You Can’t Do That on Television
I’d like to take a minute out of our ongoing Baby narrative to jump ahead again to real time. You’ll remember we did this once before, when I helped the Dude defeat Sprinkler Spiderman while wearing my sister’s sport’s bra. And if that’s not a sentence you encounter everyday, you probably get out more than this particular writer does.
I’m watching “Cold Feet,” the popular British series that ran in the early 2000s. It was “Thirtysomething” for our friends across the pond. Anyhow, just as soon as Adam (played by James Nesbitt) and Rachel (Helen Baxendale) had a big storyline about needing to stockpile sperm before his treatment for testicular cancer, I knew It was coming. To be fair they waited half a season, nonetheless they were about as subtle with It as a Trump stump speech. The It, of course, is the Infertility Storyline.
Mac and I can spot the Infertility storyline coming from 1,000 paces. One show we watched all they had to do was mention the drugstore before we both blurted “to buy a pregnancy test!” The Infertility Storyline is always, always about the couple that seems happy on the outside but they know, deep down, something isn’t right. The first episode you’ll have the joke (“one of us is shooting blanks!”) then the second episode they’ll think she’s pregnant, the third episode she got her period (or the test was negative) and now they Really Are Worried, and by mid-season they’re at the doctor’s office, feeling Insecure but Hopeful. This then rides Sweeps Week into the serious talk they have about loving each other no matter what, the wistfully looking at babies montage, the tearful We’re Going to be OK heartfelt bedroom scene (tender lovemaking optional) and finally they either do IVF or get pregnant naturally. That usually depends on if they have a sassy black grandmotherly character that needs to say something like “see, if you had just quit worrying that baby would have come in God’s own time!” before the credits roll. The ratings hinge on the Maternity Special where everybody races to the hospital just in time for the birth and Happily Ever After for the Couple-Formerly-Known-as-Infertile.
Mac and I do a lot, and I mean really a LOT, of laughing at these asinine Infertility Storylines.
Why do we laugh? Not so much for what they include, as they do include things that most other infertile couples we know went through. Sure, at first you may not know and then you go to the doctor, or you do have the “it’s you I want not the baby” conversation. But the list of things missing from these TV shows is almost biblical in both scope and length. Here is a list of Infertility Storyline plot points I want to see. Not referred to, not glossed over, I want to truly see them played out in all their ugliness, pain, sweetness and heartbreak.
- In real life, you can tell your partner “I want you, not the baby” and chances are you both believe that and want it to be true. But it won’t always be true, not every second of every day. You will look at each other and wonder if you should let the other one go. You will wonder if the other person is scared they signed the wrong contract. You wonder if using donor sperm or eggs is the solution, when the world is walking around full of fertile people that would likely not require an army of technicians to make a baby. You’ll wonder what trade you made, a spouse for a child? This spouse for another spouse that could have children? The present for the future? If it’s you that’s infertile, you’ll wonder if the other one will walk and if you should let them. If it’s not you, you’ll wonder if your spouse knows you really did mean “til death do us part.” You’ll both think of what would have happened if you had tried when you were younger, or healthier, or if you had met earlier. Just once, I want to see a character have these conversations and know you don’t have them only once. They happen frequently; short ones, long ones, sad ones, all-nighters, brief e-mails… these questions will follow you and you have no choice but to deal with them.
- Hormone treatments hurt. No, TV, it’s not just a shot you can summarize with “ooh, my breats are tender!” Cut that shit out. You’re bloated, sore, trying like hell to make your body work and everything feels weird. Would YOU like to relive the most painful parts of puberty again? That’s partly what it feels like, and TV should show that.
- Money. I want to watch a couple break down, over and over and over again, because they cannot afford to have a child. Their insurance doesn’t cover the hormones, or IVF, or egg harvesting, or using a surrogate. Calculating time and again what you cut out from the budget to pay for all the extras that come with trying: fertility predictors, pregnancy tests, time off to go to the doctor.
- I want to see sex that looks like WORK. Not lovemaking, not fucking, not even wham, bam, thank you ma’am. I’m talking sex that you want to be sexy but instead is mechanical, horribly timed, inconvenient, stressed out WORK. You think making babies is fun? Sure it is. You think trying over and over again to “optimize ejaculation inside the vagina during peak fertility” sounds fun? The men who landed on Normandy beach could have only wished for an operation as planned, precise, passionless and efficient as the sex had by two people who have been given medical instructions on how to make a baby.
- The decision to adopt is easy for some, unbearably hard for others. Not once on TV, in any show I have ever seen, was it treated as a series of agonizing steps that require endless time, commitment, willingness to be vulnerable and risk of horrendous, literally life-altering rejection. But it is. In an open adoption system, the birth parent chooses the adoptive family, and there isn’t a guarantee of a happy ending for families who fail to meet certain benchmarks. You can be too old, or too sick, or too poor to adopt. Yes, some states have low-cost options, but this doesn’t take into account that there are many things adoptive families need to be able to provide that a biological family never has to account for.
- I have never seen anybody throw anything. By the 13th month of our adoption process I was so angry I repeatedly bashed a wall with a metal trashcan until there was a hole into the next room. I didn’t want to make a hole, per se, I just wanted something–anything– to look as ugly and angry as I felt.
- Finally, nobody on TV talks about grieving infertility. It’s not seen as something to grieve. It certainly doesn’t make sexy TV, to watch characters mourn a future that so many have provided naturally and was denied to you. You grieve the unfairness, the decisions you made, paths not taken, children never met. You can also celebrate the children you do have, through adoption or fostering. I have seen lots of people on TV get sad, but I have never seen anybody fully grieve because that’s time consuming, and ugly, and it lasts a long time. Nobody wants to live it, I imagine it wouldn’t be great laughs to watch either. It’d be nice though, to see it anyway. Don’t give me the It Storyline standard six episode arc. Give me the larger truths and the sense that at least one person in all of the televised world can represent more than the Sweeps Week Big Maternity Special.
- If you do need the Sweeps Week Maternity Special, let’s have a few more through adoption. Sex and the City touched on it with Charlotte, the movie Juno went there, hell, even Downton Abbey took a horrifying stab at the adoptive motherhood storyline. Let the birth family AND the adoptive family have their moment in the sun, where this was done in a loving and compassionate way. We make good TV, too.