Last month when the story broke about a California mother who’d given birth to eight babies, all of whom survived, the world seemed just a little happier for the news. But, as with so many seemingly upbeat stories these days, the news quickly turned from charming to alarming.
This was, we learned, no miracle birth. Nadya Doud Suleman’s octuplets were conceived via in vitro fertility treatments (IVF), a procedure during which doctors implant numerous embryos with the knowledge that they are not all likely to survive. Upon implantation, the medical providers and parents typically work together to “selectively terminate” (read: abort) one or more embryos to increase the viability of the rest.
Suleman had six embryos implanted and chose not to terminate any. One of those embryos divided into twins in utero, so her delivery room staff of 46 was not surprised to find themselves delivering seven babies. The extra baby — another twin — did, however, come as a shock to everyone involved including Suleman.
Soon we found out these eight newborn babies weren’t even Suleman’s first kids — not by a long shot. Although IVF is typically used to treat infertility, Suleman already had six kids and her doctor knew that. (The doctor — who also handled Suleman’s IVF for her previous children — is currently being investigated by the California Medical Board.) To add to that common thread, Suleman’s 14 children were all conceived using sperm from the same donor, whom Suleman says is a friend.
In the span of one news cycle, Nadya Suleman’s public image went from that of a brave young mother to a symbol of self-indulgent parenting who had intentionally given birth to all 14 children as a single parent. Although previously married, Suleman’s husband had filed for divorce in May 2006. His petition, which cites “irreconcilable differences” as grounds, claims the couple did not have any children together, yet Suleman’s previous IVF treatments led to the birth of six children prior to their divorce. He also asked not to pay spousal support and, after Suleman did not respond, his request was granted by default.
This disclosure only raised more questions. All of Suleman’s first six children were born before her divorce was final. Why didn’t she seek child support for them? Was she so financially independent that she did not need even spousal support to continue raising so many kids?
The answers led to the discovery of even more disturbing facts. For instance, at the time of the octuplets’ birth, Suleman was unemployed and living in her parents’ basement with her six other children. But at one point she did have money — $168,000 of it received between 2000 and 2008, as a matter of fact. The source of those funds? Two worker’s compensation claims filed after she was hurt during a riot at the psychiatric facility where she worked as an aide in 1999. Yet her claimed disabling back injury did not prevent her from conceiving via IVF and having five separate pregnancies.
There has to be some question,” says CBS News Legal Analyst Trent Copeland, “about whether or not a woman who’s disabled and collecting over $150,000 worth of disability payments is really authorized to receive those payments if she’s too disabled to work, but not too disabled to have at least a half-dozen children.
While some pointed to Suleman as the stereotypical welfare mother, churning out babies to stay on the dole, others began questioning her mental stability. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence to believe Nadya Suleman is in serious need of long-term, intense psychiatric help.
Angie Suleman, speaking of her 30-something daughter’s numerous children, says that Nadya has always been obsessed with having children, starting as early as her teens.
But as for a father figure for her kids, that’s not something Nadya was ever really interested in. After Nadya’s revelation that the same man donated sperm for the insemination of all 14 of her children, Angie Suleman pointed out that the man also wanted to marry Nadya but that she’d rejected him. “She just wanted to do whatever she is doing by herself,” Angie said. Nadya herself told Ann Curry that her obsession stems from a void she felt in her own life.
That was always a dream of mine, to have a large family, a huge family, and I just longed for certain connections and attachments with another person that I really lacked, I believe, growing up.
Of course, one cannot help wondering if six children were not enough to fill Suleman’s perceived void, why did she think eight more would help? And if they don’t, if she actually discovers — as most mentally healthy people do — that no one can fill her void because it’s something she needs to address within herself, what then? Will her children be useless to her, chains of obligation she comes to resent as she tries pursuing whatever method of self-realization attracts her then?
Such things seem to escape Suleman, who plans to go back to obtain her Master’s degree in counseling. Those plans, in fact, are the primary reason why she doesn’t understand the outrage over her choice to become a single mother of 14 children: “If I was just sitting down watching TV and not being as determined as I am to succeed and provide a better future for my children, I believe that would be considered, to a certain degree, selfish.”
She is, she insists, not on welfare. In fact, she plans to return to school and insists that doing so will allow her to support her children on her own once she begins working as a therapist. But according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, the average family therapist’s income is $45,310. How does Suleman think she’ll be able to stretch her dollars far enough to cover the expenses of raising 14 children who’ll need everything from daycare to possibly glasses, braces, and other special needs?
Even without disabilities, it costs roughly $240,000 to raise a child in the U.S. from birth to age 18. Multiply that by fourteen and Suleman’s looking at child-raising expenses of $3,360,000. But when it comes to the octuplets, there are still more expenses involved, as NBC’s medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, explains:
They’re going to watch these kids very carefully for eating problems, growing [problems], and then seizures, jaundice, heart problems, lung problems, blindness, developmental delays — there’s a laundry list of things. Long term, because some of these children will be physically or mentally challenged, there’s a looming price tag out here. The hospital bill alone will run $1.5 to $3 million. Forget about getting to college; just to get through special-needs stuff — it’s going to have to come from somewhere, either the taxpayers of California or her family or her church or the hospital.
Perhaps there’s a sick genius behind Nadya Suleman’s choice to have her octuplets while unmarried, unemployed, and living in her parents’ basement: that $1.5 to $3 million hospital bill won’t be her responsibility.
So who has to foot the hospital bill when unemployed, uninsured women give birth to babies? Taxpayers. And that has many folks up in arms, including California politicians who are outraged over the thought of public funds being used to provide medical care for any of Suleman’s fourteen children. Yet it’s almost certain the state will get stuck with Suleman’s hospital bill, if not for the kids’ ongoing medical care.
So what did Suleman think would tide her over in the time between giving birth to her octuplets and when she begins working as a therapist, even if her paycheck is enough to cover the bills? One answer may be in the slew of freebies that ordinarily greet the parents of multiples. The stars of TLC’s Jon & Kate Plus 8, for instance, have been given everything from tummy tucks (for mom) and hair plugs (for dad). Nkem Chukwu of Houston, the first woman to give birth to octuplets in the U.S., was given a six-bedroom house and has an army of volunteers helping her with childcare. The parents of the McCaughey septuplets received a 16-bedroom house, a mini-van, a lifetime supply of Pampers and baby food from Gerber.
If that’s where Suleman hoped to come up with the resources to raise the octuplets — along with her other children — she may have counted her eggs before they hatched, so to speak. Gerber’s spokesman says if the baby food company planned to help out they’d have done so, but that Suleman’s not even “on their radar.” Pampers says she can ask for the same freebie pack that’s given to other moms of multiples: a jumbo pack of diapers for each child, some baby wipes, and coupons for discounts on future purchases. For the most part, however, corporations are distancing themselves for Suleman, and perhaps that’s due to the number of people who’ve threatened to boycott those companies who offer their help.
That leaves Suleman with the same two sources of income to which all scoundrels and scam artists turn to in these days: good-intentioned strangers and mass media. As for the former, it’s heartwarming to know that in this dire economy people are still sending baby gift baskets and knitting blankets, though even such priceless acts of kindness won’t put a roof over the Suleman kids’ heads.
That’s where the media comes in, and Suleman’s working it hard. Somehow, the unemployed woman has managed to hire a publicist and is now shopping her story around. The asking price? Two million dollars.
The thing is, Suleman may have judged wrong here, too. NBC is adamant in its refusal to pay for her interview with Curry on the Today show. Even Suleman’s own publicist acknowledges his client has a struggle ahead to sell her story to anyone.
So what happens to her kids if Suleman’s big gamble doesn’t pay off? Already the children’s grandmother — who cared for the previous six while she was in the hospital with her octuplets — was threatening to walk out. Describing how she’s had to put in bunk beds and feed her daughter’s first six children in shifts, having another eight babies is “unconscionable.” Meanwhile, the grandfather plans to work in Iraq as a linguist to help support the family.
With an overwhelmed grandmother, an absent grandfather, and a mother who’s finishing her education then starting her career, what kind of void are these children going to grow up seeking to fill? And who within their family will have time to help fill it? After all, these 14 children have only one mother to turn to, and her time is booked up for at least the next couple of years.
That’s the ugly reality behind what Nadya Suleman did: she had a litter of children to fill a longing carried over from her own childhood, all the while gambling that others would pay the bill. And — given her financial and marital circumstances — others will pay. But none so much as her fourteen kids.