A lawyer turned writer explores the complex nature of parenting

Jacqueline Friedland’s new book is inspired by a quirk of biology: A surrogate mother — a person who carries an embryo made from a donor egg and sperm and is in no way related to the carrier — can become pregnant after donor embryo is implanted. They end up having two babies that appear to be twins but have nothing to do with each other at all.

“I was immediately on Google” after I came across an article describing the phenomenon, says Friedland, a former attorney. “There are about 12 documented cases ever in the world, but it’s not impossible.” The author, who lives outside of New York City, was intrigued by the idea and its implications for all parents involved. “It got me thinking about the legal implications,” she explains, and that article quickly became the seed of her third novel, He gets that from me

The book tells the stories of Maggie Wingate, who becomes a surrogate mother to pay for college, which is impossible with her store cashier’s salary, and Donovan Gallo-Rigsdale and Chip Rigsdale, the Manhattan couple whose embryos Maggie carries. When a DNA test at home reveals that Kai, one of the Rigsdale twins, has no genetic connection to anyone else in the family, they discover that Maggie has had a rare double pregnancy; between Kai is the biological child of Maggie and her husband, Nick. When Maggie and Nick sue for custody, the book becomes an exploration of what it means to be a family and how people create their own families. “It’s hard to imagine a better novel for a book club discussion,” Kirkus Reviews states, calls the book “a thoughtful and gripping family story that will haunt readers long after they’ve finished it.”

Friedland found the book easy to write. “I sat down and it just flew out of me,” she describes. In some ways, she identifies closely with her protagonists: as a parent of four children (“a big part of my life is making sure no one gets lost and everyone gets to eat”), she found it easy to identify with the emotions and points of view from protagonists Maggie and Donovan. “It’s a book about parents and parenting from different perspectives,” she says, and how biology is and isn’t part of what connects a parent and a child:

Having done all I can at this point, I must return to the craft shed, where I will calmly teach children how to make a Chinese stair pattern with their lanyards, while trying not to imagine what Dr. Pillar for heaven’s sake could have meant. What I understood she was saying is so far out of the realm of human possibility that I know it’s best not to dwell on it until I can have a real talk with the doctor. For now I’ll just pray that I misunderstood. The alternative — that the second Rigsdale baby, Kai, is actually my own biological child — is just unthinkable. I stare at the blank screen of my cell phone, trying not to see the gaping hole, the abyss I could fall into if I were to be carrying my own baby all those years ago and then accidentally gave it away.

Writing chapters from Donovan’s perspective also gave Friedland an opportunity to challenge herself to write about an experience unlike her own. “A few people have asked me, ‘Why did you think you could write to this Christian gay man?’ she says. Friedland, like Maggie, is Jewish and she explains that she developed the character after thorough research and in-depth discussion. “I’ve talked to a lot of fathers,” she says. “It’s important for writers to talk about all the different to be able to write kinds of characters.”

Friedland was also able to draw on her experience as a lawyer, the first step in her career path. “I never wanted to be a lawyer, even before I went to law school,” she admits, but the research into case law and precedent that shaped He gets that from me allowed her to return to the one part of practicing law that she enjoyed. “I enjoyed delving into this new legal issue,” she says.

In addition to a law degree, Friedland has an MFA, which she owes to expanding her writing skills. “I was asked to write specific things that I would never have tried to do,” she says. However, the program’s focus on short story writing was not what she expected at the beginning. “I thought while I was in school I would also write my novel alongside it,” and despite the delay in achieving that goal, “I really think it helped to be around like-minded people.”

When Friedland finished her first novel, Problems with the water, she found resistance from the early agents she approached. “The most common response I got was, ‘I don’t know where to put this in a bookstore,'” she says. “While the feedback was positive, it was also ‘This is never going to work.’ An acquaintance, also a SparkPress author, encouraged her to contact the publisher, and their response was much more enthusiastic. “They said it was 27,000 words too long, but if I could fit those 27,000 words, they would publish it,” said Friedland, who immediately began editing her manuscript and released it. Problems with the water in 2018.

He gets that from me is Friedland’s third SparkPress release and she enjoys the indie publishing experience. “It works well in a hybrid approach,” she says, combining partnerships with local bookstores, in-person events, and a strong online presence. And after the publication of her second book, That’s not a thingIn April 2020, the early days of the pandemic, Friedland is able to appreciate that everything is coming together this time. “This was a much better experience,” she says.

Sarah Rettger is a Massachusetts author and bookseller.