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From India with twins

You can see why Adrienne Arieff’s new book, The Sacred Thread, is getting so much attention: It’s Baby Mama with a Bollywood kick—and just enough un-PC San Francisco alternative-family craziness to twist both Rick Santorum and Rachel Maddow into knots. The 40-year-old publicist tells the funny, sweet, squirm-inducing story of how, after three miscarriages, she braved her friends’ doubts and her own first world–feminist angst and put her fate in the hands of a surrogacy clinic in Anand, India, run by the high-handed but warmhearted Dr. Nayna Patel (Mindy Kaling, have we got a sitcom idea for you). The result: twins Emma and India, now three. Here, Arieff talks IVF treatments and guilt trips with Nina Martin.

Why do surrogacy in India? Why not here?

I have this connection to India, where I went to mourn after my mother’s death a few years ago. Also, Dr. Patel has great credentials and recommendations, and the cost is much lower than in the U.S. [About $25,000 vs. $120,000.] In the end, though, what sold me was the contract—there’s much less red tape, and the surrogate has to hand over the baby, whereas here she can change her mind. I have three friends who went through the whole adoption process and then had the biological mom [decide to keep the baby].  I couldn’t deal with that kind of heartbreak again.

Were people judgmental—you know, “How could you exploit this poor woman?”

Overall, my friends were very supportive, but for a couple of skeptics it was disapproval of surrogacy in general, then India on top of that. But that’s all turned around.

And how do you answer the exploitation charge?

Well, Vaina doesn’t think I exploited her. One of the first times I met her, she said, “I want you to have what I have—a family.”  I don’t know if it was scripted, but she’s never given me any reason to think it was.

She’s a Muslim woman from a small village. Has she been stigmatized?

She made up a story that her husband had found temporary work in another part of the country, so no one would know she was doing this. She lived in the surrogate house at the clinic, and her husband and three kids stayed nearby.

In the book, you don’t sugarcoat the fact that it was a really complicated relationship.

There was the language difference, and we didn’t have a lot in common in terms of education or ambition. I kept wanting her to better her life, but I knew she was probably going to give the money to her husband. In retrospect, it was so patronizing. I wanted to be her friend, but from her perspective, she was just doing a job.

Did the level of medical care drive you crazy as well? Because Dr. Patel’s clinic is not exactly UCSF.

Well, she might not have the latest and greatest sonogram machine, but the one she has is good enough. With something as emotional as infertility and surrogacy, there’s actually something appealing to me about not knowing every statistic, just having to believe that everything’s going to be OK. India’s all about—everything’s happy; even if people are unhappy, they act like they aren’t. I think I needed that glossy layer.

How did Vaina react after the babies were born?

She wanted to make sure they were healthy, but her bond wasn’t so much with them as with me. When we were saying good-bye, I gave her a bracelet from my stepmom that had been handed down from one woman in the family to another, and Vaina gave me these sacred threads, which are what the title of the book comes from. It’s an Indian coming-of-age ritual—the parents give threads to their child to symbolize their bond. But Vaina gave the threads to me, not the babies.

You just visited Vaina’s village in India. How has her life changed?

She used some of the money to send her kids to school, which they couldn’t afford before. The house finally has electricity, and her husband has been able to start a cab business. Some of the other surrogates have done amazing things—one is a nurse at the clinic; another started a school.

How does she explain you  to people?

She says that I was a tourist that she met while she was away. Her kids are too little to understand; they just think she was doing some-thing nice for another woman.

And how will you explain all of this to your girls?

We’ve been talking about the surrogacy from the beginning, but, of course, they don’t have a clue either. We’ll keep talking, and I hope what they eventually take away from the story is “Look how hard we worked to get you. Look at how much you are loved.”