Infertility Storylines are Hard to Pull Off
Even the best TV portrayals of infertility fall devastatingly short in capturing what it’s like to actually experience it. Real infertility stories are too long, too painful, and include too few miracle babies to keep an audience engaged.
Let’s say each season represents a year in the life of a character. Tell me if these are scenarios you’d want to continue watching over five seasons (five years):
- A woman takes pregnancy tests every month, every one of them is negative.
- A woman tries for years to have a baby, has multiple miscarriages and never ends up with a baby in arms.
- Infertility becomes all consuming. Relationships, interests and activities that used to bring joy are gone. Episodes focus on watching the main characters just trying to get through the day.
- The characters experience depression, grief and anxiety as they watch their dreams crumble. They spend a lot of time not wanting to get out of bed and avoiding social situations.
- Debt starts to pile up as characters lose their savings to invest in IVF treatments that aren’t successful.
I could go on, but you get the point. A short infertility storyline can be a cheap way to add some juicy drama to a TV show, a true portrayal of infertility can feel cruel, like the writer is relentlessly torturing the character.
I’d guess it’s a mix of this and lazy, un-researched writing that give us so many predictable and shitty infertility storylines in TV. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for even the worst portrayals because infertility is still so taboo in our society that even a warped reflection is better than nothing. Very few shows take it on at all.
What I’d Like to See
I hope infertility plotlines start to become more common and that they include:
- Stories that are diverse, unpredictable and well researched.
- More avenues to a happy ending. I mean, is it impossible to write a character whose journey doesn’t end with a baby, but they create a beautiful life anyway?
- An accurate portrayal of the depth of grief that accompanies infertility.
- A realistic timeline that can show how truly life-altering infertility can be. A show that resolves an infertility plotline in just a few episodes is using it as cheap drama.
- Less unrealistic miracle babies that reinforce stereotypes. Think “randomly got pregnant after we stopped trying” or “a baby that needs adoption just landed in our laps.”
Let’s Take a Look
Below is a list of three shows I’ve watched that include infertility plotlines along with what I liked and didn’t like about how they handled the topic. I’ll be covering another four in a separate post. Some notable ones are missing (like Friends and Grey’s Anatomy) because I haven’t seen them. *Spoiler alert.
This is Us
The basics: Kate and Toby find out they’re pregnant and she’s excited but cautious. Just as she gets comfortable announcing the news to family, she has a miscarriage. Next season, they decide to pursue IVF and the first round ends in…A MIRACLE BABY!
Yays: They go pretty in-depth, giving the storyline episodes over two seasons. This allows some time to show how the miscarriage and infertility changes Kate, Toby and their relationship. They raise awareness about Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and some of the complications that can come with IVF.
The taboo of infertility and the emotional drain of defending your fertility decisions to family are addressed as well. Initially, Kate and Toby try to keep the IVF cycle a secret. Ultimately, they have to respond to reactions from family members including a mom who doesn’t want her to take the medical risks associated with IVF and an adopted brother who is hurt that she is pursuing IVF over adoption.
Boos: The IVF portion of the storyline is only a few episodes and shows basically nothing. Just the initial meeting with reproductive endocrinologist and the egg retrieval. No HSG, blood draws, ultrasounds, just one or two shots. No mention is made of the financial aspect of IVF or how Kate and Toby are coming up with the dough. For most couples, the $12,000 (average) price tag per cycle would surely come up.
Even though their RE gives her only a 10% chance of success, she gets pregnant on the first try. I wish they would have carried the infertility line through additional seasons and considered her story not ending with a baby. Kate and Toby have a strong relationship so the writers could easily write them a happy ending without kids. Kate is also just getting to know herself and take risks. She just started a career in singing (which she gives up due to the pregnancy) and went back to finish college in her late 30’s. She is blossoming! I would prefer to see her continue her journey of self-discovery and learning to accept a childfree life than for her to have a baby. I mean, can’t we just have one childfree after infertility character.
Being Mary Jane
The Basics: Mary Jane is single and works as a news anchor in Atlanta, GA. Over the course of many seasons we see her grapple with her fertility. From “stealing” her ex-boyfriends sperm, to doing an egg freezing cycle as part of a news segment (and hearing on live TV that it didn’t go well), to ultimately pursuing IVF with donor sperm. The series finale ends with a wedding and…a MIRACLE BABY!
Yays: Gabrielle Union (the actress who plays Mary Jane) has been public about her personal struggles with multiple miscarriages and infertility. Maybe that’s why the infertility storyline in Being Mary Jane feels so complex and real. The storyline goes through all five seasons, so they are able to go deep.
The story is unique and unpredictable. I love the portrayal of Mary Jane as a single woman having to make difficult decisions about her fertility, from freezing her eggs to going through IVF without a partner. The show takes on a lot of difficult issues which can make it uncomfortable to watch at times, due to how authentic it feels. I’m not even mad about the series ending with a baby. The screenwriters earned that baby.
Boos: Honestly, none.
Sex in the City
The Basics: Charlotte’s lifelong dream is to have a baby. When sex isn’t leading to pregnancy, Charlotte goes through multiple rounds of IVF, gets pregnant, miscarries, tries to adopt, adoption falls through, successfully adopts a daughter, then (surprise!) she naturally has…A MIRACLE BABY!
Yays: There’s a lot to love about how Charlotte’s infertility storyline is handled. Because they kept it going for multiple years, it’s able to show how grief and devastation accumulate over years of trying with no success. They don’t treat IVF or adoption as quick or guaranteed routes to motherhood. They also shows the impact infertility has on relationships. Charlotte has to navigate ambiguous feelings toward her best friend, Miranda, who accidentally gets pregnant. We also see her struggling through baby announcements and showers. We even see her first marriage fall apart when her husband confesses he doesn’t want a child.
Boos: The freaking miracle baby! So after 10 years of infertility, including multiple rounds of IVF, Charlotte just gets pregnant naturally in her early 40’s? Why? An adopted baby isn’t enough? The writers just couldn’t resist that damn miracle baby. This perpetuates the “it will just happen when you relax enough and stop trying” myth. Also, part of why this storyline could be sustained so long is that Charlotte is a side character. I don’t think they could have pulled off the same storyline, over so many years, with a main character.
How I Met Your Mother
The Basics: Robin is happily childfree by choice for seven seasons when she has a pregnancy scare. At the doctor’s office she finds out that not only is she not pregnant, she can’t have children. She then struggles with unexpected feelings of grief over the loss of her fertility. I’m on the fence about including her because she is childfree by choice but since they wrote an episode which includes infertility, I think it’s fair game.
Yays: A female character who is childfree and happy! Yay, more of this please! While infertility is a blip on the radar on this show, I’m fine with it because Robin’s character never wanted or tried for children. She just gets one episode to face ambiguity and grief upon learning she can’t have kids. She doesn’t need more than that. At the end of the episode, we learn that she became “a famous journalist, a successful businesswoman, a world traveler, and briefly a bull fighter…but she was never alone.” The screenwriters gave her a life full of depth, excitement, love, success, meaning and relationships.
Have you seen any of these TV shows? How do you think they did? What other TV shows have you seen that portray infertility?