This Saving Babies show is making me think.
I’m not going to write a review of it, because I haven’t watched it. I’ve seen two ads and about ten seconds when I was unproductively flicking the other night and that was enough. I won’t be watching it. Because having had a baby whose first year was pretty much defined by surgery, I still have physical reactions – lurching stomach, ringing ears and some other things that don’t have words – when faced with the sight of babies surrounded by wires and tubes.
‘As if RPA wasn’t hard enough, who’s going to be watching that?’ I said to the mister. And he agreed with me. But, it seems that plenty of people did watch it. It was listed in Crikey’s wrap-up of ratings winners and then, in the television liftout of our weekend paper (yes, I read the television lift out of the Sunday Mail – think of me what you will), there was a letter to the editor which called this show ‘heartwarming’. I really hadn’t considered that people might enjoy watching it.
Until now, I’ve been aggressively disapproving of real-life medical shows. I had the same disdain for the people who might watch such shows as I do for people who say well, I would make a donation, but you just don’t know where the money goes without then finding out just where the money does go and perhaps making an informed decision. Or even thinking to themselves, well, I’m certainly not in a position to do that work for free, perhaps some of the money I donate will need to go on such things as paying staff, providing them with adequate working conditions and so on. But I think I digress.
There’s a lot of reasons for my aggressive disapproval. At it’s simplest and best, it is jealousy of, and/or anger with, people for whom hospitals are not heart-stoppingly painful, who can have their hospitals through such vicarious experience as television (tho I’m calm enough these days to wonder who those people might be, for just about everyone over 30 knows more about hospitals than they’d like to). And then, there was Extreme Makeover, clouding my judgement. If I tell you that my son had (has? I haven’t thought about that before – is fixing the same as cured?) craniosynostosis I’m sure you’ll forgive me for breaking out in sweat at just the mention of that show (update: the specific condition described here – a family’s site).
But because I spent a glorious day at WOMAD; my little boy is so far from his hospital experience that he just gave his dad a birthday card which says ‘dear Dad you are one big superhero’; and I’ve got tickets to Dylan Moran, I’m in a good and tolerant mood. So reading that letter to the editor, and foxing around the interwebs, I’ve had to modify my thoughts a bit (which is, of course, a whole different thing to changing my mind).
So, first up, Saving Babies isn’t Extreme Makeover. It has, for me, significantly more credibility than that. The presenter – and by the sounds of things one of the instigators of the program – has had experience in the whole fragile situation. This is an extremely important point. Being a mother doesn’t make you a gentler or more compassionate person (insert outdated Margaret Thatcher quip), but I think it would be fair to expect that someone who has been through a similar thing will have a more empathic than exploitative approach.
I am worried that the parents are approached at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives and yep, I reckon if they’d asked me I’d’ve said yes. Because at the time you are so grateful to the world. But again, I do think it’s important that the presenter has been through it. And these aren’t parents who have gone out looking for the publicity. They didn’t audition. They’re not looking for an on-going media gig. It’s more reality than most.
And if it’s not exploitative (and obviously, I can’t say whether it actually is or isn’t, not having actually watched it), then it could do some good, because what we need is more discussion about the shades of grey.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I got really, really, extremely so pissed off that I can’t tell you how pissed off I got, with the people who would end their ‘do you know if it’s a boy or a girl, oh another boy, no of course you don’t care’ platitudes with ‘as long as it’s healthy’. Maybe they were wishing me an awkward kind of luck, because of course none of us wanted to have another child facing that surgery. But to me, it was just such a dismissal of my eldest boy’s experiences. Of him. My child. I wouldn’t call a cranial vault reshaping the healthiest way to start your life, but it came with him and I couldn’t wish it away or dismiss it.
And because of that, the second time around, I drew very strict limits around the type of pre-natal testing that I would do. I didn’t, for example, take the serum screening test for Down Syndrome, but I did have the normal ultrasound scans. My reasons for this were many and complex. I wouldn’t have – at that stage of my life – terminated the pregnancy because I found out about Down Syndrome. Please do not read this as some sort of sign that I am on an anti-abortion crusade. Nor do I wish to romanticise disability, particularly Down Syndrome – that whole ‘oh they’re very loving people so I’ve heard’ makes my blood boil. If the ultrasound had shown anencephaly then I would have terminated the pregnancy. Straight away (I think so anyway – it’s hypothetical of course because I was never asked to make that choice). I think that if you’re pregnant, it’s your call. I also think that there are arguments for factoring in quality of life – at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.
There are as many shades of grey as there are people on this earth. More. Because decisions you’d make at one point in your life wouldn’t be the same decisions you’d make in another. It’s complex, and getting more so, as our pre-natal testing becomes ever more sophisticated. They’re private decisions. But they’re social and collective ones too.
So, all of that’s okay. But for the last week, that ‘heartwarming’ letter has been niggling me. Hospitals do much more to your heart than warm them. It’s making me think that in this programme only happy endings will be allowed (and here, I can tell you, that even though I haven’t watched it, I have spoken to a friend who has). As a vehicle for highlighting the shades of grey a commercial television show has some very real limits because more than it’s a show, it’s a product. They need people to watch.
How long-term will the perspective of this programme be? Three months? Six months? A year? Even in my simple case, I realise I spent the next year – at least – recovering. I can’t speak for my little boy, and because he was just a little baby he can’t speak for himself on the matter either. But last year when his grandfather was facing surgery, my little boy said to me one night when I was tucking him in I’m worried that when (grandpa) wakes up he won’t be able to see his mum. Even the short-term become long-term things. What of the people – the parents and the children – whose lives become defined by continuous surgery, by lifting children long after they weigh ten kilograms, by the worry of what will happen when they – the parents – die?
And how many other perspectives does this programme leave out? Do they show the women who do decide to terminate pregnancies? Because there are many for whom this is the right thing to do. It’s a silly question, because the show is called Saving Babies, so that isn’t an area they’re even trying to explore and I’m not saying they should. I’m just saying on the one hand this and on the other hand that.
Happy endings aren’t all the same and we all have degrees of sad.
Perhaps if I watched the program I’d be able to discuss these things more lucidly, more credibly, more comrehensively. Perhaps I’d be able to speak in fewer shades of grey. But like I say. I’m not going to. Even not watching it hurts.