“My Bun, Her Oven”, an Anthropological Review

The anthropologist Elly Teman has conducted a field-based research about gestational surrogacy (GS) in Israel between 1998 and 2006, interviewing and observing the interactions between surrogates and intended mothers. “My Bun, Her Oven” is just one of the several publications she has written in this field.

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Elly Teman starts her article by paying attention to the social answer that surrogacy in general receives, saying that the large portion of the thoughts express a sense of discomfort with surrogacy. As she wrote, gestational surrogacy is challenging some of our most deeply conceptual categories, introducing an ambiguity in the concept of motherhood (Teman, 2010), and causing a more visible fragmentation of it – biological motherhood, genetic motherhood and social motherhood (Ragonè, 1994). At the same time, GS reveals the strong cultural assumption in Western society that women “naturally” develop instinctive bonds and love with the babies in their bellies, and they won’t give the babies away unless they are desperate, forced, or out of their minds. For this reason, as Teman has written, surrogacy has been read and treated like a “cultural anomaly”.

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Also, the cases reported in the news help relieve our cultural anxieties about surrogacy. It helps us to prove that our believes are rights and that woman really wants love and take care of the baby she was carrying. We ignore that the large majority of surrogates does not hesitate to relinquish the baby and are happy of it (as reported in the article, out of 25.000 surrogacy births in the US, no more than 30 cases have reached a courtroom).  If the large part of the population believe that mothers have a “natural motherhood instinct” that conduct her to love and feel the baby, in this frame, it is easy to understand why a woman who says “I am not the mother, I am just the oven”, can be seen strange to people, assuming that surrogates are alienated from their bodies.

The article continues introducing the thoughts of one of the most influential anthropologist of the last half-century, Mary Douglas. She taught us that there are many ways to manage the “anomalies” and to protect our categories; in other words, there are many ways to bring back the order caused from a cultural practice that has introduced a change in our system, what most of the people see like an anomaly. The most common answers are: fully banning them, avoiding them from imagining it ever existed or using the anomaly ritually or symbolically to find a way to incorporate it within the accepted cultural values.

Teman has used the category introduced by Mary Douglas to read the experience of the subjects involved in her research. In “My Bun, Her Oven” she has shown how these women tried to resolve the anomaly introduced by the surrogacy, using the meanings she collected during her fieldwork. For examples, surrogates used many strategies to distance themselves from the so called “surro-baby”, using the genetic disconnection for distancing themselves from the title of mother. At the same time, the intended mothers wanted to take this “title”, wanting to be recognized as the only Mother, publicly and privately. How? They participated in many of the symbolical actions that common mothers do: reading pregnancy books, accompanying the surrogate to every doctor appointment since the delivery. In other words, they were experiencing the pregnancy from the “outside”, acting they were pregnant too.

As Teman has shown in this article, both Israeli intended mothers and surrogates used some symbols and rituals to describe their surrogacy’s experiences. With their stories and thoughts surrogates and intended mothers are slowly deconstructing the ideological idea of motherhood, showing other different meanings related to that.

As Teman suggested anthropologists provide insights starting from the ways people involved in the practice give meanings to their actions (2010:33).
During my research, I will use Temas’s article to understand and read the way in which surrogates often describe the relation with the baby they are carrying. Below one example collected during the fieldwork:

S.: “You know, it is hard to explain what I think about it. Maybe it sounds weird, but I don’t feel any maternal bond with the surro-baby I am carrying. I know he is not my child because we don’t have any genetic connection […]

S.(Encino, 11/02/17).

 

References
Ragonè H., 1994, Surrogate Motherhood: Conception in the Heart. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Teman E., 2010, “My Bun, Her Oven”, Anthropology Now, vol.2 n. 2.

 

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