Why Honest Fertility Movies Like Private Life Matter
I was sitting in the fertility clinic waiting room reading another pregnancy announcement on Facebook: So-and-so was going to be a big brother! Again! He had the shirt to prove it! I tried to tally in my head all the social media pregnancy announcements I had seen since I had begun trying to have a baby in a doctor’s office. Thirty? Forty? In five years, it felt like millions.
It felt like everyone was pregnant: on the sidewalk, at the coffee shop, at a yoga class where I was trying to distract myself from not being able to get pregnant. Inevitably, there would be a woman beside me who required a modified pose because, yep, she was pregnant. She couldn’t possibly do an arm extension in hero pose; she was a hero all on her own, carrying life inside her. I was not, nor would I ever be able to carry life inside me.
Where could I go to talk about my pain? I wanted to get up right in the middle of Savasana, stand over everyone lying quietly on their backs and scream. I didn’t. I finished class and went home.
It was possible the pregnancy announcements I was reading were a product of a long, hard-fought process. I wouldn’t know because seldom do peopletalk about the typically intimate process of trying to have a baby. People don’t usually post “I have a low ovarian reserve and my husband has poor sperm motility, and we probably can’t have a biological child together.” People are much more into seeing the ultrasound photo.
This is why we need to see films like Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, which just came out on Netflix. We need to see women lying on their sides with their underwear pulled down writhing in pain from an intramuscular injection. We need to see the collection of these used needles sitting in a water bottle on the bedroom dresser, evidence of all the times she has writhed in pain before. We need to see the unsexy, heartbreaking side of trying to conceive.
In this beautifully honest film, Jenkins lets us into the private lives of couple Rachel and Richard (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, respectively), whose lives are no longer private as they pursue various forms of assisted reproduction and must now be subject to diagnosis, opinions and judgments from people who can’t even begin to imagine what they're going through.
I thought you were “just trying to adopt,” say friends and family as they learn Rachel and Richard are back at IVF and then egg donation (spoiler alert: There is no such thing as “just adopt”). “They’re fertility addicts,” says their sister-in-law, played by Molly Shannon, whose own identity and life has been shaped by her role as a mother.
Through it all, Rachel and Richard have each other — and sometimes not even that — as the financial and emotional strain of infertility grinds down the strongest bonds of marriage. The brilliant Kathryn Hahn is impossibly stormy and luminous all at the same time. She displays this inspiring strength and uncomfortable scratchiness as she contends with the betrayal of it all. How can fertility treatments not work? How can two loving, committed, interesting, amazing artists not be able to have a child through some kind of expensive means? How?
It is a question I asked myself over and over again as I wrote How to Buy a Baby, a digital series about a couple struggling through a round of IVF, based on my own experience with infertility. While in the depths of grieving my inability to conceive, I felt so completely isolated. I was struck, though, watching Private Life how similarly we all experience infertility.
It’s horribly sad to know that the other 1 in 8 couples in the United States also struggling are feeling the same excruciating heartbreak — but there is something ultimately validating and empowering in seeing that our glue comes apart in the same way. We all come undone in public, ranting about eggs and sperm and biology and next steps while jumping out of the way of passing strollers. We are all questioning the feminism of it all and what our careers and our assumptions about our biology have to do with our current predicament.
I’m grateful to filmmakers like Jenkins, who tear down the curtains to reveal the complex interior of a marriage — and in doing so, bring to light the beauty of enduring love. I am grateful to Jenkins for showing me that so many of us who are struggling to become parents are all crying the same tears and fighting the same fights. We are all so very not alone at all. Our not-so-private private lives are similar in profound ways.