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  • Writer's pictureC. J. Parke

Infertility on screen, part 2

This is part 2 in our “Infertility on screen” series. You can read part 1 here, where Brandy discussed Up, Beetlejuice, and Julie & Julia.

 

As someone who absolutely adores movies and shows as both a medium of entertainment and a way to process deeper emotions and thoughts, it was no surprise that once I received my official, total infertility diagnosis at age nineteen, something I enjoyed so much would become a potential landmine as much as a escape/coping mechanism. How many times does a movie or TV show focus on either a pregnant woman who gives birth at the end or the announcement of a pregnancy, creating that perfect happy ending? Especially when the announcement or pregnancy comes out of nowhere, those scenes hit me like a brick. Once infertility became such a major part of my life, it was hard not to feel annoyed that there weren’t more stories that didn’t have that perfect ending of a pregnancy or safe birth. It’s become a sort of game to find films or TV series that shed light on various forms of infertility. I am determined to see myself in a medium that means so much to me. Reflecting on this journey, I hope and pray the three examples below give you some comfort and that same sense of being seen instead of invisible.



The Help

{Trigger warning: miscarriage}


The last time I watched The Help, I was sure yet again the character I would relate the most to would be Skeeter Phelan (played impeccably by Emma Stone). She is the fierce writer and activist with a sometimes too sharp tongue that comes out when she gets too emotional. But instead, I found myself drawn deeper and deeper to Celia Rae Foote, the outcast ‘60s housewife ostracized from the polite white Southern society of Jackson, Mississippi for marrying the life-long crush of Hilly Holbrook, the villain of the story. We first see Celia (played to perfection by Jessica Chastain) when Minny, a black maid recently fired by Hilly, takes a job as her maid. Our initial impression as Celia shows Minny around the big mansion style house is that she is extremely loving and eager to please, but also that she is very ditzy. She confesses to Minny that “corn pone” is about the only thing she knows how to make and she wants help to be a better cook for her doting husband Johnny. Remarking on how big the house is, Minny adds the comment “When are y’all start having children? Fill up all these empty beds.” Ouch. Celia then sheepishly, if also excitedly, replies that she is indeed expecting a child. And we as watchers are left after that first exchange and the next couple times we see Celia to believe she is this clueless woman who sees the best in everyone as she learns more than just cooking from Minny.


One day, Minny is cleaning the Foote home and realizes she hasn’t seen Celia yet that day. She then goes upstairs to find the housewife crying behind a closed bathroom door. Thinking Celia had simply messed up her blonde hair dye again, the maid tries to lightheartedly encourage her to open the door. After sensing something was actually wrong in the intense way Celia told her to just go home, Minny breaks down the door and sees a weeping Celia curled up on the floor, covered in blood. It takes no time for Minny to realize what has happened. Celia simply says “Why is there so much blood?” After Celia is cleaned up and put in bed, she tells Minny that she and Johnny married because she was pregnant, but that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and that Johnny doesn’t know about the now 3 pregnancies/miscarriages that followed that initial one. When Celia asks Minny what Johnny will do to her when he sees that no kids are likely to come, the maid simply says, “He’s just going to have to deal with it.” Immediately after, we see Celia burying the remains of the miscarried child and planting a tree over them, which then pans to other trees in the front lawn that were planted for the exact same reason. Suddenly, Celia is not the lighthearted, spacey woman we had believed her to be all this time. How often do we second guess ourselves as worthy of being loved by anyone, but especially our spouses, when our infertility journey hits a rocky patch physically and/or emotionally? How often do we feel so ashamed and alone? 


At the very end of the movie, we are treated to a scene between Minny and Johnny Foote meeting for the first time. He tells her that Celia finally told him about the miscarriages, and that Minny had saved Celia’s life. As a thank you, the Footes treat Minny to a beautiful homemade feast made by Celia, showing how much Celia has grown in terms of not only her cooking skills, but accepting her own infertility and her husband’s love of her despite the miscarriages. In accepting herself and growing, Ceclia gave Minny the strength to leave her abusive husband. Celia’s and Minny’s friendship sustained them in a way I am sure we are all familiar with: we need those other people in our lives to be there when the cross seems unbearable, to remind us how valued and fruitful we are beyond the scope of our infertility or whatever burden is weighing hard on us at the moment. Being sisters to each other is one of the most vital ways to show God’s love, and what is a more beautiful manifestation of fruitfulness than that?



Trying

If you ever wanted one of the most realistic depictions of the infertility journey, the show Trying on AppleTV is probably the best one. Following the path of Nikki and Jason, a couple so desperate for a baby that they risk having sex on an empty bus because Nikki was ovulating, this show depicts the highs and lows of an infertility journey. Since this is a TV show with three seasons, I won’t go into a lot of specifics or spoilers, but some highlights from the first season alone encompass how well the writers and actors involved understand the pains of infertility and the struggles couples face as they both try to accept it and decide on what path forward they want to pursue.


One of the first moments that really hit me was when Nikki and Jason were alone after receiving the news about their infertility (of which the condition is never stated but heavily implied to be something on Nikki’s side). The two of them sit silently for a bit before the following dialogue ensues:


Jason: So what do we do now?

Nikki: A small piece of us dies and we just carry on with whatever’s left.

Jason: Alright. Well, as long as we’ve got a plan.


I remember how hard that scene hit me. For all the silly banter and situations that also take place throughout the show, it never forgets what it is truly about: a couple just trying to survive a situation that no one should have to face. You see it in the way that they are always there for each other despite being at their own breaking point. It never sugarcoats a situation, letting both the characters and viewers sit in the overwhelming situations and complex emotions infertility brings out. On a slightly more positive end, the show gives us the more lighthearted sides that couples can lean into as well. After realizing that she and Jason didn’t have to have such a rigid sex schedule as when they were trying to conceive as well as seeing yet another pregnancy announcement, Nikki semi-angrily, semi-joking tells Jason while brushing her teeth: “You know how people when they’re born with defects, their other senses get heightened? Like a blind person has the best hearing? Well, infertile people have the best sex!” 


Again, in just a couple sentences, the show hits the nail on the head. Whether from the stresses of trying to adopt, to the complex emotions of finally having a diagnosis, or just the ups and downs of loving your partner regardless of infertility or not, Trying does indeed show a realistic view of a couple just, well, trying to make it through the messy journey that is life with infertility. 



Black Widow/Natasha Romanov and the Black Widows in general 

“You still think you’re the only monster on the team?” When last watching Avengers: Age of Ultron, this quote by Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow, in reference to her forced sterilization and therefore infertility, made my heart ache more than I ever thought something in a “silly” superhero movie could. In that same speech to one of the other superheroes, she gives the reasoning for why all the Black Widows are sterilized: “It's efficient. One less thing to worry about. The one thing that might matter more than a mission.”


The implication is clear: take away something that makes a woman “more human” in order to instead turn her into a more effective machine of sorts. But it is acknowledging this loss and the pain that comes with it that makes Natasha all the more human. She is a doting “aunt” to Hawkeye’s children and acts in many ways like the heart of the group - a connector to all of the Avengers in a way that none of the other superheroes could be. In seeing her degrade herself because of the “unnaturalness” of her body, I was reminded of all the times I saw myself as less than whole because I too had no ovaries or eggs. I felt like a monster the same way Natasha did.


In her stand alone movie released years later, we get to see the family that Natasha grew up in. Since the mother of the family could have no biological children, Natasha and her adopted sister Yelena were placed with a couple that were working as Russian spies in the Black Widow program. Despite the fact that Natasha and Yelena were not biologically their kids, Melina and Alexei still adored the two young kids before Natasha and Yelena were taken away after a mission went wrong. Reunited years later for another mission to save the world, the family talks about the past at a rather tense dinner discussion. As they bring up how their family was never “real”, and just an assignment, Yelena breaks down in tears, saying “Don't say that. Please don't say that. It was real. It was real to me. You are my mother. You were my real mother. The closest thing I ever had to one. The best part of my life was fake. And none of you told me.”


The message is clear: found family is still family. In fact, one could make the argument that for almost all of the original Avengers, their “real” family was never biological. It was their fellow teammates, significant others, and friends that decided to choose them again and again that made up their families. You don’t need ovaries to be a good mother or wife, just like you don’t need to have a biological kid to be a good father or husband. By being willing to show up in the day-to-day activities of life and choosing your spouse, friends, family and kids in whatever way that looks like, you are indeed being fruitful as God intended. You will always be the hero, not the monster you may sometimes believe yourself to be.


 


In wrapping up, I want to bring up a wild card, a movie not explicitly involving infertility: 1984’s Amadeus, focusing on the combative relationship between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. Throughout the film, Salieri (a devout Catholic who has promised his life to God in the hopes of a successful musical career) is furious that the carefree, immature Mozart is soaring with his natural talent while Salieri himself has to put in countless hours to even try and get a fraction of the respect and career Mozart has. Haven’t we all been there? Giving our absolute all to our attempts to grow our family, while others around us get pregnant with ease, even those who we may feel are less deserving of the gift. The bitterness overwhelms him until towards the very end when Mozart, after living a hard and unregulated life, collapses. Salieri takes in the rival composer, encouraging him to finish Requiem and write the first part of Confutatis together, during which the two of them admit how much they respect each other, making up before Mozart passes away. How often do we miss out on the joys of life, whether in our own talents or in friendships, because of comparing where we are now in journey with others?


I hope that this little reflection on these different examples of infertility helps bring you some comfort and a sense of being seen. None of them end in a perfect happy ending: Celia does not have a living child by the end of the movie and is not guaranteed one. Nikki and Jason have to go through struggle after struggle to adopt a child and then see how hard adoption and parenting in general can be. Neither Natasha nor Yelena have kids of their own. Salieri declares himself the “patron of mediocrities” after Mozart burns himself out and dies despite his fame and talent. But these stories do have one thing in common: each person and couple struggling with infertility is not alone in their journey and they are not less than their fertile friends or family. They have their partners and/or family and friends to lean on, who love them for exactly who they are. So do you, dear sisters, and know that you are in my prayers.


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