The Media and Childbirth

Posted by on Dec 15, 2015 in Writings

The Media and Childbirth

Last week I was hired to play a midwife in a commercial. I also had to help dress the set, which obviously was a hospital room. I tried to de-medicalise the set it as much as possible, getting rid of unnecessary machinery and having the mother as upright as possible. But it was interesting to see how we still fall back on the old stereotypes of childbirth, dramatic, stressful, painful…

In her documentary film, Laboring Under an Illusion: Mass Media Childbirth vs. The Real Thing, childbirth anthropologist Vicki Elson explores how birth is portrayed through the media. She juxtaposes this with footage of ‘real’ birth – without the dramatic voice overs and music and tension. It is a hilarious take on how we have allowed ourselves to be influenced through television shows, films, comedies, reality shows, etc.

What has the media taught us about birth?

That pregnancy is awful. That you will feel ill throughout, have insufferable cravings and make your partner’s life miserable. In a nutshell – your life is over.

Oh…and antenatal classes consist of mothers sitting in circles hyperventilating.

And the birth?

Well, birth inevitably is triggered by the mother’s waters breaking, and flooding the supermarket.

In reality, only 15% of women’s waters break at the onset of labour, and sometimes it is more of a leak than a gush. Also, it will usually happen at night, when she is in bed, at rest, when it is dark.

In films, once waters break, the mother is then suddenly in full blown labour and pain, she screams and flails, sometimes falling backwards, conveniently knocking over a pile of tomatoes, peaches, apricots (insert colourful soft fruit). She grips at her partner desperately, whilst her partner, in a sweating panic, tries to help her.

In reality, labour starts slowly and gently. Often a mother will keep the little twinges that are niggling to herself, enjoying them whilst she gets on with her day. There can be many, many hours of  these little twinges and niggles before things shift gear and move into the next phase of stronger labour.

Cut to the car ride. Which feels more like a cops and robbers car chase. They are breaking all speed and safety records, putting their lives and others at risk to get to the hospital in time. Mother is screaming. Father is panicking. Birth seems imminent.

In the real world, moves to the hospital are usually slow and mothers are encouraged to stay at home until ‘active’ labour kicks in. They are sometimes sent home if they arrive at the hospital too early.

Now we are pushing. She has been stripped of her clothes and her persona and is on her back in a hospital gown, in a hospital bed, surrounded by people shouting “Push! Push!Push!” Perhaps, leading up to this moment, she had been planning a natural birth but now she is screaming for an epidural/caesarean and a great joke is made out of the fact that there is not need to be brave. She is also surrounded by lots of hospital equipment. It all feels very dramatic.

Finally, the baby is born, or rather, it feels as though it has been rescued.

And all is well.

Or is it?

Phew…tough one.

This last bit is quite true actually and is often how birth can play out in a hospital setting. But which came first? Have we allowed ourselves to think that this is what birth is like? Or that this is how it has to be?

How many women think, that they have to give birth on their backs because that is how they have seen it being done through the media? How many of us think we have to ‘coach’ a woman in labour to “Push! Push! Push!” because that is how we have seen it being done? And how many of us are painfully afraid of birth because we have been shown what agony women are in during the throes of childbirth?

I also have a bone to pick with ‘natural birthing’ films who often portray childbirth to be the polar opposite of what I have described above. Calm. Blissful. Centred. Supported. Even Orgasmic. And yes! Absolutely, births like this are possible BUT they do put a lot of pressure on new mothers to behave or perform in a certain way during their labours and births. And if they do not, then they are disappointed because their birth was not gentle, or calm, or orgasmic.

So how do we portray birth?

Do we portray it?

Last week I attended the birth of a young 23-year-old woman who lived very simply in a shack built of wood and metal. She had never attended an antenatal class, nor watched any birth films.

And yet, in the quiet of the candle light, she found her own birth dance and song – something no one taught her but which was embedded deep within her and was unique to only her.