Without fail, it seems that the moment a woman learns she is pregnant, the first thing she does is start watching TLC and Discovery Health shows like ‘Deliver Me’, ‘A Baby Story’, ‘Birth Day’ and the like. Shows, that for the purposes of this article, we’re going to lump into one and call them collectively ‘birth shows’.
Have you ever thought about how birth shows have impacted our culture? Do you have any idea how many women ‘learn’ about birth from those shows? Do you understand what they are learning, and what that means for birth?
First of all, a clarification must be made. Birth shows are not documentaries, which are usually made for the express purpose of teaching someone about something. Birth shows are entertainment only. That is important, so I’ll say it again: Birth shows are not educational. They are entertainment.You cannot learn about birth from a birth show any more than you can learn about fighting crime by reading comic books.
In order for a show to be entertaining, it must be exciting and in many cases, have conflict. Have you ever been to a ‘normal’ birth? (I hesitate to even use ‘normal’ in this context because our perception of what is normal has been so altered, in part, by birth shows.) In reality, labor is not terribly exciting. In fact, for most of it, it’s pretty boring for everyone but the birthing woman (who is probably working harder than she’s ever worked in her life) and her immediate support person (husband, partner, doula, etc). It’s not until the actual birthing part that things start getting exciting for the spectators – including the doctor! If things go as they should, then the doctor really just catches while Mom does the work. But a television show can’t really market hours of clock watching and moaning/rocking/walking with the laboring mom – though if they did, it would help women and their support team understand how labor works and what a laboring mother needs to do her job effectively better than what they are showing now.
However, if there is a problem, then suddenly there are nurses who have to be bustling around the room, monitoring things. Doctors come rushing in, white coat flowing behind them – everyone is doing something. It becomes exciting – and marketable. Now, just to clarify, we’re not saying that birth always goes as planned or that there isn’t a need for a qualified care provider. Indeed, that’s why most of us opt for some type of care provider to serve as the ‘guardian of life’, because we do know that sometimes, interventions can be life-saving. But that does not mean that the number and increased invasiveness of the interventions we’ve come to accept as ‘routine’ and ‘normal’ have produced better outcomes – just the opposite, in fact.
So right off the bat, you can see that any birth that is out of the norm and therefore exciting to watch automatically gets preference over a normal, non-exciting one. Oh sure, they throw in a couple of normal births – even home births now and then, but the overwhelming majority of births are in the hospital and full of interventions and ’emergency’ c-sections. What ultimately happens is that the percentage of births shown are skewed – we see more ‘abnormal’ births than normal ones. Because we see more abnormal labors and births, we start to believe as a culture that birth is amedical condition that needs to be managed.
How is this damaging? Well for one, we get scared. Because we are scared, we start letting fear dictate our decisions instead of educating ourselves and making choices that are research-based and logical. We start to loose faith in the natural process of birth and that our bodies (with rare exception) were designed to give life. We forget (or don’t learn) how a woman’s pelvis expands (and how her position affects that) and how a baby’s skull bones move in order to work together to let the baby out. We start to believe that our bodies are not capable of giving birth without a team of hospital staff members to ensure the outcome. We forget that there are no guarantees in life and whatever our choice is, we’re just trading one set of potential risks for another. Combine that with a handful of unethical obstetricians who realized that they could capitalize on that belief by offering ‘working hours’ c-sections to women and you have exactly the culture we have now: skyrocketing cesarean rates and a body of women who view invasive, unnecessary, major abdominal surgery as just another ‘choice’.
Birth in birth shows is almost always portrayed as a process that cannot safely take place without the intervention and management by a doctor. Women are portrayed as inactive subjects from which a baby must be rescued – almost never as active participants who give birth. The process of a doctor working with a laboring couple is never shown. You never see a doctor coming into the room and informing a mother or couple of their options, alternatives and risks (also known as educating them so they can provide ‘informed consent’) and allowing the parents to choose what happens; instead a doctor comes in, makes a recommendation or gives a command and the couple agrees. You never see instances where the mother disagrees with or chooses something other than what the doctor wants. That, too, is damaging because it subtly conditions us to be ‘good little patients’ and do what we’re told.
One of the most tragic issues with this whole mindset is that we’re losing the knowledge about why vaginal birth is good for you, body and spirit, and why it’s good for your baby. There’s little mention of the hormonal shift after a natural vaginal birth that assists in bonding and breastfeeding, or the pressure that passage through the birth canal puts on baby’s lungs that has been linked to less risk of respiratory issues later in life. There is little mention of the correlation between bad (traumatic, victimized, powerless) birthing experiences and post-partum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder – and yet both are on the rise. Do a Google search on “benefits of vaginal birth” and it’s pages and pages of ‘benefits of VBAC’ – in part because so many women now are having c-sections with their first birth. Combine that with the ban many hospitals (including our own, Southeast Texas!) have placed on VBAC and the relatively few doctors who will even deliver a planned VBAC (NONE in Southeast Texas!), and you have a group of women only just realizing how their lack of real education about birth haspermanently affected their reproductive futures.
We’re also being further conditioned through birth shows to believe that a hospital is where babies are born and that doctors are the only acceptable attendants. Rarely are other birthing locations shown (despite the abundant research that says that birth center and home births are as safe, if not safer, than hospital births and that midwives have better outcomes than OBs do for women with low-risk pregnancies), or alternatives offered. The few shows that did highlight midwife-attended, birth center or home births have been quickly cancelled – and it begs the question, ‘why?‘ Could it be that if women were routinely offered the opportunity to see birth in a more normal context, that the cultural expectation would shift and hospitals and OBs would start losing their income because women would start demanding more freedom from the assembly-line births we’re offered in hospitals now? Already there are more and more women choosing to birth at home or in birth centers with midwives because they’re realizing how much their options are limited when they go into the hospital. They’re becoming educated and empowered – and that’s a threat to the current Establishment. And that’s awesome.
I’ve singled out TLC in this article, but the truth is that several networks are causing just as much harm. Discovery Health is just as guilty. Sensational shows about pregnancy are always on, and the commentary in shows like “Pregnant at 70” and “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” have as much fear-mongering as the birth shows do.
We jokingly forbid our clients from watching birth shows. Though we of course cannot ‘forbid’ our clients from anything, the sentiment is sincere. Watch them if you like, but recognize them for what they are – entertainment, and know that this is what is helping to shape your view of birth. For everything you see that bothers you or scares you, do some research! The internet is full of articles about the normal processes of birth, and how typical hospital policies and procedures often cause the very problems that the introduction of modern technology into birth that they were supposed to prevent. Please educate yourself – let knowledge help you make your decisions, not fear based on what you ‘learned’ from a TV show.