“Private Practice” on motherhood

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I’ve been extremely disappointed with the Grey’s Anatomy spinoff, Private Practice for a number of reasons, but I crossed over to ‘pissed off’ at the underlying message of the ‘patient of the week’ story in last week’s episode.

Brief summary, spoilers included: After a couple discovers that their baby girl, a few months old, is sick with a genetic illness, a series of highly improbable, only on television events reveal that she was switched at birth. The parents of the sick baby (who will likely die before she is five years old) are upset about the situation and somewhat angry about the switch, but nevertheless want to care for this child for as long as she is alive. The father of the other baby turns out to be the perpetrator of the switch (having realized his baby was sick and deciding that he didn’t want to deal with that), but the mother is a reasonable, loving woman who is quite attached to the baby she’s been raising for months. Apparently, California law addresses situations like this with the automatic assumption that the babies should be switched back, so that’s what they do, tearfully and dramatically.

First of all, I find it odd that no one–not a single doctor, and none of the four parents–thinks to challenge or look for nuances in the interpretation of the law given that all of the affected parties (excepting the criminal father) seem to want to keep the baby they’ve been raising. That’s only part of a constant reinforcement of the message that there is an inherent connection between a mother and her biological baby, and that biology is ultimately what defines the mother-child relationship. They make the switch without challenging the assumptions, because hey, it is the way things were ‘supposed’ to be.

On top of the general attitude, several people in the course of the episode repeat some variation of the phrase “A mother doesn’t leave her child. Not a strong mother”. There is some lip-service type shock that a ‘parent’ of either sex could trade off a child, but the message that mothers are uniquely incapable of such things is emphasized. It is somehow unnatural and weak for a woman not to feel a connection to her baby, by which they mean the baby that came from her body, because biology is destiny here.

It may have been interesting to explore the meaning of the word ‘mother’ in light of the contrived fiction presented in this episode, but instead, Private Practice took the opportunity to reinforce cultural pressures about the nurturing female nature and biological factors that just make mothers and mother-child relationships different. Call me crazy, but it really strikes me that these messages are connected to attempts to constrain women into certain roles and attitudes, whether that means the over-encouragement to have children based on the assumption that it’s unnatural not to want any, or the ways mothers are expected to feel about their children and change both behaviour and personality once children are born.

Comments

  1. says

    Well. I guess all those silly women who do things like place children for adoption aren’t strong? Or is it they aren’t mothers? Maybe they just don’t exist?

  2. says

    That’s a lot of what I’m getting from the message, yes. A much more backhanded and apparently complimentary way of criticizing women who make choices like that. I’m pretty confident they know these women exist, which is why they have to be backhanded about reminding them that they aren’t ‘strong’.

  3. sbg says

    It’s not strong to know you’re not in the right place or the right person to care for a child and to ensure said child is put under the care of someone who is?

    That’s a pretty crappy message to put out. I might be personally invested – I have an adopted nephew who is much adored and loved.

    I actually contemplated watching this show, not because of Grey’s (in spite of it, actually), because I like Kate Walsh and Tim Daly. Glad I gave it a pass.

  4. says

    I might be personally invested – I have an adopted nephew who is much adored and loved.

    But who isn’t personally invested? I feel like I’m personally invested just because I dare, at 27, to say that I’m not sure I’ll ever want children, and to question anyone who tells me it’s in my nature/I’ll change my mind.

    This show is packed with good actors, and this specific criticism doesn’t even get at all the problems with the characters they’re forced to play. Poor Kate Walsh.

  5. MaggieCat says

    But who isn’t personally invested? I feel like I’m personally invested just because I dare, at 27, to say that I’m not sure I’ll ever want children, and to question anyone who tells me it’s in my nature/I’ll change my mind.

    Yeesh, tell me about it. 26 here and quite convinced I don’t want children at all. My mother eventually got the point but then her idiotic (and quite sexist) boyfriend started in. I have my reasons, thank you, and I’d appreciate it if people would quit telling me I’ll change my mind. While I suppose there’s always and extremely remote chance that I might (although in such a scenario I still wouldn’t be having biological children), it’s none of their damn business. I’m not sure if it makes it better or worse because people feel the need to point out that I have a “maternal streak” a mile wide… but that lends itself more towards enabling childish adults than liking actual children. But maybe if I didn’t have that type of personality, maybe people would take me more seriously. Which is a whole ‘nother can of worms, actually.

    So I find the concept that women are somehow driven by pure biology to bond with a child being reinforced so stupidly quite disturbing. Almost as disturbing as saying that being mature enough to admit that you simply aren’t in a position to care for a child and finding someone who is are the actions of someone who’s weak.

  6. says

    I’m sure kids who grew up with mothers who abused them, sabotaged them, stage-mothered them, etc. will be pleased to hear that yes, indeed, if Mama don’t love ya, no one will, you dumb ugly shit.

    And I’m sure all the women who gave up a child because they thought it would be the most loving thing they could do for the child will be pleased to hear that act of unselfishness defines them as “weak”.

    I knew a woman years ago that I personally found thoroughly unlikeable. She was selfish, materialistic, a conformist, etc. But there was one area where she refused to conform: she chose not to have kids because she knew she didn’t want them as much as they should be wanted. I absolutely salute her for that.

  7. SunlessNick says

    First of all, I find it odd that no one–not a single doctor, and none of the four parents–thinks to challenge or look for nuances in the interpretation of the law given that all of the affected parties (excepting the criminal father) seem to want to keep the baby they’ve been raising. That’s only part of a constant reinforcement of the message that there is an inherent connection between a mother and her biological baby, and that biology is ultimately what defines the mother-child relationship.

    So motherhood cannot be defined in terms of the hundreds of daily actions a woman takes on a daily basis to ensure the safety and growth of a child? Why – because she chooses to take them? Are actions freely chosen too frightening to serve as definition in this way?

  8. says

    Sunless Nick, that’s why I found this way of presenting the message especially disturbing. It’s one thing if people are explicitly criticizing decisions (say, to give a child up for adoption, or not to have children at all)–that’s problematic for all the reasons we’ve listed above. But I feel like it reinforces the message even more emphatically in the way they do it here, where they’re actually using the statements to be ‘supportive’ to each of the mothers. It’s much more difficult to call them on it, first of all, and second, it just doesn’t make much sense to me, frankly.

    Are actions freely chosen too frightening to serve as definition in this way?

    This would be my question, especially when they had a scene of each mother describing the unique things the baby she’d been raising found comforting in order to get to sleep. With the underlying drumbeat that this expression of love was diminished/unnatural by lack of biology, I was both queasy and confused.

  9. Mamarati says

    What I also find disturbing about this is that even if they couldn’t move beyond the “law,” why couldn’t they have given an example of two families working together in an open parenting relationship? Maybe giving each parent a chance to know and love each child. Kind of like an open adoption situation?

    I mean, there’s so many shades they could have presented here and they chose to take the most extreme outcome.

    I don’t know why I would expect anything different, though, since it’s taken how long for adoption to move from predominantly closed to the state it’s in today…

    I can’t stand this show. It’s so not based in reality of any sort. I pray that my doctors do not live like this.

  10. salla says

    There hasn’t been any comments on this for a while, but I briefly stopped on Private Practice last night while channel surfing and the scene I stopped on made me think of this article.
    I’ve been vaguely watching the show during commercial breaks of other shows for the past few episodes, keeping track of it and its storylines but not really caring ever since I realized that while I liked Addison on Grey’s, this isn’t really the same character and that the show’s attitude toward parenthood, motherhood especially really bothered me.
    And that leads into what I had meant to comment on in the first place. Addison is talking to a patient about the fact that he doesn’t really want children but that he is planning (does at the end of the ep)to go through a painful sperm harvesting procedure (he’s sterile) because his wife wants kids and since she is *gasp* adopted he feels that it is his duty to make sure that she has at least one person in her life who looks like her. Addison does tell him that he should talk to his wife about what he’s feeling but, there is no mention of the fact that he talks about being adopted like it’s this dirty little secret and not something completely normal when in the same sentence he says that her (adoptive) parents are wonderful people. I’m sorry if this is a little incoherent, for some reason today I’m not really good at communicating.
    And it’s probably partly the fact that the attitude of this show toward parenthood kind of pisses me off because while I can understand doctors specializing in fertility problems wouldn’t be all yay! adoption, other characters and the show itself seems to be saying in every episode that everybody should have kids and that they have to be their own, otherwise it’s not real. And I really just don’t like that message.
    (I’m really sorry about how long this is)

  11. says

    No, you’re being totally coherent, and it sounds like this has been the constant theme on this show–I gave up completely after this episode, but everything I’ve heard suggests that there’s absolutely *no* questioning of some really restrictive idealized-parent images.

    I myself have never really understood this drive to have someone resemble you (which is obviously far from guaranteed even if a child is biologically yours) or to just *know* that they are somehow connected to you via genetics or whatever…I don’t want to sound unsympathetic, but I fundamentally don’t understand it, and I’m bothered by the insistence that it can’t possibly be culturally influenced, it must be evolutionarily driven and blablabla. I feel like, just like on this show, there’s not a lot of room to question it or have a discussion about *why* we want these things or whether we really *should* want them.

  12. says

    It doesn’t matter whether it’s cultural or evolutionary because it’s stupid. Adoption solves two problems at once: a child who needs parenting, and someone’s desire to be a parent. So even if we have an evolutionary mandate to breed, we should be striving to overcome that through intelligence and good sense.

    I mean, we have an evolutionary mandate to eat everything we get our hands on too, and look how far in the opposite direction our culture has chosen to go.

  13. sbg says

    It doesn’t matter whether it’s cultural or evolutionary because it’s stupid. Adoption solves two problems at once: a child who needs parenting, and someone’s desire to be a parent. So even if we have an evolutionary mandate to breed, we should be striving to overcome that through intelligence and good sense.

    Indeed. I have to admit I struggled with my frustration about this as my sister and her husband exhausted every other single method possible for reproduction (and spent SO much time, money and heartache) before finally “settling” on adoption. Of course they love their child as unconditionally as if he were “really theirs,” because he is “really theirs.”

    Not that he’s property. ;)

  14. Gategrrl says

    That’s another branch of Feminism that hasn’t been broached too much on the site – child rights.

    Much as women have been (and still are) considered chattel, children have been and still are, in this country and most others. Children’s rights are even more in the hole than women’s rights – both legal and culturally.

    There have been TV movies and film releases about this subject, where a minor “divorces” his or her parents (often played for comedy), but it is a genuine issue.

  15. says

    I started to mention something about that too, Gategrrl. What most of us think of as assigning parental responsibilities to people who bring children into the world equates to ownership. I think there are ways to change that, but as long as our culture supports the idea that contributing an egg or sperm to the reproductive process makes the resulting child “MINE”… ugh.

    Don’t get me started. I could write a whole other website on why we need to fix this by replacing the nuclear family with large, extended communities to give kids some options when they’re not getting what they need from their biological parents.

  16. Gategrrl says

    I could write a whole other website on why we need to fix this by replacing the nuclear family with large, extended communities to give kids some options when they’re not getting what they need from their biological parents.

    I don’t know about other countries, for instance, the European countries, or Australia and New Zealand, but I do know in the USA, at least along the coasts, there’s a lot of movement.

    But I don’t know if people staying put is so much an answer – the bogeyman abusers wear all sorts of guises, even in bucolic rural areas where people live for generations: and I think there IS an effort in many communities, to reach out to children, and it is being codified.

    I have to admit: as a mother, I think of my kids as MINE, dammit. So does my husband. They ARE ours. We’re legally, financially, morally in charge of their welfare. Sometimes that possessiveness branches out into unhealthy “ownership” issues for many adults – but hopefully, there are adults who realize that ownership does not = parental responsibility.

    Oye, it’s VERY difficult to seperate the two at times. It’s a fine line. It’s too bad there’s no lawyer to consult on children’s legal issues here. I do get the gist that children’s rights = parental rights, in almost all matters.

  17. Gategrrl says

    Hmm. Here’s an issue which IS an child’s right issue, in my POV: the right for minor girls to have an abortion without parental permission.

    When that came up for a vote in California, I voted Yes on it: my husband voted No. He was and still is baffled that I would vote that way. It’s a complex issue. I’m not sure if he’s baffled because it’s minor girls, or because it bypasses parental “rights”, or what; but my own feelings were, a girl can have sex without her parent’s involvement. That’s pretty much a given. And it’s not always in the best interest of the girl to tell her parents – that ownership problem pops up again.

    Anyhow. There you go. A very sticky issue. I would hope my daughter would feel comfortable coming to us if it happened: but if she didn’t, I’d rather she went ahead and got an abortion, than fear telling us or having us know without her say-so. I’d rather her not be saddled with a baby of her own, if she’d rather not, if a court madate said she had to.

    Um, perhaps this topic ought to go in a different thread?

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