Schadenfreude or Lessons to be Learned: Nadya Suleman's Footage on Fox

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Julie from A Little Pregnant asked a few weeks ago if people were going to watch the Nadya Suleman documentary on Fox, alerting me to how much you miss when you don't turn on your television (why bother, I thought, now that the Next Food Network Star has been decided). I have to admit that I missed it, but the blog posts that popped up afterwards made me track it down on Hulu and like the thousands or millions--I'm not sure how many people tuned in for the broadcast--watched life in Suleman household.

Because remember, it's a person's life. It's 14 people's lives.

There were two ways you could watch the footage. One is purely out of schadenfreude, taking pleasure in her pain and watching it with human cruelty. It can be rubber necking, a thankful-it's-not-us exercise.

The other way is to use it as a lesson, an examination that while most people could keep a child--or even 14 children--alive, it is a very different proposition to raise a child. That being a parent is more than rocking the child to sleep, giving a bottle, and playing with them. It's teaching right from wrong and building self-esteem and encouraging strengths. After all, we wouldn't say a nurse in the NICU parents the child. We say that she keeps the baby healthy and alive and cares for him. And the same is true at home. Almost everyone can keep a baby healthy and alive. It is quite another thing to parent.

It illustrated why preschools and daycares limit the number of children that can be adequately and safely watched by a single person. Humans simply weren't made to be able to adequately take care of 14 children under the age of 9 at once. The Duggars have sort of perfected (if we can call it that) the idea of building a large family. Children are spaced so that the oldest can help with the youngest. The first child was born in 1988 and was over five when the fifth child was born. While life is still chaotic and busy at the Duggar house, the children have been raised understanding how they can help the family run smoothly and that system is certainly missing from the Suleman household, even with a nine-year-old present.

While family size and timing was somewhat out of Nadya Suleman's hands--there is a big difference between family building without assistance and utilizing IVF--she did make the choice to transfer all six frozen embryos at once rather than attempt several future pregnancies, donate the embryos, or destroy them. There were options that allowed her to use them that did not include transferring all at once. And despite her claim that she never thought higher order multiples could happen, the possibility was definitely there. It is like a person exclaiming that they didn't know a car accident could possibly happen when they got behind the wheel of a car, simply because they've driven before and it hasn't happened. Car accidents are not a certainty, but they are always a possibility. And multiples are always a possibility when you transfer more than one embryo. Hell, they are a possibility even if you only transfer one.

But, as Suleman keeps repeating in the footage, the past is the past, the decisions have been made and the actions taken and now it comes down to what she does in the future. As I watched it, I kept in mind that Fox edited it to reflect a certain story, with all footage to the contrary on the cutting room floor. And at the same time, no family would hold up well to the scrutiny of cameras and an outsider's editing work--especially in those early days of babyhood. I shudder to think of what Fox could have done with my own life if I allowed cameras in my house.

And maybe that's the point. I wouldn't allow cameras into my home, no matter how interested the world was about what goes on behind our closed doors.

Fox's footage was sensationalized, edited to show a woman with poor decision making skills who never considered the future. This isn't just in regard to her children; they drive the point home with showing her laughing through a story from her teenage years where she made her mother ride in the trunk of the car and how she would swerve around and slam on the brakes.

Nine times, the ominous voiceover warned me prior to commercial that I would be watching footage that I "won't believe exists" (actually, once they told me the footage exists, I believed them the first time), which turned out to be the camera showing the backs of nurses and doctors blocking the view of Suleman's c-section while the camerawoman placed getting her footage over the well-being and safety of anyone in the room. I'm not sure what Fox found to be the unbelievable part--the fact that the camerawoman was wholly out of line, or the fact that we have shakey footage of the backs of nurses.

It is easier to watch it from the schadenfreude point-of-view: from the fact that Suleman squeals relentlessly in regard to every situation: "How is this possible?" or "This is not what I expected at all" to the truly bizarre opening showing her concerned about paparazzi taking pictures of the babies even though she is currently having the babies filmed and immediately fixing her make-up rather than tending to the crying infants. In one scene, she calls herself Octomum prior to her phone call to the police and admits that she had the term trademarked so she could use it for business ventures in the future.

It is easier to watch it from that schadenfreude vantage point when she continuously harps on how private she is and how she doesn't want attention. When she mocks Kate Gosselin and states how Kate is desperate for attention. How she just wishes everyone would leave her alone because she is truly a very very private person and never dreamed she would get this attention. And yet, it is the push-me-pull-you contradictions that make it difficult to not rubber neck as she tells the filmmaker that she thinks reality television is a wonderful opportunity because they'll get a lot of free experiences just as Jon and Kate have grabbed for their children. That at the end of the day, this very private person is showing her home life on television. And private and public are contradictions in and of themselves. She is not an actress with a job who happens to also have a private life that is under scrutiny. She is a mother with no job who has willingly placed her private life to be under scrutiny for payment.

It is difficult to see her arguing with her mother on camera. You have to wonder if they have had that conversation before and we're just seeing the reenactment of a long-standing argument, or if her mother was finally giving her a too-late parenting lesson. I was deeply offended by Nadya's understanding of adoption, believing that it's a lack of love that moves one to create an adoption plan.

Mother: "You could have had an adoption. You didn't have to have [the embryos] destroyed."

Nadya: "...the audacity to say that any of these children should be adopted because I have more love for these children than I think...well, almost...I'm sure that many parents would have just as much love."

My offense is not that she would choose to parent instead of create an adoption plan--that is a personal decision and there are certainly people who could raise (again, meaning: not only keep alive; but also parent and guide) 14 children. It is that she holds such an immature and ill-informed notion of her options that I'm not sure how she made a decision.

Which brings us back to the second way this documentary can be used: as a learning experience and as proof that it takes more than love, more than money, more than age to raise a child. And for people to understand before they procreate what it means to parent. That it goes beyond providing food, shelter, and clothing for a child. That it isn't about holding a bottle or cuddling in the rocking chair or making sure they get through each 24 hour period in one piece. That you can have all the love and resources in the world, and it still might not be enough because children need guidance as much as food and hugs to grow. By which I mean grow emotionally. Just because a child is growing larger doesn't mean that their conscience or self-esteem are keeping pace.

That parenting is so much more than feeding and burping and the best parents are the ones that realize the realities of the task beyond their love for babies. It is easy to love babies--they are cute and cuddly and generally under your command. It is much harder to raise children who need to develop their own world view, their own code of ethics, their own happiness. Because beyond the baby years are all the other years. And while Nadya Suleman speaks often about how she loves babies, I never heard her talk about the children in the future, how she envisions having this large family co-exist and thrive with one another. Because say what you want to about the Duggars, but that mother has a vision and she sticks to that vision regardless of the behaviour or feedback from her children or the outside world. And it is what makes her a ship continue to move forward rather than Suleman's rickety boat spinning in circles.

Nadya Suleman would probably ask if anyone else thinks they could do better with 14 kids. And the answer is that I wouldn't have gotten myself in that situation in the first place. I thought about my personal limits and acted accordingly. So no, I could not do better with 14 kids. And that's why we made the family building choices we did.

Required Reading:

Maybe Baby?: "What bothers me most is that IF is a hush hush topic in the US and the people who are notoriously IF, their struggles broadcast to millions is her and John&Kate +8. These rare exceptions sensationalize the topic of IF turning our issues into a circus show."

The Road Less Travelled: "John Doyle, the Globe & Mail's television critic, can be quite cantankerous at times. But I found myself nodding in agreement at his rant in Wednesday's paper about Octomom and pronatalism run amok."

Behind Blondie Park
: a collection of articles on the documentary.

RightJuris: "She admits she never gave any thought to how she’d support all of these children, or how life would be for herself or them after they were born. But she trudges along."

iVillage, the Daily Blabber: "This comes from a woman who said she'd consider doing a reality show, arranged to have the birth of her octuplets videotaped, trademarked the name "Octomom," and agreed to do a two-hour interview with Fox."

Melissa is the author of the infertility and pregnancy loss blog, Stirrup Queens and Sperm Palace Jesters. She keeps a categorized blogroll of almost 2000 infertility blogs and writes the daily Lost and Found and Connections Abound, a news source for the infertility blogosphere. Her infertility book, Navigating the Land of If, is currently on bookshelves (May, 2009).


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