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.