and coffees. We went there for Saturday brunch a few weeks ago, and I had a plate of pancakes served with maple syrup and fresh bananas. Earlier this week, I found myself dreaming about those pancakes. I tried to put the craving behind me, and to plod on with marking my final round of undergraduate dissertations, but to no avail. By eleven o'clock, I had managed to convince myself that I was craving pancakes for a reason - that this was my body's way of telling me that I was dangerously deficient in potassium. Clearly, the baby urgently needed me to eat a further helping of those pancakes and bananas! I grabbed my coat and set off.

It was only after I'd found a seat and ordered my pancakes that I realised that the cafe was full of women with small children. Even in my vastly pregnant state, I still had to fight those old familiar feelings of exclusion - of stumbling across a mysterious club that I would never be part of. Yet this time I noticed something different. Many of these women were accompanied by their own mothers. Looking around at all these grandmothers, mothers and babies, the question suddenly hit me: Without my mother to guide me, how will I know how to take care of my own child? How am I going to mother in the absence of a mother?

For the past few weeks, I have been attending antenatal classes. The other women in the class talk about how their mothers have offered to help out after the birth. For some, the thought of having their mothers on hand in this way is an evident relief; for others, it seems an intrusion or irritation. Would I welcome the help and guidance of my mother, or would I be adamant that I wanted to find my own way of doing things? The truth is, I simply don't know. She died during my late adolescence, at a stage when I was struggling to assert my independence from her. I never had a chance to rebuild my relationship with her from the perspective of an adult woman. Yet this gap, this lacuna, does not stop me fantasising about what might have been. And so I find myself grieving anew for my mother. And not only that. I find myself grieving on behalf of my child, for the grandmother he or she will never know.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

On surrogacy and sensationalism

My experience of being part of the IF community has taught me that there are many, many different ways of building a family - whether that be through fertility treatments such as IUI or IVF/ICSI, the use of donor gametes, or else via adoption or surrogacy. Each and every one of these potential paths to parenthood brings with it its own highly complex set of choices, its own unique dilemmas. Yet it seems that, by focusing on only the most extreme stories, media coverage of these issues all too often fosters misunderstanding and suspicion, rather than promoting any real acceptance.

As many have already suggested, the recent furore surrounding the birth of the California octuplets is, of course, a case in point. The media coverage of this event here in the UK has been marred by an erroneous use of terminology (viz., the persistent use of the word 'implant' to describe the transfer of embryos into a woman's uterus), and has sparked a pronounced backlash against the use of assisted reproductive technologies (after the Nadya Suleman story first broke, I caught the tail end of a radio phone-in on the topic of the octuplets, in which caller after caller suggested that IVF should be outlawed on the grounds that it interferes with the laws of nature. Many of those who rang in to voice their opinion were of the view that, if a woman cannot have children, she should simply 'get over it', or else adopt.)

On Monday evening, a documentary entitled 'Addicted to Surrogacy' aired on Channel 4. While this could have been a golden opportunity to explore this complex and emotive issue from the twin perspectives of both the surrogate and the intended parent(s), it all too quickly descended into sensationalism, with the filmmakers choosing to focus only on the most extreme cases.

Firstly, it presented to us Jill Hawkins, a woman who is described on the Channel 4 website as Britain's most prolific childless surrogate, having 'given away' seven babies over the past 18 years. The programme followed the forty-four-year-old Ms Hawkins as she described the process of home insemination and then waited to carry out a pregnancy test, which turned out to be negative, leading the programme makers to ask, Is it finally time for Jill to wean herself off her need to have babies for other people, and start living her own life? Once again, then, we are back to that time-honoured stereotype: that of the baby-hungry woman trying desperately to drown out the ticking of her biological clock.

Next it turned to the case of Janie and Peter, a couple in their fifties who have been trying to have a baby through a surrogate for three years. After several [unspecified] bad experiences in the UK, Tammy Lynn in Kansas is now having twins for the couple, and they've travelled the 5,000 miles to be with her at the birth.

After that, we moved to Essex where Amanda - a first-time surrogate - is having a baby boy for Stephen and Olga. With Olga and Amanda not always seeing eye-to-eye, we witness the complex and emotional journey that leads to having a surrogate baby.

I found these latter two cases particularly hard to watch, although for different reasons. While Janie seemed anxious to forge a relationship with Tammy Lynn, and to maintain some contact with her after bringing the babies back to the UK, in order that they might grow up to have a sense of who their 'tummy mummy' was, Tammy Lynn resisted all overtures on her part. The second intended mother, Olga, on the other hand, seemed at times to behave with gross insensitivity towards her surrogate, and in particular her surrogate's children, refusing to allow them to say goodbye to the baby. Although I have obviously never been in the position of having to negotiate such a complex relationship, from reading other people's stories here in the blogosphere, I do have a sense that many surrogates and intended mothers are able to form a more productive connection. But I guess that those cases don't make for such compelling television.

As if these cases were not quite gripping enough, the programme was then rounded off by an interview with Carole Horlock, the world's most prolific surrogate, who tells the story of her career-low: when she discovered that a baby she had given birth to had been accidentally conceived with her own partner.

While one could argue that any television programme that explores some of the issues raised by infertility and assisted reproduction is a good thing, it saddens me that all too often their aim is not to foster awareness or understanding, but rather to provide an hour's entertainment. It seems to me that much media coverage tends to reduce infertility and its treatment to a circus sideshow, rather than acknowledging it as a genuine medical condition.