Broadcast on Channel 4 as one of three stand-alone female-led films, 'I am Hannah' features Gemma Chan of 'Humans' and 'Crazy Rich Asians' and explores the complex issues of female fertility, motherhood, reproductive pressure and ambivalence.
Hannah is a professional, single woman living in London, seemingly in her mid-30s, who feels under significant pressure to adhere to normative life scripts of marriage and motherhood yet feels unwantedly ambivalent about the role such life course transitions may play in her own biography. What makes this programme interesting and different to other similar films is that it isn't about a woman who is desperate to become a mother but who experiences the pains of 'social infertility' due to the lack of a partner. Instead Chan and Dominic Savage (the director) specifically explore a different but perhaps equally common experience of a woman who feels ambivalent not only about becoming a mother but also about committing to a singular person and entering into marriage and motherhood.
As we witness Hannah experience three dismal Tinder dates of varying fractiousness and outright danger, it is perhaps easy to understand Hannah's reticence to throw herself in to the process of finding a partner, settling down and having children. However, Hannah experiences her single status as pathological and at odds with those around her who, as she notes, are often married and 'on their second or third kid'. By comparison, her life - as her mother likes to remind her - is just 'drifting' by.
This notion of single time as wasted time in a woman's life is also explored in Kinneret Lahad's 2017 book 'Table for One'. Here she notes how time spent being single and dating is seen as a valuable and positive use of time for young women but notes a period of normative singlehood can give way to a more pathologised state of 'late-singlehood' when a woman is in her 30s. At this point a woman's single status is no longer seen as a sign of choosing a partner wisely, but instead as an indicator of her 'over-selectiveness'. Such a characterisation is highly reflective of Hannah's experience. However, unlike her male counterparts who, as Hannah notes, have until their 50s or even 60s to find a partner and pursue fatherhood, she is under a more compressed timeline due to the fact that her fertility is naturally declining.
Throughout much of the film Hannah doesn't express with clarity her feelings about meeting a partner and having a child, which is instead more blurrily portrayed through anguished looks at young families and lovers in her local park. However, in a more direct monologue she angrily, but somewhat eloquently asks: 'What's the point in being with someone who isn't right? I see so many women, people that we know. They've panicked and settled for like the next guy, like 'he'll do', like I've just got to have kids, and I don't want to be that person.'
Such a statement is highly reflective of the accounts I have heard from many women in my own research on social egg freezing. These women, like Hannah, are in their mid-30s or early 40s, don't yet have a partner but describe themselves as unwilling to enter into a relationship with someone to have children before their end of their fertility or engage in what I have described the practice of 'panic partnering' to avoid the possibility of unwanted childlessness in the future.
In a further parallel to Hannah, several of the women in my research describe feeling ambivalent about becoming a mother but were driven to freeze their eggs in part by a fear of future regret. As Hannah similarly explains in the film: 'My biggest fear is that actually I'm getting it wrong, and maybe mum's right and I'm going to wake up and it's going to be too late and I realise too late that is what I want, and I've fucked it up. I'm terrified of fucking it up.'
This fear of waking up one day and realising she does want to have children leads Hannah, like many women in my research, to her local fertility clinic to inquire about egg freezing. It was little surprise to me to later learn that the doctor in the film is a 'real life' fertility doctor and I was impressed by the way the film presented egg freezing to the viewer. In the film we see the doctor clearly explain to Hannah how the chance of having a baby with previously frozen eggs is dependent on her age at freezing and the number of eggs they can collect from her. Indeed, the doctor explains how she shouldn't consider egg freezing an insurance policy as there is no guarantee it will pay out in the future. However, as Hannah says 'it is hope though'; hope to have more options, and more time to make decisions about motherhood. Ultimately, Hannah turns out to be an unsuitable candidate for egg freezing and not only has a low ovarian reserve but also blocked fallopian tubes making the possibility of motherhood in the future unlikely.
I was glad the film avoided the cliché 'career woman' or 'sex and the city' trope to frame Hannah's life as a childfree woman, but equally it seemed the only other option left to present a person like Hannah was one characterised by emptiness, loneliness and sadness. This was very much evident in the way the programme used long silences and isolated Chan as the only on-screen figure a great deal of the time. I am sure there was much more to Hannah than the audience got to see. Indeed, the film was called 'I am Hannah' but by the end of it, I still didn't know who Hannah was; what did she actually do for a job? What were her passions? Who were her friends? What kind of red wine did she like the best? And where did she buy her hallway mirror? All these questions were left unsatisfactorily unanswered. Instead, I felt the programme inadvertently perpetuated the common assumption that all single, childfree women were sad, lonely and unfulfilled. Whilst there certainly is a lot of sadness associated with the experience of social infertility, which needs to be recognised, there is no doubt more room to recognise and value the experiences and contributions of those who are voluntarily child free and single by choice.
At the end of the film we see Hannah break off her relationship with her partner effectively citing the need to work through her feelings about her likely infertility alone. However, I couldn't help feeling that Hannah might genuinely be happier being 'alone' and may not want or need a partner or a child. Instead, it seemed it was the force of cultural scripts of marriage and motherhood that were weighing her down rather than her single status. Perhaps Hannah would be happier if she was able to recognise and accept that she could build and live a happy and fulfilling life without a partner or child. Though, as is perhaps commonly the case, her confidence in such an 'alternative' lifestyle was constantly shaken and undone by dominant norms of compulsory coupledom that told her she wasn't whole until she had met her 'other half'.
Dr Kylie Baldwin's book 'Egg freezing, fertility and reproductive choice: negotiating responsibility, hope and modern motherhood' is being published by Emerald Books on September 5th and will be free to read online thanks to Knowledge Unlatched.