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Critic's Notebook

How many is too many?

As the mother of octuplets speaks, the rest of us wonder -- and


Friday morning on NBC's "Today" show, in what was essentially a commercial for Monday's "Today" show and Tuesday's "Dateline," America saw its first interview with Nadya Suleman, Whittier single mother of 14, described by co-host Matt Lauer as "the woman everyone wants to hear from."

Unusually large multiple births were once a thing of (apparently) happy celebrity. But those were accidents of nature or, if you like, acts of God, in a time when the womb did not divulge its secrets until labor day. Reproductive science has added all sorts of twists to the tale, and Suleman's fame rests not only on the octuplets, conceived through in vitro fertilization, but also on the six children she had by the same method before them.

The reason a lot of people want to hear from her is that they think she's crazy.

Granted, all procreation is in biological terms a kind of narcissism -- it's your DNA wanting to live another generation -- and that Suleman, who has said that motherhood cured her depression, is not the first person to use childbearing as a form of self-medication. Still, "Today's" Ann Curry began her interview, excerpted from the longer coming "Dateline" appearance, wondering what Suleman had to say about those who find it "completely irresponsible and selfish to bring these children into the world without a clear sense of income and enough help to raise them."

Suleman is not a "Jerry Springer" figure -- she's well-spoken and attractive. But she clearly understands that at the moment she is not being celebrated for being fruitful and multiplying so much as she is being examined for signs of pathology. There was something aggressively, if quietly, defensive in her posture.

But there was also something odd in the way that she painted herself as a victim of prejudice ("I feel that I've been under the microscope because I've chosen this unconventional kind of life") and, in refusing to "selectively reduce" the number of embryos she was carrying for safety's sake, as a person who dared to dream big: "Sometimes we have that dream and that passion and we take risks."

She found occasion as well to contrast herself positively with other, less encumbered parents: "I'm providing myself to my children," she said. "I'll stop my life for them, and be present with them and hold them and be with them. And how many parents do that? I'm sure there are many that do, but many don't."

This was not strictly untrue, but it was also strangely expressed.

As the momentary possessor of a television news exclusive -- on Monday, it'll broadcast the first pictures of the octuplets -- the "Today" team hovered necessarily between celebration, which was also self-celebration, and what looked to be sincere skepticism.

"Ann, once again, congratulations," said Lauer to Curry. "It's fascinating. We can't wait to hear more."


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