Monday, April 4, 2011

Craving Parenthood: A New Trend on Grey's Anatomy?

As I have been watching the medical series Grey’s Anatomy over recent months, I have been struck by how the themes of fertility, unplanned pregnancy and pregnancy loss are interwoven through so many of the episodes. And then after the episode that aired March 31st, I vowed to devote a blog to this thought-provoking series and the way it has humanized so many fertility issues. So, for those readers who may need a quick introduction to the relevant characters, we have these residents and physicians at Seattle Grace Hospital: • Meredith Gray, the protagonist of the show who has been trying for many months to become (and to stay) pregnant. • Derek Shepherd, Meredith’s husband, who was told a number of episodes ago that Meredith had suffered a miscarriage at the same time he had been shot by a gunman in the hospital. She waited some months to confide this to him, hoping that she would become pregnant in the meantime. • Christina Wang, Meredith’s best friend, childless by choice, and a doctor whose life is devoted to perfecting her surgical skills. • Callie Torres, a bisexual physician who has been in an off again-on again sexual relationship with Dr. Mark Sloan, and who has recently renewed her relationship with her estranged lesbian partner, Arizona Robbins. • Arizona Robbins, who has learned in recent months that Callie is pregnant by Mark Sloan. Callie is ecstatic at the pregnancy, but Arizona had said throughout their relationship that she did not want them to become parents. • Mark Sloan, who is also ecstatic at Callie’s pregnancy, since he missed out on raising an adolescent daughter from an earlier relationship, missed out on becoming a grandfather when that daughter decided to place her infant for adoption, and now sees Callie’s baby as an opportunity to become a bona fide dad. So there you have the characters; now for the plot and its infertility dimensions. See how many of these issues resonate with you or your loved ones who are grappling with infertility. • Meredith kept her miscarriage a secret, in part because it paled in contrast with Derek’s life-threatening wounds from the gunman, and in part because denial is one of Meredith’s coping mechanisms. Any reader familiar with pregnancy losses will appreciate that these losses often are not shared (for any number of reasons), and that there are no rituals in North American society to memorialize the loss of a pregnancy and the hopes and dreams attached to that pregnancy. • Meredith, once she didn’t conceive, underwent a diagnostic workup, which she said revealed that she had a “hostile uterus.” Not exactly a medical term, but the message to viewers has been that it will be difficult for Meredith to become pregnant. And, sure enough, over the course of many episodes we can see her and Derek finding private places in the hospital for intimacy, for hormone shots, and for furtive tears. Meredith remains quiet about her infertility, although Christina is aware of her friend’s sadness. However, the hospital provides plenty of opportunity for Meredith to devote herself to her medical practice, perfecting new skills, and participating in research. As most women with infertility are aware, it isn’t unusual to compartmentalize infertility – attending to it when your period arrives or there are medical procedures to submit to, but also trying to keep alive some distractions in your life: career, relationships, being kind to others. • When Callie conceives a baby, certainly without intending to, she realizes she is thrilled at the prospect of becoming a mother, and Mark is equally ecstatic at being the father of this baby. Arizona, recently returned from a medical sojourn in Africa, tries to re-engage Callie in their relationship and, once she learns of the pregnancy, makes her peace with it. Callie, Mark and Arizona ultimately become a threesome emotionally, with all the complications that go with meeting their needs. • When Callie asks Christina Yang to be the godmother of her baby, Meredith quickly moves to action, asking Christina to re-consider her plan to accept the invitation. Ultimately Meredith confides to Christina that she had always hoped Christina would be the godmother to Meredith’s baby, and she wanted Christina to be a special person in that baby’s life. How many times have couples with infertility watched their lives passing by as others live out their dreams: naming their babies the names we dreamed for our baby, inviting a godparent to accept when we had envisioned that person as our baby’s godparent, giving a baby gift that we would have loved to save for our own baby? • And, of course, when the hospital staff celebrated Callie’s pregnancy with a lavish baby shower, we could see the dimensions of feelings playing out: Meredith was on the sidelines; Arizona, ever ambivalent about this baby, was perplexed about why there was such a fuss being made; father-to-be Mark was actively participating in all the shower activities, and the mood was convivial and celebratory, with Callie’s joy being over the top. Seeing this shower was all the reminder infertile viewers needed to know why avoiding showers becomes a high priority the longer it takes to become pregnant. It also was a reminder that no one celebrating at a baby shower has any appreciation for the mixed emotions and depression that some participants will feel, especially if they are being private about their own infertility. • Immediately after the baby shower, Callie and Arizona decide to take a weekend away from the pressures of the hospital (and, for Arizona, from the smothering presence of Mark Sloan). While driving the car, Arizona proposes marriage to Callie, and the resulting discussion causes Arizona, who is driving, to take her eyes off the road. A serious accident results in Callie’s having life threatening injuries, in Arizona (not seriously injured) and Mark arguing about whether Callie’s life or the life of her baby should be given priority, and ends with Mark telling Arizona that, legally, she has no say in that decision. As father of Callie’s baby, he positions himself to be in charge of deciding what Callie would have wanted. All right, so this episode is unbelievably complicated (and made moreso because much of the dialogue is in song, a bit distracting to say the least!). But the take away message comes through loud and clear – that babies are precious, that high emotions cause huge friction, even with everyone professing to have Callie’s best interests at heart, and that the threat of a pregnancy loss is not something one ever anticipates in the glow of a joyful pregnancy. As is typical in TVland, peace is made (Arizona, a gifted pediatrician, cares skillfully for the one pound, one ounce baby; Mark apologizes to Arizona for his cutting words), and we are left waiting for the next episode to see how Callie and baby survive. • The last scene is of Meredith collapsing tearfully in Derek’s arms, protesting the unfairness of it all: Callie’s serious injuries, the baby’s prematurity, and the worry about brain damage for both, balanced against Meredith’s long infertility history of basal body thermometers, ovulation kits, post coital positions, hormone shots and the despair that she will never be a mother. In spite of Derek’s comforting her that they will find a way to become parents, any woman or man experiencing infertility knows this despair, which is highlighted whenever a joyful pregnancy is celebrated on behalf of friends and relatives. So, stay tuned to Grey’s Anatomy if any of these issues resonate with you. And keep an eye on the TV show that follows on ABC, Private Practice, where one of the female characters is deciding that she wants to try for a pregnancy, but her male partner does not share her hopeful enthusiasm. That, too, is all too familiar a dimension of many relationships when the biological clock begins to tick all-too-loudly…

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