I’ve been preoccupied lately with the idea of real birth. Reading the summaries for TLC’s birth and baby programming, the theme of danger and disappointment prevail: “unexpectedly long labor”, “terrified of needles,” “sudden complications”, “emergency surgery.”
I know these are reality shows, but they don’t look like real birth to me. Of course I know that in real birth, complications and the unexpected happen. Emergencies happen, too – I’ll never deny those things, any more than I will deny that pain and fear are factors in real birth. I won’t ever tell a woman that if she labors right, she will have an orgasmic, other-worldly experience. I won’t even tell her that she can avoid a c-section. But on tv, women are only vehicles. The vehicle is careening towards a collision, and the collision becomes the only story. Or women are hysterical, incapable of coherent thought and certainly not competent to participate in their own care. And when television drama is the only way women experience birth prior to actually giving birth themselves, those powerful themes of danger and disappointment become the anticipated norm.
But in real birth, women can experience love that is stronger than any challenge in front of them. Time is warped, even arbitrary. In real birth, women are amazed by their bodies – the same bodies that they have judged harshly during a life time of bathing suit seasons, or that they’ve kept hidden under sheets while they made love in the dark. And, yes, while some women push their babies into the world, in real birth some women must release them lovingly from the safety of their bodies into the gloved hands of a surgeon. In real birth, mothers show strength at possibly one of the most vulnerable and intimate moments of their lives. And then in real birth mothers hold a baby that only they could grew one perfect cell at a time. No one could do it for them.
I suppose an episode summary for real birth would be, well – real boring: “Jane finds rhythm in her breath.” “Sally hums every 4 minutes for 90 seconds.” “Amy and her care provider have a conversation.” The image might be dim and difficult to see, because who wants spotlights on as evening slowly transitions to dawn? And forget dialogue – no one would be able to hear most of it because a lot of whispering goes on in real birth.
So maybe real birth doesn’t have the perfect action or teaser summary that would attract a viewer. Maybe that image is best left where it is: on TV, edited and scripted. Maybe the truth is that reality programming just isn’t all that realistic. And what if more women expected real birth instead of what they saw on tv? What if women, no matter how their babies are born, expected to witness their own strength and grace?