If you’ve shown up at the movies this year, you might notice that getting pregnant is a handy plot device.
In Knocked-Up, an unplanned pregnancy turns a schlub into a doting father. It’s so powerful that it almost — but not quite — turns the expectant mother into a real, flesh-and-blood human being with the potential for developing a decent sense of humor in the not-too-distant future.
Then, there’s Juno, which I wanted/planned to like more than I did. There, a 16-year-old’s surprise pregnancy unleashes so many deadpan one-liners that I almost got the vapors. (Maybe I should stop sitting in the third row.) If Knocked-Up‘s pregnant heroine lacked a funny bone anywhere in her perfect body, the pregnant teen Juno spouted machine-gun rat-a-tat-tat comic remarks every time something unsavory or unmentionable — like emotion, for instance — might possibly rear its unattractive little head.
“Couldn’t you see the emotion behind her one-liners?” said one of the friends my husband and I went to see the movie with. No, I couldn’t — and I like to think I’m an expert at ferreting out emotion at every juncture in life, on- and off-screen. Maybe I missed it. So sue me. Anyway, I was so relieved when Juno finally started to cry two-thirds of the way through the movie that I almost celebrated by buying a $4 soft drink. At last — something resembling the powerful storms of raw emotion that most pregnancies, planned or unplanned, desired or undesired, kept or unkept, spawn.
I know, I know. These are movies and they’re supposed to entertain, not instruct or truly reflect life as it is. That explains, too, why the movie Waitress so neatly and joyously wrapped up with the addition of a child to the heroine’s life. Happily ever after, which used to be clinched with a big, romantic kiss with the perfect partner or marriage to same, now comes with the birth of a baby. Because, because it’s so easy and cinematic that way. Because babies are so damned cute and life-affirming. And we all know that rearing kids is a piece of overly iced cake and things always turn out — effortlessly — just swell.
This is why movies can be made and politicians and Supreme Court justices can pontificate about knowing what’s best for women. Life! Babies! Breathing! (Even Terri Schiavo still had quality of life. Sure, she was a little quiet. But still waters and all that stuff … you just never know what’s going on with those strong, silent types.) Life’s about as complicated as your average bumper sticker or 90-minute movie.
Maybe I’m a little snappish about this — the simplistic slogans and solutions — because I’ve lived long enough that many of these issues have affected me personally. In fact, if you live long enough and keep your eyes and mind open, it’s impossible to avoid them.
More than 10 years ago, a friend confided that she’d given birth to a baby no one — not the father, not her husband of three decades, not their three children — had ever known about. Thirty-some years had passed after this momentous event, and she’d never told anyone. Talking about it, her cheeks still reddened with the shame of it all; she was still a child of the fifties who had deeply shamed her parents and herself. As a young mother then, I couldn’t imagine what it had been like simply to walk away and pretend nothing had happened, that a pregnancy and baby had never existed. It made me realize the stark difference between growing up in the fifties and sixties — when getting pregnant out of wedlock was billed as the worst thing a girl or young woman could do, a ticket to ruining her life — and the 1990s, when high schools offered nurseries for their students’ children and so many single women kept their babies. I ended up writing a novel about it, Don’t Think Twice http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Think-Twice-Ruth-Pennebaker/dp/0805067299/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1199133068&sr=8-4, because it seemed to me that this whole world of surreptitious pregnancies had simply disappeared, leaving behind another world that wasn’t better — just different — and often brutal in its own way. But at least women and girls had more choices in their lives. To have a baby or not. To keep it or give it up.
But, as Carole Joffe points out in an excellent blog entry — http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2007/12/26/shakespeares-sister-and-jamie-lynns-abortion — at least one of those choices never really gets camera time or ink. If Jamie Lynn Spears had been as open about an abortion as she has been about her pregnancy, Joffe notes, her career would have taken a nosedive. Maybe a third of American women have had an abortion, Joffe says, but they rarely talk about it. They also rarely make movies about it since, again, pregnancy is a far handier plot device. Knocked-Up and Juno would have been film shorts had the heroines not carried their babies to term, and Waitress would have ended on a far less heedlessly sunny note.
So we’re left with a cultural and political world that champions motherhood without ever having to examine it. This is a world, I’m willing to bet, that isn’t populated by people who are mothers. Where are the stretch marks, post-partum depressions, diapers, day-care arrangements, financial struggles, teenage rebellions, college-tuition payments and family arguments about child-rearing? Where is Juno years later, after she gave up her baby “the old-fashioned way,” without asking any questions? Is everything still so neat and easy?
It’s been one of the greatest joys of my life to have two children. It’s also, upon occasion, been the source of some of my most difficult struggles — and my husband and I brought up two children under close to optimal circumstances: We chose to have them, they were healthy, we had enough money that we were comfortable, we had health insurance, there were two of us to parent — and, for the most part, we had very similar values about child-rearing. These were flesh-and-blood kids: Smart, funny, sometimes outrageous, loving, rebellious, you name it. They were a lot of things, good and bad — but they were never plot devices.
In a time when Roe v. Wade is being chipped away at by a U.S. Supreme Court that now includes only one woman and mother, I should also add that I have an abortion in my past. It was legal, thanks to that 1973 decision. I’ve felt many things about that particular decision I made when I was young — relief, sadness, regret — but I’ve never regretted that I had that choice. And I’ve never felt that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the highest court’s most recent swing vote, had any business telling me what to do with my life and body or that he should be wringing his hands that I was too immature and weak to know my own mind or psyche. To me, abortions are somewhat similar to divorce: Sadness and often tragedy lie behind them. But I can’t imagine a world without them.
In the meantime, the movies crank on and the politicians talk and I’m rambling on and on myself. But some day, I’d like to see a movie made by a mother about having children. It might, very possibly, see babies and children as something more than plot devices, might view families as the messy, crazy, rewarding, teeth-gnashing, life-changing business they are, might possibly say something profound and complicated and real for a change. I’m waiting. Oh, I’m waiting.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)