Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self. Elly Teman.

University of California
Press: Berkeley. 2010. xiii+361pp.
Reviewed by: Sarah S. Willen, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist
In this superb ethnography, Elly Teman draws upon nearly a decade of fieldwork in Israel –
where reproduction and motherhood are fetishized as women’s “national mission” (Berkovitch 1997; Ivry
2009) – to explore a controversial new form of reproductive innovation: gestational surrogacy. This
uncommon mode of human procreation involves the implantation of embryos created from the gametes of
the “intended parents” in the uterus of a woman who agrees to serve as “gestational surrogate.” Teman
began her research in 1998, when surrogacy in Israel was still “in its ‘diaper’ stage” (p. 19), and
eventually interacted with approximately two-thirds of all parties to the estimated 350 births that took
place via gestational surrogacy in Israel between 1998 and 2005. As the first full-length ethnography of
this particular form of surrogacy, Birthing a Mother offers a vivid, thoughtful, and phenomenologically
sensitive window onto a rare and extraordinary “joint body project” (p. 178).
The Hebrew word for surrogacy derives from the word “inn” (pundak), hence a surrogate
(pundeka’it) is linguistically marked as a fetus’ temporary “innkeeper.” This impersonal way of marking
surrogacy, which eschews any sense of maternal connection, is affirmed by Teman’s research subjects,
who describe their role as that of “oven” (p. 31),“incubator” (p. 32), “hothouse” (p. 33) or “guesthouse”
(p. 58). As one woman put it, “It is not my egg, and I have no connection to this child” (p. 58). Yet this
refusal of maternal connection involves strategy, not malice; it is a powerful tool through which
surrogates both protect themselves and help intended mothers bond with the fetuses they have created but
cannot carry. This is the linchpin of Teman’s argument; Israeli surrogates, unlike surrogates elsewhere,
birth not only babies but also new mothers. Specifically, surrogates pursue a deliberate and iterative
process of “shifting” the developing pregnancy rhetorically, symbolically, and metaphorically from their
own bodies onto intended mothers’ eager, detail-hungry “pregnant selves.” Gestation of both fetus and
mother thus involves liminal, emotionally intense, and socioculturally unscripted processes of
psychological transformation.
Three contextual considerations are marked as salient early in the text. First, the religio-cultural
mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (p. 52) in this “Land of Imperative Motherhood” (Remennick 2000:
821) helps explain Israeli intended mothers’ desperation – and their perseverance. Second, the state’s tight
control over many aspects of gestational surrogacy facilitates the temporary colonization or occupation of
surrogates’ bodies in the service of national priorities including pronatalism and (although this point
unfortunately is made only in passing) the preservation of biopolitical boundaries [“Jew versus Arab,
ethnic divisions, and the gender divide” (p. 73)]. Third, the country’s small size facilitates much more
regular social contact between intended parents and surrogates than elsewhere, and an extremely high
degree of emotional intimacy between surrogates and intended mothers is the frequent result.
The narrative is elegantly arranged in four parts. Part I “Dividing” shows surrogates “upturning
any connotations that the [structurally more advantaged] couple is more powerful” by reading intended
parents’ “hunger” for biological children as a “classic signifier of powerlessness” that can be resolved
(only) through their fecundity, their “power to feed” (p. 37). Part I also outlines the “full repertoire of
painstaking skills” (p. 87) that help surrogates draw and patrol the sharp boundary between “me” (e.g.,
brain, heart, “normal” pregnancy symptoms, the ability to breastfeed postpartum) and “not-me” (e.g.,
emotional and physiological reactions to hormone injections, the intended parents’ embryos/fetus, their
entire midriff but especially their growing belly, “abnormal” pregnancy symptoms, a postpartum lack of
milk production). This boundary results from deliberate strategies, practices, and “somatic modes of

complete with gowns and identifying bracelets. 121): pregnancy test results are reported to intended mothers rather than pregnant surrogates. This shift results not only from the newborn’s journey from the surrogate’s body into the intended mother’s arms. 141). and betrayed. experience-near. powerful narrative arc. “You have to really classify your emotions … classify. Whereas the “momentous acknowledgment” of some new parents “results in a positive experience for all concerned” (p. “Redefining. . to channel “pregnant embodiment” (p. Nitza 1997 Motherhood as National Mission: The Construction of Womanhood in the Legal Discourse in Israel. 142). during labor and delivery. The longer-term consequences of these fragile social bonds form the focus of Part IV. Both groups of women experience a kind of “medical merging” (p. at the same time. and elegant interweaving of evidence and analytic insight will make this an indispensable resource for specialist scholars. 225). or whether the intense intimacy of the early surrogacy dyads she studied remains the norm now that such arrangements are slightly more common. and intended mothers are hospitalized. the surrogate fears losing an important new friend. REFERENCES CITED Berkovitch. morality. cultural. undergraduate and graduate students. Teman’s inevitably leaves some questions unanswered. Surrogates and intended mothers become so deeply involved in one another’s lives that intended mothers’ “prosthetic consciousness” of the growing fetus becomes “integrated seamlessly into the surrogate’s body map. surrogates insist that the intended mother’s name be indicated on sonogram printouts. Part II “Connecting” reveals a complex triangle of connection (between surrogate and intended mother) and disconnection (between fetus and surrogate). political. intended mothers experience couvade-like symptoms.attention” (Csordas 1993) that demand a considerable amount of cognitive and emotional work. Women's Studies International Forum 20(5-6):605-19. and limit.” Like any excellent book. 75). identity. 227). including both intended fathers and surrogates’ partners. Thomas J. Csordas. in which the belly was marked as a distanced space” (p. rarely appear. and psychological influences over the human reproductive process? Not only does Birthing a Mother shed illuminating light on the complex conditions and constraints that shape contemporary experiences of gestational surrogacy. Part III also explores gestational surrogacy as a form of gift exchange whose outcome hinges on the intended parents’ response. Although her ethnographic evidence is largely persuasive. discarded” (p. Part III “Separating” traces the “extreme alteration in roles” (p. one wonders on occasion whether Teman’s parsimonious model of liminality and transformation might be a bit too neat. and the state insists on serving as buffer between the two. by wearing pregnancy costumes or taking hormones to induce lactation. What do these herculean cognitive labors tell us about the power – and the limits – of social. in some instances. The book’s lucid and accessible writing. sift apart” (p. and general readers curious about the brave new world of gestational surrogacy. These questions of generalizability seem especially relevant from the perspective of psychological anthropology. As one surrogate put it. but it also provides an evocative. others’ outright denial leaves surrogates feeling “used. and highly teachable window onto the dizzying swirl of debate about the role of technology in (re)shaping human notions of kinship. but also from the complex reorganization of relationships as the intended mother desires to claim sole motherhood. 193) that takes place postpartum. Surrogates work extremely hard both to create protective body maps and. Intended mothers work equally hard to embody pregnant selfhood through cognitive means like empathy and identification and even. The perspectives of men.

Remennick. Larissa 2000 Childless in the Land of Imperative Motherhood: Stigma and Coping among Infertile Israeli Women. .1993 Somatic Modes of Attention. Tsipy 2009 Embodying Culture: Pregnancy in Japan and Israel. New Brunswick. NJ: Rutgers University Press. Ivry. Sex Roles 43(11-12):821-841. Cultural Anthropology 8(2):135-156.