Caribbean economics birthed ‘Barrel Children’…Does infertility birth ‘Surrogate Mothers’?

In the 1980s and 1990s a Caribbean classroom conversation between teacher and student could easily have gone:

Teacher: “Johnny, I would like to speak with your mother please.”

Johnny: “Not possible, teacher my mother is in foreign.”

Caribbean economics birthed ‘Barrel Children’... Does infertility birth ‘Surrogate Mothers’?

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Johnny would be one of those children always nicely dressed but with one or both of his parents far away. The term ‘barrel children’ was coined to describe Johnny and other children like himself whose parents left their homelands in the Caribbean in search of a better life. It was the regular sending of barrels of food and clothing, and remittances back to their homeland to support their children that led to the term.

In a novel by Pamela K. Marshall, a story is explored of a young girl, Sara, coming to Brooklyn from Jamaica to meet her mother for the first time after thirteen (13) years. The book gets into the feelings of abandonment and mistrust that sometimes develops within barrel children and the eventual challenges in family dynamics that sometimes arose. In the 21st century, it is now common for entire families to migrate.

Another common trend for families globally is working with surrogates to create their desired families. The umbrella term for this practice is surrogacy, which includes commercial surrogacy, altruistic surrogacy, and egg donors. Surrogacy essentially engages a woman who agrees to become pregnant for an individual or couple and to hand over the child to same after giving birth.

Similar to the economic need birthing ‘barrel children’ so too did individual or couple infertility birth surrogacy as a global family planning option.

Surrogate with ‘parents’

Across the globe, many are finding much satisfaction with this method. As one surrogate puts it, “We were all so proud of the special way this baby was coming into the world.” The surrogate went further to describe the post birthing process, “ With shaky hands, dad cut the cord and baby went straight on to breastfeed from her mum – she had induced lactation and was able to feed the baby herself… I was tired and a bit achy but so very, very happy.”

However, this same picture in the Caribbean might well provoke very different feelings—feelings of anger, if not outright rage. In the Caribbean, there is a very strong sense of “my child” and by “my child”; many in the region would clarify subtly, that these statements implied “mother’s child”.

The practice of breastfeeding another mother’s baby can be traced back through history where the practice became very popular in the 1800s during West Indian Slavery when an enslaved mother had a baby, she was assigned to a white mistress and forced to breastfeed her white mistress’s baby instead of her own.

While the region has followed suit in terms of marijuana decriminalization trends, and sexual orientation rights trends, it has been slow to accept surrogacy.

Caribbean economics birthed ‘Barrel Children’... Does infertility birth ‘Surrogate Mothers’?

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Unlike today’s situation, where surrogates are happy to oblige, many African slave women found themselves forced into the practice which was called ’wet nursing’. Although wet nursing was a practiced means of employment in many countries in Europe before slavery, it was forced upon African slave mothers which led to the death of many of the African slave babies.

In many countries today, such as Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain, all forms of surrogacy are prohibited. Other countries, such as Canada and the UK, prohibit commercial surrogacy but permit altruistic surrogacy. Yet, others like Russia permit all forms of surrogacy.

As it is with most things, with surrogacy, ‘one size does not fit all’, so approved agencies adjust to meet the needs of clients, be they heterosexual, LGBTQ, individual, or couples.

Caribbean economics birthed ‘Barrel Children’... Does infertility birth ‘Surrogate Mothers’?

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In 2014 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child equated unregulated commercial surrogacy as the sale of children. A year later, India responded with banning foreign nationals from benefiting from surrogacy in their country. However, within our Caribbean context, there was no need for any response, as surrogacy as it applies in the global context hardly satisfies as an option.

Generally, surrogacy is a method of assisting infertile couples or individuals to start or grow families since they are unable to do so. The individual or couple is matched with a surrogate and it is usually a positive and emotional experience for all. There are two types of surrogacy. In traditional surrogacy, the surrogate mother’s egg is used, making her the genetic mother. However, in gestational surrogacy, the egg is provided by the female part of the couple or a designated egg donor. The egg is fertilised through In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF)—a medical procedure whereby an egg is fertilized by a sperm in a test tube or elsewhere outside the body—and then placed inside the surrogate mother.

Within the Caribbean context though, the already existing warmth and familiarity of the people birthed its own unique practice. A practice where children are ‘unofficially given’ or left in the long-term care of actual family members or friends who may or may not have children of their own. However, in 2018, there was an incident in the Isle of Trinidad & Tobago where a couple bought a two-month-old baby boy from a Venezuelan woman for US$20,000 and were subsequently criminally charged.

Caribbean economics birthed ‘Barrel Children’... Does infertility birth ‘Surrogate Mothers’?

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Could it be that times are changing and surrogacy trends are beginning to impact more and more upon the Caribbean? If so then, surrogacy laws might soon follow the way of marijuana decriminalization trends and sexual orientation trends current in the Caribbean.

By Kerriann Toby

Kerriann Toby

Kerriann Toby is a dynamic therapist currently pursuing her Doctorate of Psychology (PsyD). She is a member of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) and has trained as a cyber counselor. Her areas of experience, expertise, and interest include child development, sexual and reproductive health, gender-related matters, marriage and family life and promoting the idea of positive psychology, using strengths to support mental health and wellbeing.

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