Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's called a dachshund

The latest contender in the quest to win First World Problem of the Year is of course Alex Kuczynski's choice, announced on the cover of the Times' Sunday Magazine, to hobble around in Louboutins (note the hint of a red sole on the heels she wears on the cover) between yoga classes, while some woman out there in Real America, already struggling with her own real children, has the author's baby. The author's husband, a "very successful investor" of 120 years, with 1,000 children from 1,000,000,000 previous marriages, is despite his years still able to put genetic material into a cup, which is about all we learn about him in his wife's NYT Mag cover story. Although the article itself is only indirectly about race, as in, who but a silly rich white woman..., an accompanying photo reminds readers--who, by the way, are pissed-- that Kuczynski benefits from class and race privilege.

So, the moral of the story? Here's what it isn't: Those (few) who ask that we not judge the author, who note that infertility is serious business and those without personal experience of it shouldn't talk, may have a point, but clearly missed the rules of the game. If Kuczynski didn't want hundreds of total strangers commenting on the most intimate details of her life, she'd have chosen a different venue (say, coffee with friends) to share them. Those who suggest she ought to have gone with "a pedigree puppy" have my sympathy, but clearly missed the recent controversy over the mere possibility that the Obamas would not get their daughters a rescue dog. Had Kuczynski in an unrelated article mentioned a purebred pup, the angry comment mob would have been pissed.


Anonymous said...

Isn't the point that Kuczynski (and is she related to Ted?) wanted a pedigreed child, so a pedigreed dog would have been the logical substitute?

Miss Self-Important said...

"I carried my 10-pound dog in a BabyBjörn-like harness on hikes..."
Dog already in possession, breed unknown, but obviously lives like a king.

Um, what else can even be said about this article? It might top Emily Gould's effort at first world problem of the year--"I overshare."

PG said...

I don't think a child of one's own genes qualifies as "pedigreed" unless one feels that supremely confident about those genes. A pedigreed child presumably would be made of Nobel sperm and blond, blue-eyed Ivy League athletic 20-something ovum. The author is interested not in having the "best" baby but in having one that is made of her and her husband's middle-aged genetic material. I find it hypocritical for people to expect only the infertile to give up what seems to be a common desire (albeit not one I share) to have genetic offspring. If there's some obligation to adopt, the fertile have it just as much as the infertile.

I agree that one must publish such information with the expectation of critical commentary, but plenty of the commenters obviously are enjoying their anonymity to make nasty comments that I doubt they'd have the guts to say to anyone's face. "Gestational surrogates of the world, get a job!!!" WTF kind of remark is that? If the commenter had read the article properly, s/he would know that the surrogate does have a job, as a substitute teacher. The author speaks of her envy of the surrogate's seeming so much more capable -- not just of baby-baking, but of playing tennis and the piano -- than the author feels herself to be.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Rita: Good pickup--hadn't noticed that.

PG: Some of the comments are over-the-top and insulting given that the author does not come across as all-evil, just as self-centered (to put it mildly) and ridiculously well-off. That said, this piece, like the Gould one Rita mentions, takes on a different meaning once it stops being just another blog post, read by friends and ex-boyfriends, and shows up on the cover of a magazine read worldwide. The expectation that one will only receive feedback akin to what would reasonably be said to one's face disappears when one declares one's self a public figure in this manner. This would not excuse genuine threats to her well-being, but comments calling the author a spoiled rich woman...

PG said...


Actually, I don't think a publicly accessible blog (in contrast to something like a friends-only Live Journal, or a collection of Facebook notes) should have a different standard for comments than an article on the cover of the NYTimes magazine. If the author or her surrogate is surprised by the nastiness, she shouldn't be, but that doesn't make the nastiness somehow more excusable than it would be here. The people emitting it are as morally culpable and cowardly regardless of whether they post it on the Times site or on Blogger.

(They're also as illiterate; I'm more annoyed by mean comments that show how shallowly the person read the article, than I am by well-informed mean comments. The rule for the internet should be not "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," but rather "if your brain does not receive information as your eyes go over the page, don't say anything at all.")

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm going to have to disagree. The whole concept of "overshare" reflects a person's choice not only to share (as one would on a blog) but to do so in a venue entirely inappropriate for a subject so personal, in the life of a non-celebrity. On a small-scale blog, one can assume one is among, if not friends, then at least a limited number of people with an interest in what one has to say. Sure, public blogs are google-able, but the likelihood of hundreds of people unrelated to the situation at hand having their say is, well, minute. The difference between a blog entry that's technically public but aimed at a limited audience and a huge cover story in the NYT Mag is illustrated by the way we're disturbed when, say, Gawker picks a non-celebrity with an internet presence at random for mockery, and when that site or similar makes fun of an Alex K.

And, meant to respond to this before:

"I find it hypocritical for people to expect only the infertile to give up what seems to be a common desire (albeit not one I share) to have genetic offspring. If there's some obligation to adopt, the fertile have it just as much as the infertile."

Sort of. But the vast majority of fertile couples presumably lack the financial resources and the passionate desire for children of adoptive families. Children cost money, but making them is free and, often enough, unintentional. Those two reasons--free and unintentional--may well explain more 'natural' births than does any conscious desire to make more of one's own kind.

PG said...


So how do you regard Above the Law's "Legal Eagle" wedding feature, in which wedding announcements from the NYTimes are reviewed by a blogger and then thoroughly trashed by the commenters? Is putting a wedding announcement in the NYTimes tantamount to making oneself a public figure who should expect mockery, or is this more like having an internet presence without being a celebrity?

I don't see how "overshare" is relevant here. People aren't criticizing Kuczynski for telling us too much about herself (what might be considered a procedural or process criticism); they are criticizing the substance of what she is telling us. More to the point, they are criticizing her as a person, which means that how they got the knowledge informing their criticism isn't relevant. They are making a moral judgment about her.

Maybe my view of this is twisted by having read a lot of people's infertility stories when I was studying bioethics in college, but my main criticism of the piece was that this was just dull and nothing new. She didn't seem any more spoiled, rich, entitled, etc. than most of the people I'd read about. She didn't have any interesting complications in either her motivation or how the surrogacy played out (unlike something such as the Baby M case, where the contracting parents weren't actually infertile, but the wife had MS and the husband was driven by a desire to ensure his family's bloodline wouldn't die out after nearly all of them were killed in the Holocaust).

Those two reasons--free and unintentional--may well explain more 'natural' births than does any conscious desire to make more of one's own kind.

Agreed this is true over the population as a whole. Among the small, well-off, educated and contraception-using subgroup that Kuczynski typifies, not so much. This group plans their kids' births and spends a ton on their upbringing. Kuczynski spent no more on this surrogacy than the annual cost of some private nursery schools in Manhattan. Yet no one seems to expect other wealthy people to adopt kids instead of having them biologically.

If my parents had delayed childrearing until they had enough money to adopt, they would have had to wait to start a family only until my mother was about 30. I don't judge them as having acted wrongly by deciding that the right choice for them was to start a family while they were in their 20s. I personally would like to adopt, but I have to push against the social assumption that it's only something one does if one is infertile. Telling only the infertile they "ought" to adopt contributes to that assumption just as much as acting like it's weird for a fertile person to want to adopt.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I've heard of but don't read "Above the Law," and so had not known the site had that feature. Whether it's wrong is a matter of what, exactly, is said (is anyone wished harm, or is the mockery more about the silliness of the wedding-announcement phenomenon and examples thereof?) and of scale, both in the sense of how much someone who chooses to announce their college honors and graduate degrees to the NYT upon marrying is a 'celebrity,' and in terms of how big a blog "Above the Law" is, whether this is just some random person on the internet making fun of another random person on the internet, or whether a site read by thousands a day picks on non-celebrities (i.e. the Gawker model).

As for the other point, that in the author's milieu, children are planned, I think you've confused delayed parenting paired with fussing over children once they arrive with a drive to have one's own kids for the sake of having one's own biological children. Having kids the usual way (including, yes, even among the well-off, by surprise) is simply the default option, across all income levels, because that which is vastly easier, less expensive (there's relative privilege, and then there's money being no object, the latter of which is exceedingly rare), and requiring no explanation to friends and family (let alone strangers) will always be more popular. I'm not saying anyone ought to adopt, or to have children, or to not have children, or anything of the kind--I have no interest in telling people what to do when it comes to such personal choices. But it makes more sense to think that someone who clearly has the time and money should apply it elsewhere than to assume any more than a tiny minority of biological parents could have just as easily adopted, but went the selfish route.

PG said...

I've never seen anyone on ATL "wished harm" beyond desires that people get divorced, lose their jobs, end in poverty -- no bodily harm. The mockery again is personal, not about the announcements: couples are criticized for how they look in the photo, their choice of wedding registry items (the blogger searches their names and links the registries), etc. One of my acquaintances even got trashed on her achievements; it was assumed that she must have gotten her clerkship through her fiance because he had worked for the same judge. ATL certainly killed any interest I otherwise might have had in a wedding announcement.

But it makes more sense to think that someone who clearly has the time and money should apply it elsewhere than to assume any more than a tiny minority of biological parents could have just as easily adopted, but went the selfish route.

But again, none of those whom we DO know to have the time and money seems to be criticized for not adopting. In all the bashing of Jack Grubman's maneuvers to get his daughters into the 92nd Street Y, I never saw anyone say, "And why did the Grubmans have twins instead of adopting?" This criticism is made only of the infertile.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Online mockery's a sliding scale, the more famous the object the more benign, the more popular the news outlet the less. So, not knowing anything about this particular blog, my guess is it falls somewhere in the middle.

As for the Grubman case, the reasons no one's saying they should have adopted (I take your word for it, don't remember the controversy that well--and though I take it these people are rich, I'm not sure how much spare time they had, if it was enough to go through an adoption process) are a) there's so much to criticize, not everything can come up every time (often fusses about rich people being spoiled provoke calls to think of starving children in Africa, which is not quite the same as suggesting adoption, but not so far off), and b) we don't know the circumstances of the twins' conception. Maybe the couple wasn't planning on having kids just then, but did, and, being rich, looked to raise them in the only lifestyle they know, same as all parents worldwide.

Again, it's difficult to say that any normally-conceived child was the result of a 'choice,' beyond the choice to have sex in the first place. The 'choice' is really the decision not to abort. Which is why tsk tsking that a couple that already has kids should have adopted leads to some iffy territory.

PG said...

Again, it's difficult to say that any normally-conceived child was the result of a 'choice,' beyond the choice to have sex in the first place.

Do you think there would be equal criticism of someone who spent the money solely on infertility treatment (i.e. drugs to bump up egg production) and not on surrogacy? I guess I just disagree on that perception -- there did seem to be in the comments a view similar to the one that the author said she had encountered, which was that she had bought/ lucked out of the literal labor required to produce a child.

In this view, spending money on fertility drugs is spending money to remedy a "health problem" (which is why her health insurance covered some of the cost and why infertility advocacy groups militate to have such drugs be universally covered). Spending money for surrogacy services -- even the same amount of money -- is spending money on a rich woman's whim.

Also, I'm a little skeptical of how much active time foreign adoption can take up -- I can't believe that the Grubmans or most other monied Manhattan couples had less time than Chief Justice Roberts and his wife, both of whom were partners at their respective firms when they adopted kids from overseas in 2000. The time seems to be more a matter of waiting than of doing. At least in Dan Savage's description of the process in The Kid, the biggest time-suck seems to have been driving back and forth between Seattle and Portland (where the birth mother lived), which wouldn't be an issue with a closed adoption.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

You're a good arguer, but I'm not sure what our disagreement here is. Clearly the negative response to the NYT Mag story has less to do with the moral questions surrogacy poses than with, well, the poses in the photographs. Commenters seemed to have interpreted it as follows: Rich skinny blonde pays hefty middle-class nobody to have her kid (all the while relishing her ability to keep her figure, to have it all), then pays black woman to stand behind her, literally, and raise said kid, after all that. The issue is less about fertility and morality than about offering an opportunity for Times readers to pat themselves on the back for being at least not the most rich and obnoxious person out there, at least not publicly.

That said, if there is a moral point raised worth discussing, perhaps it's the remark, throughout the strangely fascinating comments, that a woman who went to all that trouble to have a baby has no place hiring help for raising it. While clearly the author is well-off, rich-and-idle is also, just as clearly, her persona. She works, or we'd never have heard of her in the first place. Women who work outside the home do tend to need help raising their children. Interestingly, I didn't notice commenters urging her to split baby-care duties with her husband, but to raise the kid herself, nanny-free.

PG said...

I think we are disagreeing on how rich one must be to have this choice at all, and how obnoxious it is to talk about it in a highly public forum. As I said, studying bioethics may have inured me against both finding $25k expenditures in the effort to have genetic offspring as outrageous as other people apparently do, and being annoyed that someone would write about this experience. I've read entire books of essays about people's varying experiences of reproduction. Is it just that such essays ought to be constrained to the specialized reader and not inflicted on innocent general audiences like that of the Times magazine?

As for the nanny, I suspect that the people who think a couple both with demanding full-time jobs ought to be able to care for an infant unassisted are not really thinking through how many hours Kuczynski and her husband spend working, but have an automatic mental association between "nanny" and the kind of mother depicted in The Nanny Diaries. Again, a matter of personal experience; in my first post-college job, my manager was an African American Harvard MBA married to an equally well-resumed African American woman, and they had a South American day nanny. Though I do think a full-time, live-in nanny is a weird choice for a two-parent household -- why bother having kids in the first place if you're going to outsource their care not just 9-5 but 24-7?

Anonymous said...

I was wondering how Kuczynski could be 100% sure that the baby is genetically her (and her husband's) product and not that of the surrogate couple. What was to prevent the surrogate(s) conceiving right around the time of the "successful" insemination, then handing their excess kid over for the cash? Is there paternity/maternity testing done at any point in the pregnancy? Maybe Kuczynski adopted after all.

Anonymous said...

And what of the name "Maxime Dudley" for the baby? Even after gestational surrogate started using the nickname "Milk Dud" for the baby-to-be, AK still named him that. A bit tone-deaf for a writer and unconcerned about the child's future schoolyard taunts.

PG said...

EH -- if someone doesn't trust her surrogate, she won't be able to deal with any of it. The surrogate could be drinking, smoking, shooting up heroin.

JM -- Max is hardly a traumatic name. One of my friends named his son Benedict (after my friend's grandfather), which would be a problem when they learn about the American Revolution, but is unlikely to come up as the kid goes by his nickname Ben. Naming a child for beloved relatives is a tradition I wish more people would maintain, at least in preference to naming children as an expression of "individuality" or as a political stunt.

Anonymous said...

PG--A surrogate could get inseminated, go home, shoot up, drink, have sex with her husband and then share a smoke with him in bed. Really the only part of that the "buyer" could control would be verification that the child is genetically hers. I would bet Kuczynski didn't take this on faith.

PG said...

EH -- If you "would bet Kuczynski didn't take this on faith," what was the point of your comment "Maybe Kuczynski adopted after all"?

Anonymous said...

PG--You're right, I contradicted myself. My apologies.

PG said...

No apology necessary; I was just confused by what seems to have been a developing thought on your part. The author mentions genetic testing being done during the pregnancy to check for problems. This presumably would be a possible point to do a maternity check as well, having already drawn the material from the fetus.

However, I don't think such maternity testing is standard. Surrogates, both traditional and gestational, are instructed to abstain from sex around the time of insemination/ implantation, and there's simply so much trust inherently necessary to the relationship that such a test is likely to be requested only if the resulting baby is not plausibly born of the intended parents' genes. (For example, in the burgeoning Indian surrogacy industry fueled by white foreigners, a baby who looked brown instead of white certainly would raise suspicions. There's little incentive for the surrogate in such a situation to "cheat," however. Indian surrogates say the process is emotionally not that difficult precisely because the baby doesn't look like one of their own.)

The possibility of a "mistake," however, does make post-menopausal women paradoxically attractive as gestational surrogates; they cannot conceive with their own eggs and thus any pregnancy would *have* to be the result of the implanted embryo.