“...this is the opposite of normal. I’m not sure it’s even ethical.”

--Rachel, Private Life

Private Life is an artsy-cool movie about Rachel and Richard, a couple in their 40s trying to grow their family by any means necessary--pursuing both adoption and fertility treatments and, eventually, an egg donation from their step-niece, Sadie. The film was written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, who said in an interview that she herself took a by-any-means-necessary approach to having a child. Jenkins’ cynical take on the process paints a rare, unsanctimonious portrait of prospective adoptive parents and serves as a cautionary tale about pursuing a child at any cost--in this case, Rachel and Richard’s relationship and sanity. The trouble is, pretensions to raw truth-telling are undermined as costs to birthfamily members and adoptees are disregarded. For the purpose of this review, I will focus on the cost to birthmothers, though all costs are linked.

Private Life conflates birthmothers with other groups of falsely simplified women. The first expectant mother considering placing in the film disappears after months of communication, leaving Rachel and Richard bereft. The social worker says she was probably lying about being pregnant, scamming Rachel and Richard for attention. Women who fake pregnancy are not birthmothers. Private Life muddied these waters, furthering stereotypes about birthmothers as pathologically selfish, our actions incomprehensible. In actuality, our paths and trials have similarities with most peoples’.

Private Life also muddied the waters between birthmothers and expectant mothers considering placing their child with an adoptive family. Expectant mothers considering placing are just that, considering, usually due to extreme circumstances. Let’s assume that the woman aforementioned was indeed pregnant (as she may have been). She should not have been held as having promised Rachel and Richard a child. This is a coercive. She should have been held as an expectant mother considering placing and unable to promise anything until her decision was made ethically, after birthing and meeting her child.

A proper understanding (which should have been provided by the social worker) would have respected the complexity of the decision and deflated Rachel and Richard’s sense of entitlement to another woman’s child. It is possible that she disappeared because she was afraid to say she had decided not to place. If everyone had been clear that she was still in the process of making her decision, not yet a birthmother, she would have been more likely to communicate. Rachel and Richard would have had reason to grieve, but not to be shocked and horrified. An expectant mother considering placement is not a birthmother, and should not be demonized for declining to become one.

It is important to be aware of who is telling our stories. Adoptive and prospective adoptive parents have the microphone much more often than birthfamily members and adoptees. That said, I don’t resent Jenkins for telling her story, I simply wish she had told it without mistelling others’.

Private Life renders a second expectant mother considering placing as a virtual nonentity, implying that birthmothers are of no account. This woman is never even seen on camera. After an unsuccessful egg donation from Sadie, Rachel and Richard give adoption one more go. The movie ends with them waiting to meet this second expectant mother at a restaurant, just as they had waited for the first who never came. She is portrayed as important only for her capacity to complete Rachel and Richard’s family or dash their spirits yet again. A woman considering placing her child has a whole world of humanity and potential devastation of her own going on. Private Life should have at least offered this world a glance.

Interestingly, while birthmothers were left out in the cold, egg donors were humanized. Sadie moves in with Rachel and Richard and is held fondly. Further, Sadie’s mother questions her about consequences for her future, and egg donors are shown to require psychological evaluation to ensure they are prepared to make a choice of such gravity.

Private Life stands up for Sadie. When a fertility doctor chastises her for low egg production, Richard demands to speak to him, saying his niece is not a factory farm animal. “Tell him that our donor, who is giving us the gift of life, is being treated like shit!” I hope one day a filmmaker with a birthmother in their family will make a movie where birthmothers are humanized, appreciated and defended. For those unfamiliar with the reality of birthmothers, the vast majority (if not all) of us love our children very much, greatly grieve their placement and, most importantly, matter to them. We are not factory farm animals, either.

In his Rolling Stone review, David Fear writes about Rachel and Richard’s struggle with the “Infertility Industrial Complex”. Let’s be clear that the IIC chomps on all of us, not only infertile couples. Jenkins did a noteworthy job of capturing the desperation that couples struggling with infertility face, but dismissed a whole world of that desperation’s consequences--the devastating exploitation of birthmothers and the fallout felt by adoptees.

Adoption Story Depiction: C

Potential Triggers: C


- Liz Wieking


© On Your Feet Foundation California 2019

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