Are We Judging the Octuplet Mom Too Harshly?

Dawn Davenport


Are we judging Octomom unfairly

Why had society villainized the Octomom while celebrating other large, multiple births? Are we judging her too harshly?

This story of the octuplets has caught fire, which at least makes me feel less freakish for my fascination. True to my prediction in last week’s blog, I’ve been reading everything I can find, although I haven’t stooped to The National Enquire–yet. An editorial on Time titled “Calling a Truce on the Octuplet Mom” by one of my favorite columnists, Nancy Gibbs, caught my attention. Ms. Gibbs questioned why our society was vilifying this mother while celebrating other large families such as the Gosselins (family with twins and septuplets of the reality TV show Jon and Kate Plus Eight fame) and the Duggars (family with 18 kids of the reality TV show 17 Kids and Counting fame). It’s a valid question.

In the past, high order multiple births were an accident of infertility treatment. All the cases I know of resulted from a woman taking strong ovulation inducing drugs and then either having sex or being inseminated with sperm injected directly into her uterus. This procedure, known as an IUI with injectibles, is an inexact science. The ovaries are stimulated to produce multiple eggs, but it is not always possible to know the quality or maturity of the eggs produced, and thus, it is impossible to accurately predict how many eggs will be fertilized. I feel compelled to point out that cautious, responsible doctors seldom produce the conception of over three or four babies using this technique, but nonetheless, the parents of these large order multiples are seen as the victims of medical science. Most of us are suckers for plucky stories of people making the best of a bad situation, especially when these stories involve cute babies. It’s easy to root for these families because they are graciously coping with the hand they were dealt. Nadya Suleman, the octuplet mom, appears to be the dealer in her story by insisting on the transfer of six embryos because she wanted a large family.

As to mega families by choice like the Duggars, I’m not so sure “celebrate” is the correct verb choice. I think our fascination is more of the “thank goodness it’s not me” variety. Watching the logistical challenges of such large families makes our problem of how to get Suzy to soccer practice at the same time Johnny has piano lessons and dinner needs to be started seem manageable. Huge families, such as the Duggars, differ in two important ways from the octuplet story. They grew over time rather than all at once. The lives of the children were not endangered by a large order multiple birth, and each child was allowed the attention an infant needs to develop into an emotionally healthy adult. Also, the Duggars can afford to raise their eighteen children. They are debt free, and provide their children with the extras we associate with a proper childhood. Ms. Suleman is an unemployed woman living off of her nearly bankrupt parents. I think any family that continues to have children they can’t afford would be judged the same.

But here’s the uncomfortable point: I do think we are applying a double standard. I suspect that if we scratch the surface of the other quintuplet, septuplet, sextuplet, and octuplet births, we’d see that those parents also consciously took risks. They likely knew before they went through the IUI that there was a risk of too many eggs being fertilized. True, their gamble was less egregious than Ms. Suleman’s who actually had six embryos transferred upping the odds of large order multiples, but it’s only a matter of degrees. In these huge mega families by choice, such as the Duggars, I wonder how much individual attention the children really get. The average spacing of children in the Duggar family is eighteen months (yes, I went to their website to get this fact, but it was only for research purposes). That’s a lot of children in a relatively short period of time. A couple of years ago, I read two biographies about the Gilbreth family made famous in the book Cheaper by the Dozen. Apparently the reality of being raised in a crowd is different from the fictionalized portrayal in the books and movies, and not as much fun.

Ms. Suleman thinks she is being unfairly judged because she intentionally had children as a single woman with no father in the picture. She may be right, in part. An editorial this week in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution lambasted not only Ms. Suleman for being selfish, but all single parents who chose this path as well. I think this broad condemnation of all “single parents by choice” is misplaced. Through my work and consulting, I know plenty of single parents who responsibly chose parenthood without a partner because no partner was available, and they knew their life would not be complete without a child. Some adopted and some conceived, but the vast majority are totally invested in being a parent. The research that was touted in the editorial was based on single parents created by the accident of divorce or birth control, not on parents who consciously choose and prepare for single parenthood. Don’t we all become parents for inherently selfish reasons—we want to parent, we want to see parts of ourselves in the next generation, we want to do a good/better job than _____(take your choice: our mother, our sister, the rest of the world)? The urge to procreate is no more selfish in a single person than in a married couple. (Check out the Creating a Family show on Single Parenthood by Choice where we discuss the pros and cons and how to responsibly choose this option.)

But again, Ms. Suleman’s story is far from the typical single woman that wants to become a parent. It is irresponsible to keep having children that you can’t support financially or emotionally. This is a far cry from a single parent with a steady job, with reasonable work hours, and an extensive support system having one or two kids.

I have also been troubled by casting this story as the “pro-life” use of IVF. Some have suggested that Ms. Suleman’s request to have all six embryos transferred was in response to ethical or religious concerns about not transferring all embryos that were created. I have worked with a number of infertility patients that are trying to decide if IVF is an option for them given their religious beliefs that life begins at the moment an egg is fertilized. I believe that IVF is absolutely an option for them if they carefully think through beforehand the decisions they will have to make at every step.

The most important decision they have to make is how many eggs they should fertilize. One option is only to fertilize the number of eggs they are willing to transfer fresh at that time. Another option is to fertilize enough eggs so that they can transfer a few fresh and freeze the rest for a later attempt for a second child or first child if the first IVF cycle failed. Using frozen embryos is much less expensive and is easier on the woman’s body, but before deciding on this option, they need to evaluate the risk to embryos from cyropreservation and the options available to them if they have embryos left over after they have reached their preferred family size. The “solution” to ethical and religious concerns with IVF is never to transfer all the embryos at once. This is not only ludicrous, it is highly disrespectful of life.

There are still a lot of questions about the story being told. I find it highly unlikely that six embryos were transferred with each of her five precious pregnancies, as she has claimed. It is hard to imagine that six embryos would result in four singleton births and one twin birth in a woman in her twenties. It seems more likely that Ms. Suleman intentionally upped the ante to increase the odds of a multiple birth. Of course, I’ve been wrong in this story before, and not much would surprise me. I also wonder how an unemployed woman could afford six IVF cycles when fresh cycles run about $15,000 each and are seldom covered by insurance.

The truth is that none of this is my business if it just affects Ms. Suleman. I have justified my voyeurism because this story is being used to judge the choices of others. This collateral damage troubles me. The infertile, the single parents by choice, and the pro-life infertility patients are casually lumped in with Ms. Suleman, and similarly tarred as selfish and irresponsible. It is possible to use infertility treatment responsibly; it is possible to choose single parenthood responsibly; and it is possible to use IVF and still believe life begins at conception.

So in answer to the question posed by Nancy Gibbs of why judge Ms. Suleman and not others with large families, I think she is being judged more harshly because of the intentionality of her actions, and the almost defiant attitude towards the risk to her children. I hope I am proved wrong and that somehow she too is a victim of medical science, but for now, it’s hard to sympathize with a woman who could be so cavalier with the lives of not only these eight children, but also with the quality of life of her other six children, three of whom receive disability benefits. Sticking with the cliché theme I’ve got going here, under the facts that are currently available, our societal knee-jerk reaction is more apt to be along the lines of “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” Unfortunately, she shares her bed with 14 others who had nothing to do with its making. I thought Anna’s comment on last week’s blog summed it up well: these children are already here now, and they and their mother need our support.

10/02/2009 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 19 Comments

19 Responses to Are We Judging the Octuplet Mom Too Harshly?

  1. Avatar pal says:

    What worries me about this story is the romanticing of higher order multiples. As someone who lost a twin pregnancy, I had no idea the higher risks involved with even twins not to mention triplets and above. None of this was described in advance or during my pregnancy. As a country, we do not have a standard of care for a multiple gestation pregnancy nor accurate statistics on the outcomes, what to do to improve the outcomes, etc. Regardless of the mom’s circumstances, I think it was the doctor and fertility clinic that was negligent in transfering such a high number of embryos.

  2. Avatar chris says:

    This is a weird one. Those poor children. They didn’t ask for this. They just want to eat, stay warm and be loved. I’m sure that is in short supply. The mom on the other hand; does what she wants. She admitted to taking 100,000 of her benefits for her IVF’s. (who payed for the fake nails, facial work?) That’s a lot of food, meds, clothes, schooling for the existing kids that she did not have to spend. And she owes 50,000 on school loans already. How many meals did they go without? How many 14 hour days did grandma put in. Don’t forget, Nadya was in the hospital on bed rest at the 23rd week. Who was home holding/feeding/changing/transporting six other babies/kids for 4 1/2 months? I have this feeling that even if she had some money,(and she did) she still couldn’t/wouldn’t take care of them. Yup, I’m judging Nadya harshly.

  3. Avatar lauren says:

    we have not judged nadya too harshly. Unlike the duggars and gosselins, she cannot support her family. The duggars and gosselins are supporting themselves on their own income and not relying on other people. nadya is living with her parents, has declared bankruptcy and is living on public assistance. She should not have gotten pregnant when she already has 6 kids she cant afford. I believe her decision was very selfish.

  4. Avatar Morgan says:

    I am torn on this issue, the woman deserves nothing except maybe some contempt, but the children do deserve assistance. I have seen enough people on government assistance to know that not everyone actually does what is right with the money. I have seen people sell food stamps to buy alcohol or drugs, I have seen people get out of a new Mercedes wearing very expensive clothes and pay for food with food stamps. I have seen people take child support payments and go on vacation while leaving the children with next to nothing to live off. I know very well that this is not what everyone does and I can’t say that this woman would do things like this but I keep coming back to how did she pay for the treatments, including what does appear to be plastic surgery.

    I don’t think that love is anywhere close to enough for children like she seems to believe, they need other little things like food and shelter to name a couple.

    I also think the doctor deserves to be vilified. I don’t see how enabling someone to have 8 babies at 1 time, whether that person is married or employed or not is “doing no harm”.

  5. Avatar Anna says:

    In the Duggars and John and Kate’s situation, the only people who can judge if it’s “disgusting” are the children and as far as I have heard none of them have complained. Like Dawn described, they are fit to take care of the families they have created (The Duggars have managed to stay debt-free!). Also, in John and Kate’s case, they didn’t seek to have so many kids, it’s a rare fertility nightmare that led to their sitation and instead of choosing to abort their children, they chose to provide them the opportunity to live and make the best of it. I personally commend them for that.

    Also, I’m not for anyone “milking the government,” but there’s a lot of irresponsible behavior that has gone on the last several years — this may be one of those cases, but the reason people are “loosing their homes” is another.

  6. Avatar m says:

    They should take the MD’s license for performing the procedure in the first place. Why would somebody do this procedure without checking the patient’s history/background. This B*TCH was getting welfare from the government and was able to pay for lip surgery and embryonic implant? WTF?
    How is she going to pay for her children’s college tuition? and where is she going to get the money and time to appropriately raised here children?
    Somethings need to be done here. While people are loosing their home and jobs, others are milking the government so that they can afford expensive procedure from other people’s tax dollars. Can somebody please tell me what is going on???

  7. Avatar New Here says:

    This is an excellent post. I personally think Ms. Suleman is mentally ill. Her money would have been better spent on heavy-duty psychological counseling.

    That said, a lot of posts seem to say:
    1 – poor people shouldn’t have children
    2 – people with handicapped children shouldn’t have any more children
    4 – people who might have handicapped children shouldn’t have children, just in case
    3 – single people shouldn’t have children

  8. Avatar Crow says:

    “these children are already here now, and they and their mother need our support.”

    The children absolutely deserve our support. Their mother on the other hand does not. Why should she? There are many women in this country struggling to raise children and having a hard time through no fault of their own. This woman ASSUMED that she could work out her mental health issues through repeated pregnancies and be supported in doing so not just by imposing on her own parents’ financially and personally, but on everyone else as well.

    She may need support, but in my opinion the support she most needs is psychiatric.

  9. Avatar Chris says:

    As a woman who has gone thru 6 unsuccessful IUI’s and 2 failed IVF attempts I understand the obsession with waiting to have a family. However I am dumbfounded why Nadia chose to spend her little money she did have on another round of IVF instead of her 6 children she already has! I can understand putting 6 embryos back in after previous IVF cycles failed with less embroyos. But to purposely put in 6 when you already have 6 children is beyond comprehension! I feel so sorry for Nadia’s parents who are trying to support her and I feel sorry for the children who are never going to get the attention and love they so deserve. As sad as this situation is for everyone involved I would never send her money when she spent thousands and thousands of dollars trying to have more children instead of thanking God for the ones she does have and taking care of them.

  10. Avatar Lynn says:

    OMG – they want to license hobby dog breeders out of existence, yet any unemployed schmoe “breeding” disabled children that then end up receiving government money as well as a media blitz that pays off in spades is okay?? This woman is irresponsible and seems to be unable to even care for herself, much less all those children – and HER mother sounds exhausted and exasperated!

  11. Avatar Della says:

    I’ve always thought the Duggars and families like them are disgusting. It’s cruel and selfish to have so many children.

  12. Avatar Samantha says:

    To me, this is not about this woman’s status as a single woman. This is about her ability to financially and emotionally support 14 children, many of whom will likely have developmental problems as a result of prematurity. I have twin boys and it is a lot of work for my spouse and I to care for them and give them both the attention they require. It is absolutely impossible for one person to adequately care for 14 kids (one of whom has autism, or so I’ve read). If she were economically self-sufficient and could afford a host of nannies, that would be one thing. But instead, she is going to rely on our cash-strapped State to care for her kids. I’m sure her NICU bill will be well into $3 million. Who is going to pay for that? The state, of course. There are so many families and children suffering right now in this economic climate already. What she has done is incredibly selfish and harmful to her children. No one should be defending her unless they want to pay for her medical and support bills (in which case, go right ahead because California can’t afford it).

  13. Avatar Dawn says:

    Dana, I too have thought about the grandmother a lot. Sheis in such a tough position. If you leaves, her grandchildren suffer more. If she stays, her daughter is not facing the consequences of her actions. As parents, it’s scary to think that our children’s choices can so drastically alter the way we live our life and our hopes and dreams for our later years. There is obviouly some unfinished business in their relationship.

  14. Avatar meme says:

    I know the media may not judge the Duggars and John & Kate as harshly, but I always have. I think they are all out of control, and none of them should be put up on pedastals at all. I feel sorry for all the children in all of these families.

  15. Avatar Anna says:

    Tammy, well said! You’re going to be a great mom — everyone contemplating having a baby should have to go through a home study ;-). Also, it’s scary having a newborn for the first time even when you’re not single and you have support. Hope your wait isn’t too long!

  16. Avatar Dana says:

    I’m as obsessed with this story as the next person, and also puzzled as to why… Naturally or IVF conceived, single, married, all that is irrelevant to me. In thinking about it I realize (as a mother of five) that what I keep coming back to is the grandmother in the story, back at the (cramped) house, having retired from teaching and probably wishing she could, you know, be retired… and instead, she is evidently the main caregiver for six children — soon to 14 when the babies get home. She seems to be the only one in the story that has made any sacrifices, and yet she’s the one paying the price.

    The best outcome to this story might be for grandma to just disappear and let Nadya deal with reality a bit. Which would eventually lead to the children being taken away from her — regardless of where she finds the money, one person cannot emotionally DEAL with 14 kids at once, alone, when 8 of them are newborns — and, sadly, that might be the best thing for them.

  17. Avatar Martha says:

    I don’t think we’re judging her too harshly at all. The fact that I judge her for making this decision as a single woman isn’t a morality call, it’s a judgment based on the fact that one person can not raise 14 kids under 7 with no assistance. Since SHE does not have the means to provide, we as a society have to.

    I think her decision was selfish beyond belief, and my heart breaks for those little ones that can’t possibly get the attention they would need to fully thrive from one mother (whose needs to “mother” weren’t met with SIX little ones, what makes us think they will be met with 14?).

    As an elementary school teacher, with many students that are monitored by caseworkers, my feeling is: If you can’t take care of your kids, don’t get pregnant.

  18. Avatar Tammy says:

    I have really been struggling with this story for a number of the same reasons you have touched on. First of all, I am a single soon-to-be mother by choice. I do not consider myself the same as Nadia (I believe that is her name). I am financially secure enough that my child will be provided for and I can emotionally support the child I will adopt. I have purposely chosen not to adopt more than one at a time for these very reasons. Oh yeah – and I had to be home study approved LOL! Single parents already get blamed for so many of society’s ills and it can get really tiring hearing about how your chosen lifestyle has ruined our country.

    In my humble opinion, I think there are some very interesting but nonetheless damaging mental health issues going on here. But that’s another story 🙂

    But at the same time, I find myself relating to her – at least in some ways. Everyone single one of us who has tried infertility treatments or have adopted have that same burning and all consuming desire to be parents. I watched parts of the interview with her tonight and found myself feeling the same emotions she was describing. How many of us have gone through hell and high water to bring a child into our homes? People have told me I am obsessed with adopting. My response if that if you knew who difficult and tedious it is, you would understand you have to be obsessed to make it through. I would guess going through infertility is the same.

    Also, I have a friend who was one of 10 children in her family and she doesn’t feel like she suffered for it. Her family is incredibly close and even though some would say she “went without” because she had to share more than most others, she doesn’t feel the same way. She is very content with her childhood and her relationships with her family now. And in the end, that is what matters. So again, I’m not sure we can make blanket statements about large families either. Not everyone can do it but it can and is done successfully.

    I also get uncomfortable when we start talking about people having children when they are already on public assistance. I don’t agree with this woman’s financial plan and I think it will hurt her kids in the end. But I get uncomfortable when we judge everyone on assistance. Does that mean that only the middle and upper class are “allowed” to have children? This is a debate that will never be settled but regulating people having children starts getting into the scary realm.

    In the end, I come back to what is best for the kids. I worry about taking care of one newborn by myself. Kids, especially newborn, need their parents, not other people taking care of them. We talk all the time about secure attachment in adoption. Will these 8 babies have secure attachment after being in the hospital for weeks or months and then having to vie for their mother’s attention? And will the older siblings become “the other parent”. They clearly have been “pushed off the lap” at a very young age.

    As you said though, these children are here and this debate is really a moot point. Judging and condemning her will not help her be a better mother. So what are we going to do about that?

  19. Avatar Anna says:

    I’m in no way defending this woman’s choices, I just think we’re being hypocritical when we accuse her of being selfish and then our reactions are self oriented: how does this affects us? how does it affect our taxes? our insurance premiums? etc. (you weren’t doing this BTW). Besides ignoring the lives that are here now, I also think these questions can lead down a dangerous road; for example, our insurance premiums are affected by bad choices people make all the time (e.g., smoking, drinking, drug abuse, etc.) that lead to illness which impact insurance premiums, taxes, etc. And, then I’ve read discussions over regulating infertility treatment or womb activity– as if we need the government involved in an already difficult, emotional situation. Yikes, I’m ranting :-).

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