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Topic Recommends: Surrogate Sisters and Paternity Brothers

A mother holds her child’s hand during the first five minutes of life, Port Jefferson, New York, 1959. Eve Arnold / Magnum

Topic Recommends: Surrogate Sisters and Paternity Brothers

A curated list of the best stories on the internet about the challenges and rewards of motherhood.

Every other week, Topic Recommends curates the best stories for you to watch, listen to, read, and enjoy. Anything, really, besides the news. It’s all the work of writer Laura Olin.

This month, Laura is suggesting stories linked to our May theme: Mothers. Sign up to get this as a newsletter here.

1. Ice Queens.Why don’t we talk about Catelyn Stark?Lindsey Romain asks in Nerdist, noting that the legacy of the most iconic mother in Game of Thrones was forgotten, even though her inability to “love a motherless child” arguably set off so many of the events that unfolded in this week’s series finale. Catelyn’s absence was especially notable because she was one of the rare good (if complicated) mothers in a show that had an army of characters, but slim pickings for maternal role models. Daenerys, mother to three dragons and one miscarried human child, turned out to be (spoiler) a genocidaire. There’s the woman who breastfed her ten-year-old child before plunging to her death. And Cersei Lannister was Cersei Lannister. At least Olenna Tyrell was a model grandma. 2. Amateur Hour. The highest-grossing movie of 1987—now largely forgotten, but a fixture of every ‘80s childhood—drew much of its plot from the fact that there was no mother in it at all. Three Men and a Baby starred Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, and Ted Danson and brought in more money than both Lethal Weapon and Moonstruck, also released that year. The core premise and message of this Leonard Nimoy-directed cultural juggernaut was that men—often half the equation in the project of baby-making—are congenitally and comically useless when it comes to baby-raising. (Can we blame Three Men and a Baby for this?) In a 2017 piece for the New Statesman, Yo Zushi reflects on how the movie framed parenthood for him on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of its release and the arrival of his own child, whose diaper he claims he’s proficient at changing. 3. Modern Family. “As with most families, the majority of mine who had gathered at St. James that morning didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on in my life. On August 27, 1999, I was 48 years old and six months pregnant.” A riveting and iconic New Yorker piece from 2000 by the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, chronicling the experience of giving birth to her daughter, Lucy Jane, when Wasserstein was 48 years old. One of the many striking things about the essay is the studiously off-handed way in which Wasserstein mentions the gossip and judgment that swirled around her late motherhood. Would it be any different now? You’d hope so, but probably not. 4. Momzi Scheme. “It’s a Thursday night in July and I’m scouring the internet, looking to rent my womb.” In 2009, The Morning News published a piece by Leah Finnegan in which she considered an extreme solution to the millennial problem of student debt: becoming a surrogate mother, which can yield a payoff of $20,000 to $30,000. It turns out surrogacy is an entire universe unto itself, with its own language, native customs, and mores, and an acceptance rate lower than Harvard’s. 5. Tour of Duty. In 1993, before Hillary Rodham Clinton became First Lady, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin offered her some advice in Mother Jones. DKG invoked one of HRC’s guiding lights—Eleanor Roosevelt—in addressing how Hillary could re-cast the part for the end of the millennium: “Eleanor traveled away from home too many days. She admitted this at the end of her life. As much as her ramblings around the country helped build her political base and allowed her to serve as FDR’s eyes and ears, she wasn’t there when he needed her. A wife and mother can allow a president to relax, to feel affectionate, and to have an oasis from the pressures of the White House. Eleanor would have been the first to admit that she wasn’t very good at that.”

6. On Leave. Being a mother can make the passage of time feel a bit like an assault, novelist Meg Wolitzer told the Globe and Mail in 2008. The context was the publication of her then-new novel, The Ten-Year Nap. (The book tells the story of four professional women who take time off to raise their kids when they’re young; the title itself now reads a little regressive and uncool.) “Powerful experiences feel permanent,” Wolitzer explains. “That’s what makes them powerful. When you are with young children and immersed in that world, it has the quality of any powerful and deep experience in that it feels like you’re suspended in time. Then, suddenly, you’re not. It can be a slap. The child betrays you by growing up.” 7. A Mother’s Work. A snapshot of life in the 1950s: a collection of New York Times stories remarking on the naming of “Polio Mother of the Year,” a recognition granted to women stricken with the disease who were soldiering on in their prescribed roles. (Paywall warning on these links.) In 1957, the winner was Mrs. David W. Phillips of Los Gatos, California, “a busy 33-year-old housewife” who, “for the last three years, from a wheel chair ... has been able to supervise the welfare of her husband and three children and find time to give piano lessons and cultivate a garden.” (Three of Mrs. Phillips’s children also had the disease.) In 1958, the recognition went to Mrs. Virginia Huston of Bellingham, Washington, a 34-year-old mother of two who “does her housework in a wheelchair and goes bowling for a ‘night out.’” (“‘You symbolize what can be accomplished by that essential thing—courage,’ said Basil O’Connor, president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, at a luncheon in Mrs. Huston’s honor at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.”) The tiny newspaper clippings are a small window into a terrifying time in American history, when the polio vaccine—first available in April 1954—was still catching on.

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