I have a love-hate relationship with this show. Mostly I love to hate it because it confirms everything that I think is wrong with childbirth is America. It also gives such a distorted view of what having a baby can be like, and is like for many women who choose to be educated and prepared for the experience. I get that television is supposed to be entertaining and the network wants people to watch. But guess what Lifetime (yes, the network for women), I would still watch if you showed some women have normal births without the kitchen sink of interventions. I would still watch if you showed women enjoying their experience and the natural, normal things their bodies do during labor. I would still watch if the women were embracing their labor rather than shaking with fear.
I watched the first season last year and could not believe the picture it painted. First of all, the show is set in Riverside Methodist Hospital, in one of the busiest labor and delivery wards in the country (according to Jamie Lee Curtis, the show’s narrator). The fact that these births are taking place in such a busy hospital gives the impression that what goes on there is normal and acceptable and in the best interest of mothers and babies. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of the doctors and nurses on this show are out to hurt anyone or give them a bad experience. Most of what the viewer sees is the result of A LOT of editing. I’m sure they have the best intentions, but there is still so much wrong.
First of all, there was maybe one woman in the first season who came into labor and delivery in active labor. It appeared that every mother arrived with either very early contractions or intending to be induced. What about the women who labor at home until their contractions are consistent and close together? Almost every woman had her water broken by a nurse and it seemed to happen with little explanation. One woman did ask why they were doing it and was told that it would speed up her labor. The nurse failed to mention that it would also make her contractions more intense and painful. She also failed to point out that the water does not have to break for labor to progress and some babies are even born in the bag of water. Overall the impression was that this intervention was routine.
And don’t even get me started on the use of Pitocin on this show. In an entire season I can think of maybe one person who didn’t receive any. What bugs me even more is that there never seems to be a conversation about what Pitocin is and what it will do. There aren’t many questions from the women in labor either. I read somewhere that this hospital has a 90% epidural rate and I’m not surprised.
There was one woman who arrived at the hospital intending to have a normal birth without pain medication or unnecessary interventions. She gave her nurse a copy of her birth plan. Cut to the nurse speaking directly to the camera about how women who bring long birth plans tend to be rigid and hard to deal with. This nurse was also clearly threatened by the mother’s doula, who did nothing more than support mom and remind her of questions she might want to ask the nurse who was intent on attaching an internal fetal monitor for no clear reason other than her own peace of mind. This nurse disappointed me so much because her attitude would be so discouraging to a woman planning on having her first baby at this hospital and wanting to exert some control over her situation and her body.
This mother continues with her plan to birth her baby without pain medication and one result of that plan is a lot of vocalizing during contractions and pushing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this and is a lot more conducive to a succesful labor than staying silent and holding your breath. But don’t tell the nurses at this hospital. As this woman is moaning and grunting the scene cuts to nurses at the nurses station giving each looks like they’ve never heard those sounds before. They looked shocked, disgusted, and judgmental. I hope that a lot of it was editing, but if any of it was accurate they should be ashamed of themselves. And shame on the producers of this show for portraying things this way. Imagine being an expectant mother and feeling self conscious about “letting go” in front of the doctors and nurses. Now you get to imagine that everyone is laughing at you while you are laboring.
It’s really a shame because I know nurses who I’m confident would not act this way. I had two babies in a hospital and had great experiences. I know other women who have had babies in hospitals and loved their experience. I don’t assume that the mothers on this show look back and feel they had a bad experience, but it could have been different. Here’s how:
- First and foremost expectant mothers (and hopefully their partners) need to be educated about childbirth. Do not assume that you just wait nine months, show up at the hospital when your contractions start, and everyone there will do the best things for you and your baby. You don’t need to read enough to write a discertation on the subject, but read a book. If you need a recommendation let me know. Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth is a great start. Know what could happen, what interventions might be offered, why they might be offered, what their effects are and if there are any alternatives. You can always ask questions in the moment, but the moment will be intense. The more you know before you get to the hospital, the easier it will be to have the birth you want rather than the birth the hospital wants.
- “Reality” television shows about childbirth need to paint an accurate picture. It’s no wonder women are afraid and have epidurals at such a high rate. Depictions of birth on television make it look scary and painful and that’s it. It hurts, but there is a lot of satisfaction when you come out on the other side of that pain. That’s something you rarely see. It’s important to know that there can be complications, but a show that makes it seem like 1 in 3 births is complicated is scary. They need to show women like my friend Tori having a 10 pound baby with her husband assisting and a midwife on the phone. A story like that gives you something to think about when a doctor recommends you get induced because your baby might be “too big.”
I know how judgmental this whole post sounds and it seems like I look down on anyone who is induced, gets an epidural, etc. I don’t. If that’s your decision, then fine. What I do look down on is not knowing as much as you can about the choices you are making. It’s too easy and too important not to take the time and learn. Take this show with a grain of salt. Watch The Business of Being Born to see how amazing normal childbirth really is. I also recommend reading A Midwife’s Story about a midwife who delivers babies for the Amish in Pennsylvania. It’s amazing how little you need to have a really amazing birth. It is also a great illustration of the strength of a woman.