If you’re a woman over the age of 25, you are familiar with the pressure to procreate. The parental inquiries of when you’ll be settling down, when you’ll give them grandkids. The friends on Facebook popping out babies like clockwork. And if you’re married, the judgment-loaded questions from anyone you’ve barely met: Do you have kids? Oh, why not? Recently, women (and men) have been pushing back against the assumption that everyone wants children, in places like the Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed anthology edited by Meghan Daum, and also in short fiction. Enter “The Surrogate” by Caille Millner, this week’s release from Joyland.
“The Surrogate” begins like this:
Cecily is six months pregnant with someone else’s child when her husband tells her that he wants a baby of his own. It’s not a complete surprise — if he never grew jealous of all the other babies she’s carried, she’d wonder.
Cecily is a surrogate. She’s had a several babies for other people, but none of her own. One of the most revolutionary aspects of the story is that Cecily displays absolutely no sentimental attachment to the fetus she carries in her body. She treats it like a job because it is a job—one she was forced to take after both she and her husband lost theirs and couldn’t find new ones. It’s a job she’s performing with her body and her blood, but it’s a job nonetheless. The pregnancy is present in every part of the narrative, but the baby is scarcely mentioned. Instead, the focus is on Cecily’s body:
She spends her days on the couch with her feet above her heart, holding an ice pack against her face, praying that the wind won’t pick up. She needs the peace, because she’s bloated and steaming like a furnace and dreaming of the day she can drop this baby and pick up the $30,000 check she’ll get for carrying it.
We’re told that Cecily’s feet are so swollen they feel like walking on air mattresses, that the only smell that doesn’t make her sick is cedar, that pumping breast milk leaves her nipples painfully dry and cracked. There is no sentimentality, no cooing or rubbing her belly. For Cecily, the pregnancy is grounded in the present and in her body, not in future dreams of family. The only sentimentality comes through the eyes of her husband, Franco:
Her belly swells around her like an inner tube. After he got up, she slid over in bed, and now the baby is nuzzled in the warm print of his body. While his eyes grow used to the low light, he listens to her breathing.
Millner brilliantly shows us the opposing priorities of Cecily and Franco through tone as much as anything else. Franco is more optimistic than Cecily, and also more oblivious. He wants a child with Cecily, and he’s confident she’ll come around after she’s done with the current surrogacy.
What the reader can see that Franco can’t is that Cecily does not want a child of her own. Her reasons for this decision are never explicitly stated, probably because there are no simple reasons for choosing to have or not have children. Perhaps part of it is how many pregnancies she’s already gone through, or her financial situation with Franco, or the fact that she raised her siblings since she was 15. But even before Cecily has made up her mind, you can tell what her decision will be. Millner draws her character so well that you know she won’t be happy with children before she’s accepted it herself.
In a story about surrogate pregnancy, you might expect the heartbreak to be from giving up a child you’ve carried for nine months, but not so here. In a different story about not wanting children, you might expect the heartbreak to be from the decision itself. Not in this one. Here, the heartbreak lies in the expectations that her husband, the mother of the child, even her neighbors put on Cecily. It’s in the beaming smile that both Franco and the mother give her, the one that shows they’re looking at her not as herself, but as the incubator of their future happiness. It’s in her husband ignoring her protests that she’s not sure about kids, shushing her, telling her to just wait. She will one day.