Teaching Moms and Dads to Perform the Family: Rhetoric and Assisted Reproductive Technology Websites

Snuggling and Nuzzling

As a whole, ART company websites present pictures of women with children snuggling and nuzzling more often than men with children snuggling and nuzzling (see Figure 4 and Table 3).

Figure 4: Snuggling and nuzzling

woman snuggling child
snuggling from NAC

nuzzling from Xytex

Overall, men with children in pictures reflecting intimacy occur less frequently than women with children. When it does occur, it may be performed in a very unusual way, which does not occur when women are with children alone without other family members present2. Men with children snuggling and nuzzling alone without other members of a family present may be posed without clothing and photographed in black and white.  While there is one website (Family Source Consultants) that is completely rendered in sepia and black and white, it has a picture similar where the man is topless (see Figure 5). Though not considered shirtless, another website (The Center for Reproductive Health) has a picture of a man in a black and white photograph nuzzling a child.

Figure 5: Artistic nuzzling and snuggling

black and white picture of nude man snuggling a child
nuzzling from Conceptual Options

nude man snuggling child
snuggling from Family Source

It's as if this kind of intimacy is artistic; it is unusual and needs to be emphasized.  Though Family Source Consultants' pictures are all sepia toned black and white, the pictures of women with children, like other ART company websites are not unusual like the posed pictures of men with children. Moreover, in pictures of women with children clothing is always visible or inferable.  There are no pictures of a woman with a child where she is pictured with an allusion to nudity. These pictures inform audiences that women with children in intimate poses is normal and natural while men with children in intimate poses is not necessarily normal or natural since it is artistically rendered or idealized.  It is as though “men can only be feminized in fantasy” (S. Bergfeld, personal communication, 2008). Furthermore, the man's nudity emphasizes his body—that he has the physical power to protect a child.

There is another type of picture which becomes artistically rendered featuring women—pregnant pondering (see Figure 6).  While this type of picture only occurs on seven different sites, it is a significant type of picture. Pregnant pondering are pictures in which women frame, snuggle, and/or gaze at their bellies contemplating or pondering pregnancy and their wombs. In many of these pictures, women are beheaded or their faces hidden by their hair and/or their downward glance toward their bellies. Two of the sites display pregnant ponderers bathed in light; two websites feature flowers with bellies; two sites show pregnant pondering in formal attire—as if one is preparing to attend a gala. Such imagery instructs audiences about the importance of the relationship between mothers and children. The use of flowers and lighting in some of these pictures not only references fertility but also suggests pregnancy is "natural" and "beautiful" and "heavenly." And even when one is getting a sort of glamorous photograph, the subject of the picture is really not the woman (i.e. she is the object) but what the woman carries. It is as if by default or because women can bear children, they have a closer and more intimate connection to children than fathers. The emphasis on the womb, the framing hands or the holding, and the mother's gaze helps naturalize nurturing from the beginning. These images suggest that mothers' or surrogate mothers' identities and well-being is secondary to the child's. The instructions inform audiences that it is "natural" and "beautiful" for women to lose their identities when carrying a child. A mother is an altruistic character whose raison d'être is childbearing. Georges and Mitchell (2000), in their description of visual and verbal practices in pregnancy guidebooks, describe what such visual imagery communicates.  They write that "what lies inside their wombs is not a mass of undifferentiated tissue or a fetus of incipient personhood, but an appealing, sentient and vulnerable baby" (p. 189). And, furthermore, "they [pregnancy guidebook language and imagery] also, give women a particular self, the rational and informed mother, nurturing and sensitive to the nuances of her body (her baby)" (p. 191).

Figure 6: Pregnant pondering

pregnant woman bathed in light.  her gaze is focused on her belly.  verbal text refers to her as a surrogate angel.
from Egg Donor and
Surrogacy Program
(as you can see the
heavenly connection in
this picture is reinforced
by the verbal text)

pregnant belly with a woman holding flower next to it.
from Northeast Assisted
Fertility Group

woman's gaze is towards her belly that she holds. her hair covers her face.
from The Gift of

woman's hands caress belly and woman is dressed in a formal dress.
from Conceptual








Growing Generations (GG), however, differs from the other ART company websites in its representations of parenthood (see Figure 7). Though GG does possess an exceptional picture in black and white of a man with nude children snuggling (nuzzling could be occurring but the face is not shown), this image heavy site has a nearly equal number of pictures of men with children and women with children snuggling and nuzzling (see Table 4). It is important that the children in GG's artistic snuggling picture are nude though the man seems to have clothing, unlike other renderings of artistic snuggling and nuzzling3. The picture suggests that a man snuggling a child may only be rendered in fantasy. The picture, furthermore, emphasizes the contrast between the man's arms holding the children's nude buttocks. Again, men's physical presence and power to protect a vulnerable child is stressed.

Figure 7: GG's artistic snuggling and men and women with children snuggling in GG

black and white image of a man snuggling two nude babies.
artistic snuggling 
(read as man due to presence of arm
hair in American visual culture)

man snuggling child

woman snuggling child

With regards to pregnant pondering, GG does represent it.  GG's surrogacy page is bathed in white and yellow light and has a picture of a women pondering and snuggling her nude belly.  It seems to be making a similar claim to other sites regarding naked bellies and pregnant pondering. The pregnant woman (probably a surrogate) is alone snuggling and is bathed in an almost heavenly light (see Figure 8). Though these instructions are somewhat mitigated by the other pictures on the page, it is important that this type of picture is still present. It suggests that the ultimate goal regardless of whether the child is "hers" is the child and childbearing.

Figure 8: GG's pregnant pondering

pregnant woman snuggling belly while bathed in light
snuggling belly/womb/child

Though GG does have an example of a man artistically snuggling, GG does mediate this visual image with other visual images of men snuggling and nuzzling non-artistically. Though intimacy in fathering is idealized and this is certainly not transformative, there are other pictures in which it is presented as more or less "normal."  If the more frequent repetition of women with children snuggling and nuzzling is considered to re-enforce the biomagical connection between mothers and children as is the case when looking at ART companies' websites as a whole, then GG’s representations undermine such connections and present an alternative narrative of parenthood in which both parents connect biomagically or affectionately to children.  GG, at this point, is supporting Castells’s observations regarding the future of parenting and the severing of the biological from the societal and challenges traditional parenting paradigms. The overall instructions, however, an audience would receive from ART company websites as a whole would read: mothering or nurturing is performed by women and rarely, but artistically by men4.

2 There are a few artistic renditions of women snuggling/nuzzling children. Conceptual Options, for instance, has a picture of a woman nuzzling her child through a filter that softens the picture. The softness of the picture or the lack of hard lines reflects how our visual culture "feel[s] more secure or comforted looking at round shapes or curves" (Bang, 2000, p. 70).  Like the greater numbers of pictures of women snuggling and nuzzling children, this picture emphasizes nurturing between women and children. It is not instructing us in anything unusual as the nude men with children do. This picture and the others where there seems to be some sort of digital manipulation does not appear to be "posed" like men with children in Figure 5 (i.e. the pictures look more like a snapshot than deliberate modeling where the picture is designed and shot in a photographer's studio).

There are pictures of heterosexual families rendered artistically in black and white where snuggling and nuzzling occurs, the focus of these pictures is not on one behavior as in the black and white pictures of men alone with children. Instead the focus is on family interaction.

3GG and a few other ART company websites digitally manipulate pictures by creating frames for their pictures. GG, for instance, frames a number of pictures with what looks like a bubble or oocyte. For this study, what occurs within these frames or the content is considered significant unless a particular framing or other digital manipulation seems unique to a particular picture subject.

4 Though not included in the study, it is interesting that there are three companies whose logo or trademark symbol reflects snuggling and nuzzling. The Gift of Surrogacy, Building Families, and The Center for Reproductive Health, have cartooned logos showing women snuggling or nuzzling a child. Building Families and The Center for Reproductive Health present couples with children, but it is clear that the woman in the logo is holding the child. For me, it is revealing that such logos or "faces" of companies exist. They strongly situate mother as a nurturer and probably work more on a web searcher's memory by reminding them of appropriate parental relationships. These logos can be said to serve as synecdoches of how snuggling and nuzzling is usually presented in ART company websites.

Table 3: Pictures of women with children and men with children snuggling and nuzzling*
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  Sperm Egg Surrogacy Egg and Surrogacy Egg and Sperm (NAC) Total No.
No. sites presenting snuggling and nuzzling 5/8 2/6 1/2 8/10 1/1 17/27
Women snuggling/nuzzling 25 7 15 24 3 74 (75.5)
Men snuggling/nuzzling 5 1 4 14 0 24 (24.5)

*A few websites have equal representations of snuggling by men or women. In general, though the differences on individual sites might be slight, there are more representations of women with children snuggling and nuzzling on most sites.

Table 4: GG snuggling and nuzzling compared to all other company websites
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  All other Company Websites GG
Women snuggling/nuzzling 74 (75.5) 9 (50.0)
Men snuggling/nuzzling 24 (24.5) 9 (50.0)