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 lady bits and the wet-haired, cone-headed 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.
Most mainstream media won’t give us the clear view these shows do. Though TV and movies have come a long way in their depiction of pregnancy and childbirth, from I Love Lucy (the first TV pregnancy) to last summer’s Knocked Up, where we saw what looked like an actual newborn, moments after emerging from a stunt vulva, they still can’t compare to the real thing. Although National Geographic and other science-oriented groups have at times made forays into the filmed childbirth arena, all of the childbirth shows currently airing are produced by the Discovery network, a global cable empire comprising TLC, the Discovery Health Channel, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and the Travel Channel. All are repeated dozens of times throughout the week, often at times particularly well-suited to the hugely pregnant or newly postpartum – hey, they seem to figure, if you’re up at 3:30 in the morning, chances are it’s baby-related.
Which is why I spent a fair amount of my recent pregnancy sitting on the couch while shouting “Push! Push!” at the television set.
Why do so many of us love these shows (and many of us must, because they’re proliferating madly)? First, they fit nicely into the trend of medical reality programming, a popularity that goes straight back to carnival freak shows. Second, they offer a counterintuitive form of escapism – someone’s giving birth, but it’s not me! – which allows viewers to step back and appreciate all the beauty inherent in labor and delivery.
Babies: Special Delivery is an hour long and follows as many as six mothers giving birth, sometimes to babies with terrible problems – some of whom actually die, so you really can’t watch it while pregnant.
Baby, Baby focuses on multiple births, nearly always in England. Bridget Jones fans will warm toward adorably harried British mums wrangling little Angus and Alastair and the like, but the show is frustratingly (or charmingly, depending on your viewpoint) vague when it comes to medical details.
My favorite, House of Babies, is set at a Miami midwifery center where water births and multicultural couples abound. It’s the Blue State alternative to A Baby Story, and arguably the most ethnically diverse program on television. Where else can you see a Pakistani woman and her Haitian husband give birth with the help of a Jewish midwife and her Cuban assistant? – Kate Tuttle that’s easy to miss when you’re out of your mind with pain and fear.
Then too, they provide a great opportunity for new parents to play Monday-morning quarterback, using all the knowledge gained from months of cramming for childbirth. Your newly acquired familiarity with the anatomy of the cervix and the types of breech presentation needn’t go to waste, not when you can supervise, from the comfort of your home, as other women labor. “Shouldn’t she be walking around now, to bring the baby down?” you might think, and, “Somebody neglected their perineal massage!” or, “who the hell names their baby McKenna?”
Somehow, though, all of them have the same effect on me. In the end, after all the judging, there’s something universally humbling about watching someone give birth. No matter how little I have in common with a woman in terms of taste, or social class, or so-called sophistication, I know how she feels when she closes her eyes in blessed relief that the baby is, at long last, out. And no matter how NASCAR I find her husband, I can be moved to tears when I witness his stunned silence upon hearing his baby’s first cry. That’s the real magic: not the birth itself but the alchemy it works on each specific family – the split-second emotional recalibration as families welcome one more beloved member. Forget about perineal massage; the most flexible part of the human body is its heart.