A few weeks before our son’s birth last year, my husband and I joined eight other couples in a dreary basement meeting room to watch a movie. The main characters’ haircuts and clothing immediately dated the film to the late 1980s (as did the VHS technology that allowed us to watch it), but it must have seemed startlingly new to some of the other expectant couples, our classmates in the hospital’s childbirth education course. Judging by their squirming, hands-over-eyes horror, many of them had never before seen a baby’s head crowning, then emerging in a slippery rush of blood and amniotic fluid, with the occasional addition of vernix and meconium. Well, I had. And they could have, too. All it takes is basic cable.
Forty years ago, the birth drama was the sole province of doctors and nurses. Fathers were banned from delivery rooms and most mothers were under the kind of sedation today’s pregnant women can only dream about. Some people still had babies at home – a tiny number of countercultural types, a larger number of those too poor to afford hospital care – but the vast majority of births were thoroughly private affairs, witnessed only by the medical professionals who controlled every aspect of a woman’s pregnancy, labor and
A Baby Story is the soft-focus gateway drug to more hardcore childbirth footage. A peppy half-hour that focuses on one family, the show follows a couple from pregnancy through childbirth, then returns when the baby is about two months old. The actual labor and delivery are mostly glossed over, sandwiched between “how we met” and “why we’ll be awesome parents” couch interviews. New fathers gush over plans to play ball with their baby sons and go blank when thinking of what they can do with their daughters (hint: play ball?). Expectant mothers shop for little-girl room d’cor in frilly stores that would make Laura Ashley feel itchy. Whole families cram into delivery rooms and corny doctors crack jokes about the baby’s hair color, then everyone returns to spotless townhouses with matchy-matchy furniture and no books.
Birth Day, the old reliable of the genre, has a more medical slant, with episodes titled “Breech Babies” and “Meconium.” delivery.
How times have changed. The convergence of feminism, medical consumerism, and me-decade solipsism sparked a revolution in childbirth, bringing mothers out of sedation, fathers out of the bar down the street, and cameras into the delivery room. Suddenly childbirth was no longer a private burden to be endured, but a universal journey to be mastered, a political event to be performed, and a public entertainment to be chronicled. With the proliferation of cable television channels, was it any wonder that series focusing on childbirth would join those detailing other life-changing events?
When I was planning our wedding, and for months afterward, I was addicted to the bridal reality shows – Bridezillas, Whose Wedding Is It, Anyway?– first watching them for ideas (Tiny seedlings of a couple’s favorite tree for favors? Neat!), then for the pure joy of judging other people’s taste and finding it wanting (Arriving in a white horse-drawn carriage, a la Cinderella? What was she thinking?).
The new childbirth reality shows work the same way, and are equally, if not more addictive – that is, if you can stomach the up-close-and-personal medical realities. While some of the shows tend to stick to homey before-and-after interviews and only show the most fleeting, artfully blurred versions of the delivery itself, others bring the realness. If I learned anything in childbirth education class, it’s that not everyone is ready to confront swollen ladybits and the wet-haired, coneheaded babies that come out of them.
But I’m convinced that if more of us watched these shows we’d not only have more informed birth experiences, we might even have fewer unplanned pregnancies. After all, if my fourteen-year-old daughter finds these shows disgusting (and she does), might it not be a good thing to remind her that actual childbirth and newborns are at least as disgusting, not to mention that they aren’t tidily resolved in thirty or sixty minutes? For those of us already knocked up, though, it can only be a good thing to see what we’re in for.