Dear Lifetime: It’s not Weird, it’s Normal
Talk about the latest labor and delivery unit reality show, “One Born Every Minute,” has been ablaze since The Feminist Breeder published her scathing critique of the Lifetime premiere of the series.
Despite the risk to my own health–these shock-and-awe-chasing reality shows about childbirth generally cause a dangerous spike in my blood pressure–I decided to watch the episode yesterday afternoon.
Sure enough, I found myself seething with rage throughout much of the show. And it wasn’t just for the reasons that TFB mentioned in her post.
What frustrated me most about the show was the way it was produced: the way it forced a manufactured narrative upon each of the women’s labors*, the way that it framed the stories with as much heightened drama and strife as possible, and especially the way that it drew an artificial line between what’s normal and what’s not.
This, I know, is the beast of reality television.
Nonetheless, I worry about pregnant women and their partners watching “One Born Every Minute.” And it’s not because I think the show is going to make them want to run out and ask for every birth intervention in the world as if they’re candy. Rather, I worry that the show will create or even reinforce in women’s minds a pretty bogus distinction between “What’s Normal and What’s FREAKY-DEAKY-WEIRD-AND-ABNORMAL During Labor.”
So I want to fight back:
Here are some behaviors and choices that are, in my opinion, completely normal during labor. But “One Born Every Minute’s” producers would have you thinking that they are a) abnormal, b) cah-RAZY, and/or c) worthy of finger-pointing, eye-rolling, and general balls-to-the-wall mocking.
- Vocalizing during labor. Watch this episode of “One Born Every Minute” and you’ll see that the producers have a grand old time making fun of the “Natural Birther’s” moaning and vocalizing during her labor. (Who wants to bet that a lot of the nurses’ eye-rolling during this segment had NOTHING to do with the sounds the woman was making and were simply camera shots from other situations or contexts? And seriously, did they NEED to play silly circus-like music to show just how “CAH-RAZY” these sounds were?) In any case, vocalizing–making low, deep sounds throughout one’s contractions, or even chanting words like “oooopen”–can really help some women to cope with the intensity of their labors. It can also help them to keep their mouth and jaw relaxed, which can in turn help them to keep the rest of their body relaxed. It’s not weird–it’s normal. (And just so you know, I’ve worked with women who wanted an epidural before labor even began and still used vocalization to help them cope with their pre-epidural contractions.)
- Creating a birth plan. I’ve expressed my thoughts on birth plans before. In a nutshell, they can’t plan the way that one’s labor unfolds. Yet I think they can be great tools for articulating one’s birth preferences–especially when those preferences might diverge from hospital and/or care provider protocol. And they’re not weird–they’re normal. (And it makes me downright angry when a care provider or hospital staff member states from the outset that birth plans automatically mean that a couple is inflexible/unrealistic/destined for the OR.)
- Not wanting pain medication during labor. Laboring is not a contest of strength or ability or agility. And I have yet to meet a woman who has decided she wants an unmedicated birth because she wants that damn medal or trophy or mounted head of a 10-point buck proclaiming that she did it without the drugs, bitches! Some women may choose an unmedicated birth because they want to avoid the negative side effects associated with epidurals and/or with narcotic pain medication. Others may have had a bad experience with pain medication during labor in the past and wish to avoid it. Still others may have back or spinal issues or allergies that preclude them from receiving pain meds in labor. None of these choices are weird–they’re normal. (Yet the producers of OBEM would have you thinking that those who forgo the drugs are inflexible hippies who only care about forcing their rigid wishes upon their birth, and that those who get the drugs are the only ones doing what’s best for themselves and their babies.)
- Wanting to move and change positions during labor. There are loads of benefits to walking, moving, and changing positions during labor. (And yes, changing positions every so often is even important when one has an epidural!) Birth balls, labor stools, walking the halls, getting in the shower or tub, using wireless monitors to gain more freedom of movement when continuous monitoring is needed, getting in a hands and knees position or a side-lying position or slow-dancing or squatting: they’re not weird–they’re normal.
- Not wanting to stay in a position that causes pain rather than relieves pain. It’s difficult to tell what the context of the situation was when the nurse, Pam, tried to recommend a position change to Susan (the “Natural Birther”). But it was quite clear that Susan felt most comfortable in the positions of her own choosing. And unless there is a situation where a particular position is causing more harm than good–or where a particular position might help to alleviate a problem (such as lying on one’s left side when there are non-reassuring fetal heart tones)–it should be up to the laboring woman to choose which position she labors in. It doesn’t mean that she’s being a Problem Patient. She’s just being an autonomous, mobile, sentient human being. It’s not weird–it’s normal.
- Only wanting someone with whom you are comfortable to check your cervix during labor. Stop. Think for a minute of what a cervical check entails. It is a vaginal exam. Someone’s hand reaching into your vagina to touch your cervix. Why should anyone be surprised that a woman (such as the one featured in OBEM) might want her midwife (whom she has gotten to know over the past nine months) and not her nurse (whom she only met a few hours ago) to check her cervix? It’s nothing personal, and it’s not weird–it’s normal.
- Wanting to know the risks and benefits of a particular birth intervention. Susan had questions about using Pitocin augmentation. Tasha (the woman who ended up with a cesarean section) had questions about narcotic pain medication. Neither of them was trying to cause problems. Neither of them was trying to be bothersome. They simply wanted to know the pros and cons and risks and benefits and alternatives of these particular interventions. It’s not weird–it’s normal.
- Wanting to have a partnership with your care providers. Here are some things that women should not be faulted for during labor: Asking questions. Asking for “more time” before consenting to a non-emergency intervention. Asking for an explanation of alternatives and options and pros and cons and risks and benefits of any particular intervention. Having an opinion. Wanting respect. Desiring compassion. Seeking a care provider who is willing to talk with, and not at, her/his patients. Being autonomous. Being scared. Being confident. Being a woman experiencing one of the most intense and sacred and monumental experiences she will ever have, and thus wanting to be surrounded by people who respect and care for her. It’s not weird–it’s normal.
*Jenn, the doula featured in this episode, confirmed in a comment on TFB’s site that the show did force a particular narrative upon her client’s birth. I urge you to read this comment to get a better idea of what this birth was really like–and how truly supportive the couple’s other three nurses were!