Please note: if you are squeamish, prudish, or male, then consider yourself warned that this post contains images depicting pregnant, labouring, and birthing women. In bikini’s.
It seems that despite the endless number of books and magazines devoted to the topic of pregnancy and birth, there is a strange lack of television shows focusing on the subject. But of the shows that are out there, how are these programs actually portraying birth?
Unfortunately, not so well.
If you have never experienced pregnancy or birth, and were to watch an episode of one of these shows you would be convinced that giving birth was a life or death emergency, in which mothers and babies regularly have their lives saved by modern medicine. Let’s take a closer look at one of the most popular of these shows, “One Born Every Minute”.
The show “One Born Every Minute” was born in the United Kingdom. Cameras were placed on a busy maternity ward and each episode introduced you to two (sometimes more) birthing women and their partners and families. We see them arrive at hospital, we see them labour, and we see them give birth. There are also snippets filmed at home giving us some background on the couple. Now, I remember seeing this show for the first time when my youngest child was very small, and I really enjoy watching it. It does, obviously, centre on a typical hospital birth in the U.K. There were lots of women using gas and air for pain relief, some assisted deliveries, a couple of cesarean deliveries, and usually a multiple birth each season. Specialists, consultants, and obstetricians are only seen when there is a firm medical indication for it. The women seem to come from all walks of life, and we see every different type of mother-to-be, from teenage mums to older first timers, to same sex couples and women with disabilities. If you can put aside a yearning for an intervention free home birth scenario it is pretty entertaining to watch. Happily, there is lots of one on one midwife care, and water births happen often. It seems that no matter how often I watch it, I always manage to get all weepy when the baby is finally born amid much emotion, exhaustion, and joy.
Unfortunately I struggle to say anything good about the U.S. version of the show. Naturally, it in turn depicts a fairly typical hospital birth in the United States today. It is not helped by the narration by actress Jamie Lee Curtis, where every single thing is turned into an emergency. It seems that almost every woman (I would actually say EVERY SINGLE WOMAN, except that I cannot watch it anymore), has an intravenous drip. They are all bed ridden, trussed up with drips, drugs, and every form of monitoring available. Since almost every woman has an epidural early in the piece, they remain strangely passive. There is none of the high emotion which grips you in the U.K. version. I also watched in disbelief as one (seemingly un-medicated) woman having her third baby was begged not to push until the doctor arrived. Apparently, the nurses (midwives?) on duty were not capable, or allowed, to deliver her baby. The nurse in question kept desperately looking out the door and checking to see if the doctor was on the way.
More maddening is that so many women have the threat of a c-section waved in their face early in labour. The nurses will very casually (cruelly almost), mention that they should prepare for an operative delivery. From what we are shown there is often absolutely nothing to indicate such an outcome may be necessary. A woman having her first baby, progressing slowly (but progressing none the less), dilated to four centimeters or so was told she was taking too long. Another woman was told by a nurse, based on no actual evidence whatsoever, that her baby was probably too big to be born vaginally. (That woman persisted and worked her ass off to achieve a vaginal delivery, assisted by forceps. I was so happy for her, she had to beg and plead every hour for more time).
Interestingly, in this version, the birthing couple seem to have a lot more family and friends in the room with them. Which seems to basically result in everyone present jamming their mobile phone in between the birthing mothers legs as she pushes her baby out. I’m not kidding, there are usually three or four people snapping away on their phone, offering no support to the mother at all. This version of the show seems to paint a rather grim picture of birth, with no food given during labour, time limits on pushing, far more c-sections than it’s U.K. counterpart, breath holding and directed pushing, and usually there is no immediate skin to skin contact between mother and baby. Almost every time a baby is born, it’s briefly held up to show the mother, before being whisked off to be weighed, measured, and wrapped up before being returned to the mother. There are far too many bright lights, and far too many people in the room.
In short, it’s a perfect example of how modern hospital birth inhibits our bodies natural instincts and behaviors during birth.
I never cry while watching the babies born on this show because by the time they are being delivered I am so angry at everything I have just seen.
What we are shown on this show seems to be a sad indictment on the U.S. maternity system, one in which it would appear that everything is done to thwart a woman’s natural biological processes. The tendency to reach for forceps, ventouse, or a scalpel is far too speedy. Doing some research I learned that at Riverside Methodist Hospital, where the U.S. series is filmed, the c-section rate in low risk first time mothers is at 23%. That’s almost one quarter of first time mothers who begin labour with no risk factors. The epidural rate, according to one of the midwives who works there, is about 90-95%.
Interestingly, one person on television who has recently shone a very positive spotlight on normal birth comes from an unlikely corner: Kourtney Kardashian. She has shared with viewers of their reality show the births of both of her children. She says she did it to intentionally show people how low-fuss and natural birth can be, and was very hands-on in catching both of her babies. It amused me to see the shock and outrage of viewers, with comments like “she pulled the baby OUT OF HER OWN VAGINA!!!!!”, (where exactly did they think it comes from?). Imagine the message she sent firstly to her two young sisters, as well as all the many young women watching on TV? Hopefully they won’t dismiss her as some crazy hippie type, but will remember how easy she made it look.
What I would really love to see is a reality TV series showing a group of independent midwives who specialise in home birth. Imagine the powerful messages that could spread about birth? Even if a home birth will only ever appeal to a minority of women, it would go a long way towards educating all women, young and old, on what our bodies are capable of if given the chance as well as the right support.
After all, education is power.
Til next time,