How much thought have you given to the plight of infertile women who seek out an egg donor and then a gestational surrogate to carry their baby? Or how about to the oftentimes acrimonious, bitter battles mothers sometimes wage against one another over the issue of breastfeeding? Writers Jennifer Weiner  and Joanna Weiss  have been thinking a great deal about these subjects. Their new books, Then Came You and Milkshake  cleverly and empathetically put these maternal powder-keg issues under the microscope.
I started off by reading Weiner’s Then Came You which I took with me on vacation. It didn’t take long for me to be drawn into and intrigued by the journeys of four very different women: A college-aged egg donor in need of money to help her addict father get treatment, a married mom of two who wanted to contribute to her family’s paltry income by being a surrogate, an infertile “trophy” wife from a modest and emotionally challenged background who desired a baby, and the adult daughter of said trophy wife’s husband.
A quick, compelling read, Weiner touched on the many angles and issues involved in donating/receiving eggs and of gestational surrogacy, not the least of which are the financial needs that often prompt women to volunteer to give away their eggs or carry someone else’s baby, along with the incumbent claims that the whole process exploits poor women. The women who eventually become egg donors and surrogates believe they’re doing something noble for another woman in need by helping to create life, but at the same time they’re trying to financially provide for their families by using their reproductive organs as a means to earn an income, something which, in Weiner’s book, put the marriage of the gestational carrier, Annie, in jeopardy as she was on the receiving end of ample moral and ethical criticism.
Weiner chose to provide full-dimensional portraits of the women, each with her own unique backstory. It was refreshing that Then Came You didn’t turn out to be a poor women-pillaged-by-wealthy women tome. The two woman of means – the “trophy wife” India and her adult step-daughter Bettina – got their due and weren’t reduced to cardboard stereotypically spoiled, affluent women. Weiner treated India compassionately, sharing the steps India went to to alter herself, her body, her style (even buying pricey duds on her once meager income) in order to find a husband after her career as a model faltered and she stumbled into public relations. Married to an older man she met at Starbucks, India was crushed after she suffered multiple miscarriages and was told that if she wanted a child, it would have to be with someone else’s egg and someone else’s uterus. Meanwhile Bettina, who witnessed firsthand the depths of her father’s heartbreak after her mother left him for another man, was justifiably suspicious of India, concerned she was just after Bettina’s father’s money particularly after discovering that India concocted a new identity for herself and had many secrets.
Bestselling author Weiner was able to make each woman’s story sympathetic and left judgment of their actions up to the reader to render.
In the meantime, mothers harshly judging one another was the focal point of Weiss’ e-book Milkshake, a satirical look at the sometimes vitriolic debates surrounding breastfeeding. When first-time mom Lauren was in an art museum and her baby started to cry, Lauren’s sanctimonious friend Mia browbeat her into nursing the baby while sitting on a bench in an open gallery space because, Mia said, breastfeeding is natural and shouldn’t be done hidden away in a dirty bathroom. But the moment the blanket Lauren used to camouflage her nursing baby fell away and a group of high school students caught sight of her exposed flesh, as did a reporter also happened to be accompanying teens for a story, the rollercoaster ride began. Lauren was escorted to the “ladies lounge” by a museum volunteer as Mia shrieked in protest, decrying the move as oppressive and anti-nursing mothers. The entire episode, sensationally recounted in the next day’s paper, was seized upon by a media savvy gubernatorial campaign manager as she was seeking to get suburban moms to warm up to the female gubernatorial candidate for whom she worked. Thus Lauren unwittingly became a pawn in a heated rhetorical battle.
This is where Weiss – who took aim at shallow political campaigns disingenuously capitalizing news events for their own means – lampooned the closed-mindedness of activists on both sides and eventually made a plea for moderation. The rabidly pro-breastfeeding side went around callously demonizing and chastising mothers who opted not to nurse their children, even if those women had physical difficulties in doing so. To these advocates, baby formula was akin to rat poison that should be either banned or assessed massive piles of sin taxes. On the opposite side of the issue were women who proclaimed that the “militant” pro-breastfeeders were actually promoting obscene displays of breasts, lasciviousness, Mardi Gras-like flashing, casual sex and even oppressing women by pressuring mothers to be tethered to their babies 24/7 for months on end.
In the middle of the crossfire were the three gubernatorial candidates who expropriated various aspects of the issue for their advantage, even if they didn’t truly believe in what they were saying. For them it was all about persuading voters to cast their ballots for them. The woman whose museum experience started all of this – who reminded me a bit of infamous Joe the Plumber from the 2008 presidential campaign – had to figure out, throughout the course of the book, what she thought about all this and whether she wanted to be used as a political bludgeon.
In both Milkshake and Then Came You, the main characters who were trying to navigate the murky waters of maternity -- from the great lengths some take to create a family and monetarily provide for one, to the feeding choices mothers make for their babies -- were all looking for a little support, a little love and for the sanctimonious folks who were getting in their faces to back the heck off. That moderation concept and the cutting it out with that sanctimoniousness, they’re both good things and the books are both good reads.