It’s fair to say that in my life I’ve watched a lot of TV. Okay, that’s not completely true: It’s more accurate to say that in my life, I’ve watched an absolute boatload of TV.
Before you start worrying about all of the brain cells I’ve annihilated over the years by being glued to the tube, hear me out. Before I started watching Grey’s Anatomy, I had zero notion of how to save a life after cutting a man’s LVAD wire. Before Law & Order: SVU, I was clueless about the myriad methods police use to collect DNA. The Office burned into my brain how and how not to perform CPR. Some would say this is all useless knowledge, I would say these are valuable life skills that have not yet been put to the test.
Over the years, Meredith, Olivia, and Michael have prepared me for a variety of challenging moments, but the teacher that unwittingly and initially prepared me for the hardest test of my life was Princess Consuela Banana Hammock, also known as Friends‘ Phoebe Buffay.
On January 15, 1998, I was a sophomore in college. Much like the rest of the world, obsessed with Friends. On this evening’s episode (“The One with the Embryos”) Phoebe was attempting to become a surrogate for her brother Frank and his wife Alice, or as Phoebe so perfectly explained it, “My oven, totally their bun.”
As a twenty-year-old who assumed she was stuffed with eggs and years of fertility, I was more in a mindset of avoiding pregnancy rather than causing it. But as someone who always knew she wanted kids, I felt for Frank, Alice, and Phoebe.
That night, as I sprawled across the flip and fold on my dorm room floor, I watched the episode and filed away little tidbits of info on IVF in the junk drawer of my brain. Tidbits about how expensive IVF is: Frank and Alice paid $16,000 for their one and only chance at a baby. Who has that kind of money lying around, I wondered? To make matters even trickier, IVF isn’t a guarantee; it’s a chance. With the five embryos that were to be transferred into Phoebe, Frank and Alice had a 25% chance of success. Not to be a pessimist, and for emphasis, to state the obvious, that’s a 75% chance of failure. As Alice would later tell Phoebe, they had literally put all their eggs in her basket.
It was a heavy topic, nestled snugly within the show’s gentle comedy. Friends tiptoed around it with slapstick humor, and it was lightened up when we learned Phoebe was pregnant. It was the happy and tidy ending that we all wanted, and the one we all thought the characters deserved.
As a 20-year-old laying on a flip-and-fold I didn’t see a lot of myself in this episode, but as a 38-year-old with my legs hoisted in my fertility specialist’s stirrups, I was hard to miss. Eighteen years after the episode aired, I began the process of trying to become a single mother by choice. I had undergone seven failed rounds of intrauterine insemination, and my specialist tole me that my best chance at a family was through IVF.
Per my Friends medical certification, I knew that IVF was going to be expensive. I knew it wasn’t going to be a given. I knew I was taking a chance. What I didn’t know, and what Phoebe and Friends couldn’t have prepared me for, was everything that would happen in between the price tag and the procedure. That middle section that never seems to end, and rarely comes with a laugh.
Pheebs didn’t tell me about the neverending commercial break of hormone injections, ultrasounds, blood work, and tests. She didn’t give me the heads-up on the back-to-back reruns of worrying, resenting, bargaining, crying, waiting, failing, and then starting all over again… and again… and again.
I didn’t see Joey, Ross, Chandler, Rachel, or Monica abandon Phoebe when she needed them the most. I missed the part where Phoebe cried into her Central Perk latte as a pregnant woman walked by. While Phoebe may have found her happy ending on the first try and in one episode, others have to make it to the end of a mini-series, a saga, a trilogy, or sometimes not even at all.
Phoebe gave me the stats of IVF, but she didn’t give me the feelings. I had to find the feelings all on my own through the heartbreak of two failed IVF cycles, and the utter joy of one beautifully positive pregnancy test.