SOMETIMES life is like a fun-house mirror, the glass and then the real thing. I had just watched the TV show “The New Normal,” a comedy about what used to be called untraditional families, for the first time, and the same day I read about Mitt Romney’s son Tagg and his wife, Jennifer, having twins through a surrogate pregnancy, using the same surrogate mother they had back in 2009. A week later, a few choice remarks were made about single mothers in the presidential debate.
I laughed about it with my neighbor, C, who gave me her usual incredulous look and said, “For reals?” She hadn’t heard.
She had just stopped pumping breast milk for the last baby she delivered, who belonged to a wealthy couple in another state. She had to drive 45 miles every day back to the hospital with an ice chest because, she said, “They bought the milk, too.”
My block doesn’t fit into the neat 47 percent category, because a lot of people don’t get any government help, though they could use it. I’ve lived here for 25 years, got divorced 15 years ago (though my ex-husband comes by nearly every day). Another neighbor has been here for 18 years, and her husband left three years ago for a younger woman — midlife crisis, we joked, though she’s alone with an autistic son and only part-time work as a funeral and wedding singer. We bring each other food, help each other with kids and rides, and we hang on.
I’ve seen neighbors come and go, and I hope C stays forever. She was married at 16 years old, and she had two daughters before her husband was murdered. She married again, had three more children, and then that husband was convicted of a crime she can barely bring herself to mention to me. He’s in prison “forever, I hope.”
Now she’s married to F, who came to California 20 years ago from El Salvador. He works at an oil refinery, she works hourly assignments as a surgical tech, and last summer he had to sell his beloved motorcycle from my front yard for $600 so they could pay the utilities bill that went so high because of August heat.
Until last summer, I hadn’t realized the way she pulls through is surrogacy. I’d wondered why she filled out her scrubs, and then got thin, even though I never heard a crying baby.
C told me the first was for a married couple: white husband, Middle Eastern wife, sperm from him, eggs from a Hispanic woman. A boy — bald, she added. Her own had always come out with a good head of hair.
The second was for a gay couple: sperm from a Korean father, eggs from a Hispanic woman. A girl — again, bald.
This last time, the couple were in their late 50s, with four teenage sons already, who wanted a girl. She told me they were blond and very wealthy, with a huge home and nannies. “I don’t know why they want a girl, but they do,” she said. “And there are three girls in here.”
C was already huge at three months, and we worried about her. I pruned all her roses and shrubs so she wouldn’t have to bend over. I brought apricots and blackberries from my yard, and F climbed their avocado tree and brought us 20 at a time.
Still, she felt terrible by the fifth month. Two of the triplets had not been viable, as the doctors put it. My daughter and I stared at her belly, imagining the two fetuses being absorbed back into C’s body while their sister thrived.
She made $30,000 for the first baby and $50,000 for the second one; if she delivered this girl, she would get $35,000.
I’ve given birth to three girls. I cannot imagine carrying a child for a stranger. When people say, “That’s so much money!” I say, “This is not a job where you take a break, lie down and rest, go on vacation for a week. She’s pregnant 24-7. Oh, and there’s the part where she could die.”
Because C got really sick toward the end. She didn’t want to eat. It was brutally hot, her air-conditioner broke, F was miserable without his motorcycle, her second daughter got pregnant with twin boys, and then her poodle, Lucy, got pregnant, with the stray dog they’d taken in and named Michael.
“My wife is in bed,” F told me. “I’m really worried about her. She’s having contractions early.” I kept imagining what the non-carrying mother would say, if she saw C sweating.
She gave birth two weeks early because the baby had grown so large. C-section, as always. C looked at the baby for a brief time before she was taken to her parents, who were staying in a hotel. “Another bald baby,” she said.
After the six weeks of purchased breast milk, C put in multiple job applications. She worked four months last year, filling in for someone on pregnancy leave. Her dryer broke three months ago, and the landlord laughed, so her backyard is festooned with laundry like a complicated sailboat rigging.
C and F aren’t reckless — we send our kids to each other for school fund-raisers, so I know we spend the same. C’s middle-school-age daughter has cheerleading competitions, her 10-year-old has soccer.
She was thinking of doing one more baby, she said. “I want to buy a house. I don’t want to rent anymore. It’s the only way to get a down payment.” But she’s 39. Her womb rented, her face so swelled this summer, her green eyes shimmering with pain and worry. “Maybe I’ll have one with my husband,” she said, and grinned. “See how that one comes out.”
C is white and American Indian. Her first two husbands were Mexican-American.
F bought a used motorcycle this month, so he’s happy again. He told me the dog just had three puppies by C-section, which set C back $500, and then he shrugged and put on his leather vest to drive 75 miles to work at the oil refinery, where he repairs machinery, though he can barely afford the gas, which is why he needed the bike. That’s how the new normal works these days on blocks like mine.
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