Why does television keep telling us the same old birth story?

A sleeping baby with dark hair is wrapped up in a white blanket.
This adorable baby could have been born so many different ways! (Photo by Garrett Jackson on Unsplash)

So a character on TV is pregnant

A character on a show you watch is pregnant. You already know how this ends.

Her water breaks. Maybe she’s at home or at work or at the store. Maybe it’s the morning or the middle of the night. But her water water breaks suddenly and unexpectedly. She rushes to the hospital. Or, maybe she’s in a new place and wacky circumstances mean that she’ll have to say where she is so a random person has to deliver the baby instead. Regardless, it’s urgent. That baby is coming!

Her husband or partner is freaking out. Maybe he faints or cries or in some other way indicates he can’t handle it. Or maybe he’s somewhere else and in a mad rush to get to her in time before the baby is born.

Now it’s time. She’s screaming because giving birth hurts. She probably yells at some people. Maybe screams at her partner that she hates him. But ultimately, it’s not so bad. She pushes for a few minutes and then the baby comes out.

The hijinks come to an end. She gets handed a three-month-old covered in goo. Everyone is happy and crying. It’s probably the season finale. Depending on how important her character is and what type of show you’re watching, that baby might be vaguely mentioned and mostly forgotten future seasons or it might become a recurring character.

The end.

Why the standard birth scene?

Now, I’m not really here to complain about how this portrayal is unrealistic. Most people are probably aware at this point that the way birth is shown on TV is often not the way it goes in real life. Instead, I’m more concerned with why this became the narrative and why it seems to be the only one that we ever really get.

I think the most obvious argument in favor of this kind of birth scene is that it’s dramatic. Your water breaking unexpectedly is a great inciting incident! Having to get to the hospital before the baby is born or not being able to make it to the hospital or dad being stuck across town—maximum drama! Giving birth without an epidural makes for lots of screaming and interesting television! (Although I do think there’s a whole side question here about whether one of the reasons we always see this version is because on some level audiences like seeing women in pain.)

My kingdom for realistic portrayals of postpartum mothers!

I don’t have much, but I’ll give it all up.

Yeah, okay, it’s fairly exciting. And everyone loves a good baby. But you gotta make that shit the season finale because nobody wants to see all that immediate after the birth drama of getting stitched up or trying to nurse for the first time or getting your catheter removed once the feeling as returned to your legs after an unplanned C-section. What I wouldn’t give to see a woman sitting on a toilet and using a peri-bottle. My kingdom for realistic portrayals of postpartum mothers!

I wonder if some of the sameness of birth stories stems from the fact that writers’ rooms used to be pretty much all men (and, you know, lots still are). There’s a lot to explore through pregnancy and birth, ways to deepen characters beyond the standard beats we already get. Maybe writers have been unaware of that? Or, maybe, they just haven’t cared.

Let’s shake things up

Maybe it’s just because I freaking love hearing people’s birth stories, but expanding the way births are told on television could give us so much more interesting fare.

At this point, I’d be remiss to ignore shows that did break the mold with great success. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend featured your standard water breaking, but then Heather was in no rush to get to the hospital, and when she did get there, she had an epidural and calmly worked on crosswords while she waited for labor to progress. Also, if you haven’t watched “The Miracle of Birth” number, do yourself a favor. It’s incredible.

Superstore had Amy’s labor offer a commentary on how screwed up the American healthcare system is and had Dina getting an unplanned C-section. Refreshing as heck. (Also, a second shout out to Superstore for giving Amy practically no maternity leave and showing another example of how far behind America lags on this stuff.)

I can’t help think of all the other ways that different kinds of birth could reveal character and create drama. When I went into labor with my first, I had contractions for a full twenty-four hours before I went into active labor. I ran errands and finished an audiobook and paced around my house and around the neighborhood while my husband tried to finish a coding project to graduate the code bootcamp he was in. Think of the fun subversion of someone’s contractions starting and then all the amazing jokes you could pack in while waiting for labor to really kick into gear. I’m thinking of “The One Where No One’s Ready” as a blueprint here–one of the most beloved episodes of Friends!

Or maybe, like with my second, you’re planning on a straightforward birth and then the baby flips around breech at the last second and you plan for a C-section and then your water breaks and you have to go in for surgery before you planned. I got super emotional when my original plans for giving birth were upturned and the whole experience was really dramatic for my family. Things like that might seem high stakes when it happens to some random person on the internet, but if it happened to a beloved TV character? So much to explore!

Granted, that would mean that you would have to see characters making birth plans and talking through options and getting a sense of their communities and the quality of their care and the people they talk to about their hopes and fears. Which…good luck with that.

Life is a rich tapestry

Those two examples are just scratching the surface. My experiences were a lot different than the ones on TV, but they were still the experiences of a middle class white person with access to healthcare. What about the women who have struggles, who get trapped in the disparities? How are their stories different? This could help highlight a lot about how messed up giving birth in America can be.

Every birth is different. You get told that a lot when you’re pregnant, but it’s super true. Having a kid born one way doesn’t guarantee the next one will be too. People who give birth have different risk levels, hold different economic statuses, are different races and ethnicities, and are even different genders. All these factors make each experience so personal and individual.

And I think it’s a shame that the way television tells birth stories means that we think they’re all the same. Life is a rich tapestry. Writers are writing characters with specific interests and backgrounds and personalities. Those could all come into play in unique and surprising ways while they’re giving birth!

So why don’t they?

And what are the untold stories we’re missing out on?

2 thoughts on “Why does television keep telling us the same old birth story?

  1. And then there are the stories that can’t be told without people saying, “You did WHAT!?!” I would say more but most people really don’t want to hear it.

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    1. It’s wild to me that everyone who exists was born from another person but for some reason we just don’t talk about all the nitty gritty. And the wide variety of choice and how it’s all fine. I personally love telling people about things like mucus plugs just to watch them squirm. Normalize talking about birth!

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