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Up All Night: The Birth (Yikes!)

I found the past couple of weeks of Up All Night to not be good enough or bad enough to write about. There were some funny parts and some parts that made me roll my eyes, but nothing that drove me to my keyboard.

But this week's topic was birth and I have had a few requests to write about it. Overall, it did a pretty good job of reinforcing every myth, stereotype and unfortunate reality of giving birth in the United States. I do recognize that some of it is intended as over-exaggerated humour and not to be taken seriously. However, it wasn't over-exaggerated enough in most parts which, in my opinion, simply serves to reinforce myths and stereotypes.

What stood out?

  • The birth plan is 18 pages+: Reagan has an incredibly long birth plan. That, plus a few statements she made about needing to be in control, reinforced the stereotype of the crazed pregnant woman who needs to control every single little detail of her birth and thinks that is possible too. I'm glad I had a smart doula who looked through my two to three page birth plan and helped me reduce it to a one page birth plan that could actually be read by the nurses and doctors who attended my birth.

  • Not allowed to exercise while pregnant: Reagan rattled off a list of things she wasn't allowed to do while pregnant. One of them was that she couldn't exercise. Unless you're on medically indicated bed rest, exercise is an important part of a healthy pregnancy. I continued playing my regular sports through the first trimester and then swam, walked, did prenatal cardio/strength classes and prenatal yoga classes.

  • Birth is completely disgusting: Reagan and Chris watch a birth DVD, which they find absolutely disgusting (both because of the birth and because of the "hairy" woman in it). They also ask to have the mirror taken away when Reagan is pushing because they can't stand to look. The whole "birth is scary" and "birth is gross" mantra is one of the reasons that women have trouble relaxing and believing in themselves and their bodies. It is one of the reasons why people need to see women giving birth, just like they need to see them breastfeeding.

  • "Are you going to give up your identity to stay home and change diapers?": This is the question that Chris' colleague asks him when he mentions his plan to take paternity leave. It is, unfortunately, the same thing that is asked of many, many women and men who make the decision to stay home temporarily or permanently. Is there no room for children to become part of our identity rather than it being one or the other? I'm happy to share my life with my children and to have them share their lives with me. The statement uttered by Chris' colleague also puts  "changing diapers" on a lower level (less important) than his "real" work, this reinforcing the lack of value that our society assigns to caring work.

  • Rushing to the hospital: As soon as Reagan realizes that she is in labour, they are in a big rush to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. There is no discussion of how far apart her contractions are or of waiting until it is really time.  Ava asked whether Reagan would like to give birth at a hotel instead (because of Ava's desire to avoid going to the hospital) and for a moment (not having seen the previews), I hoped that maybe she would go for it and have a non-hospital birth.

  • "No pain killers, good luck!": As Reagan and Chris arrive at the hospital, they run into their neighbours who have just had another baby. The mom says "No pain killers, good luck!" when Reagan mentions that she wants a natural birth. This is certainly something that does get said (I heard it many, many times and also heard people telling others "whatever you do, get the drugs"), but it is too bad that no opposing view was ever shown (she did end up with the epidural eventually).

  • Sitting down or laying on bed during labour: In every scene at the hospital, Reagan is either sitting on the couch or lying on the hospital bed. Perhaps her labour would have advanced a bit more quickly if she had been walking around the room.

  • Stoned on the epidural: Once Reagan did opt for the epidural, she acted like she was completely stoned. I did have an epidural for my first birth and don't remember being stoned. There are certainly some valid concerns about the impact on the baby, but I've never heard of a mother acting like she is stoned after having the epidural.

  • No choice, no discussion c-section: After about four hours of pushing, doctor says they have to do a c-section because the "baby's head may be too big". When they ask if they have any choice, he simply says "no". While it is true that c-sections are necessary in some scenarios, the doctor should always explain the pros and cons of proceeding with surgery and explain the rationale for the recommendation. Unfortunately, however, the scene in 'Up All Night' may in fact be what way too many women experience -- i.e. the doctor simply dictating the direction to be taken (which may or may not be a good decision), without engaging the woman and her partner in the decision.

What do you think? When a television sitcom portrays birth in this way, is it simply light humour that is not to be taken seriously, or does it reinforce myths and stereotypes in a way that sets women up for failure?
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Reader Comments (36)

Thank you for this post...I do believe that the way birth is portrayed by the media, and reality shows such as Baby Story have an impact on women's perception of what birth is. I completely agree with your comment on birthing positions, I moved around and changed positions with all four of my non-medicated, un-complicated births, but I feel it was particularly helpful with my last one, as my water had broke and I had no active contractions and was advised to start Pitocin (which I declined) after several hours of midwife guided movement and activity, labor kicked in on its own (surprise surpirse), and my baby girl was born three hours later, with all of three pushes (as was the case with all my children, I think in part due to lack of epidural which can slow the pushing stage). Bravo for an excellent critique!

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchristina martinez

I recognize that our entertainment outlets have creative license and don't have to be true representations of life (in fact, I'm really glad they aren't, as that would be boring), but I do think these portrayals help reinforce the myths and stereotypes.

While over-the-top story lines and increased drama are key devices to keep audiences interested in shows, I can't see how mocking a mom's desire for a med-free birth and reinforcing the idea that women shouldn't be informed decision makers in their own births are "dramatic." In fact, this story line is so predictably tried-and-true that not only would showing something different help break down those stereotypes, but it might also be more entertaining.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBalancingJane

The satirized story was very similar to my birth 3 months ago when our all natural, hypno-water birth turned into an emergency c-section. Fortunately I had a wonderful MidWife who explained in detail why the c-section became our only option (cord wrapped around his neck, facing sideways and couldn't progress beyond -2). Having recently gone through the scrutiny of desiring a natural birth, I feel like those who have specific views of birth are not easily swayed. There are so many factors influencing perceptions of birth in this country and I think the most influential people are close friends and family, not short lived sitcoms. I must admit it did bring a tear to my eye when she was told she had to have the c-section and comforted by her husband. I remember that brief feeling of defeat before brushing aside my selfish feelings for the good of my unborn child.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristy @ Organized Mama

Good point about Baby Story. I think that show particularly reinforces the stereotypes because of the "reality" perspective. I remember watching a few when I first found out I was pregnant and forcing myself to stop because it seemed like every episode ended with a dramatic crisis--not how I wanted to imagine my impending birth.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBalancingJane

In order for something to be satire, it needs to be CLEAR that they're going over-the-top. I didn't watch the episode, but from your description this doesn't sound that dramaticized... it sounds like almost every birth story I hear from friends who went to a hospital. In fact, this "birth story" plays perfectly into the stereotype so many hospitals seem to have-- that it's the women who try to "control everything" with their "silly" birth plans, who ALWAYS end up under the knife.

Nope, this was not humor, it was further normalizing the sad state of our birth system.

One other problem I see here 9and again, i didn't see the actual episode, am just going by your description) is it sounds like Reagan was also one of the many, many moms who say they want a natural birth, but don't seem to know what to do to prepare themselves for one. I think this is one of the big problems we have today, and helps perpetuate this self-fulfilling prophecy. I hear so many stories of women who said they had wanted a natural birth, but "ended up" with an epidural or c-section... as if it's inevitable. Yet these same women often didn't do an extended birth class geared to teaching pain-relief techniques. They didn't look into hiring a doula. The truth is you have little hope of having a natural, med-free birth if you don't know what to do to help your odds-- especially in a hospital setting, where THEY certainly aren't going to help you. I don't mean to blame the women, they are simply the victims of the exact myths perpetuated by this TV show. We need to get through to women and help them figure out how to best increase your chances of achieving the birth goals you want.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

So I tweeted this post and a friend replied saying that apparently the show Parenthood had a birth last week, and it was quick, easy, no drugs. Did you see it? Same friend also said that they're babywearing and co-sleeping in this week's Up All Night, looking forward to your recap of that (since I have no time for tv...).

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

Here is my question: If she had an 18 page birth plan, why didn't she feel comfortable watching a birth, why wasn't she moving around and why did she get to the hospital so quick? If she was informed enough to write 18 pages, she should have known enough to do all that right? I watched this episode and that all stood out to me.

As for her being "stoned" I think it was more that she was exhausted and when she finally got relief from the pain she was really out of it.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie @ Mama Dweeb

I saw this episode, and was pretty put-off by the myths they perpetuated. However, when it came to the portrayal of the c-section, I flat out sobbed. I cried for the romanticized version of what it's really like; I cried because I didn't get the music or the connected moment with my husband, or to hear my babies cry after they were cut out of me. Obviously I am still working through my birth-issues, but I also cried because this show, this "birth"... helped normalize c-sections in a culture where they're already scarily normal.

I think that's a pretty accurate assessment. I did watch the episode and it was definitely NOT blatantly over-the-top, especially not in the technical details.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteraryzha

"I think the most influential people are close friends and family, not short lived sitcoms."
We must all remember that all our close friends and family have also watched this and other shows of various successes/movies and that affects how they talk to us about birth. TV and media of all sorts are very influential to the day to day concepts and comments of even those who work in a hospital despite formal obstetrics education.
I did end up with a c-section for my first birth and that is debatable that I really needed it at all. I did not feel like I was giving up something for the health of my child by capitulation. I feel the entire standard of care in mainstream maternity care was/is not based in evidenced practices.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi

Ugh, I try to never watch births on TV - they always offend me. An eighteen page birth plan? Because of course women who want a say in their own childbirth are delusional control freaks? Blah.
Marcy's points about women wanting natural births but not being informed about how to make them happen are great.
I didn't see the episode, but stoned after an epidural sounds just plain inaccurate to me. I certainly wasn't after I had one when I gave birth to my second child. But when I gave birth to my first child in a simple, drug-free birth, then I was pretty stoned. Those endorphins are powerful stuff.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

The one part that bothered me most was Chris constantly asking Reagan if she wanted an epidural. I wish he would have supported her decision better. The part where his colleague asks him if he's "going to give up his identity to change diapers" didn't bother me as much because in the end Chris was really excited to be a father and decided to stay home anyway.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

I got that impression from her "stoned" demeanor. Just exhausted enough to be loopy. I'm sure I sounded a little stoned after I finally got an epidural after being awake over 24 hrs and having back labor for the last 10 hrs or so.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

I felt like this episode was actually pretty accurate about how women/couples often feel and how hospitals act. At least she had a birth plan - some women still don't know that they can make decisions and choices during their child's birth. Also, at the end, Chris looks during the birth, and tells Reagan it is beautiful. I think many women are very afraid that they look gross during the birthing process, and at least Chris didn't pass out or something like the stereotype shown throughout the 80s and 90s. In addition, women are often not given the choice about c-sections, especially if a woman really did push for 4 hours.

I actually look and felt stoned when I got my epidural. I was so unbelievably calm, which was in sharp contrast to the hours before I had the epidural. I didn't even recognize myself when I saw myself on the video. My words were slurred and I was very zen-like about everything :) I think I was exhausted from the hours of pitocin-induced contractions that I was just happy once I got the epidural.

With this show, I'm finding that Reagan and Chris are too normal, and that this show isn't exaggerating enough, and I'm really not finding it to be that humorous. The show is just too relatable to be funny. They need to make fun of themselves more.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHolly

An ob/gyn, who claimed to have had the first epidural in Israel, attended the birth of her grandchild. Epidurals are good, she wrote, because of how traumatic it is for the father and grandmother to see the mother in pain.
Why did the writers decide to give her a c-section? To make the story more dramatic? More realistic :)? Or for some other plot reason?

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHannah @A Mother in Israel

The writers for this show are not going to be winning any Emmy's anytime soon, that's for sure. Major lack of originality in this birth episode and for the show in general. Because every thing that happened to Reagan and Chris is so standard in America, it was so boring! They need to think outside the box, à la Modern Family, push some boundaries a bit. So many opportunities to be funny on the subject of birth, babies, family life, by making fun of the norm or exploring alternatives. I think this show will be cancelled soon.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichy

Her birth plan was probably more about what kind of music would play, the decor, her "headband" and all the cute and frilly details...it's clear she wasn't prepared for a real med-free birth. If she was, her husband would have been way more on board and not encouraging her to take the epidural right off the bat because they would have done classes to prepare them. I really don't understand how people think they're going to "try" for a "natural birth" in a hospital without the right education and preparation. It's not something that most modern women can "just do" precisely because of all the weird cultural baggage like was shown so nonchalantly on the show. It's almost as if women wanting a drug-free "natural" birth have to de-program themselves...

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

Personally, I thought the episode was hilarious. I've given birth twice and I saw a lot of myself. I think they portrayed an average hospital birth for an average first birth experience, and yes they definatly gave into a lot of stereotypes and they over exaggerated, (I've never known anyone to go so loopy from an epidural.) But it is a comedy for mainstream audiences, they aren't trying to educate women or change the birthing experience.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDenise

I think it is very difficult for parters to watch their significant other in so much pain. The pain of childbirth is different for every person, as is the way women react. And for some couples, it may be the first time one is seeing his/her parter in such great pain, or in their reactions to pain. The non-birthing partner can feel helpless - they can't take away the pain, they can't help, they aren't the ones birthing. Offering an epidural (since it's right there, available, in the hospital, and has probably already been offered by the nurse/doctor, and gone over extensively in hospital childbirth classes) was likely a knee-jerk reaction to trying to ease his wife's pain. No one likes to see their loved one in pain.

That being said, I've never seen the show. I just don't think that a husband suggesting an epidural is not being supportive. If they wanted non-drug pain relief support, hiring a doula and taking lamaze or hypnobirthing classes would have been a good idea. Just arriving at the hospital without preparation, what is a husband who's never experienced birth before supposed to suggest?

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

Exactly. Any first-timer wanting to do a drug-free birth needs to take a class.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

I tend to agree with you here. I don't know about the American audience, but the people I know tend to roll their eyes at this kind of episode, just as we rolled our eyes when Rachel decided not to go to France so she could stay home and be with Ross at the end of Friends. I wouldn't expect anything different, because I think this show is aimed at the mainstream and probably really afraid they would alienate their audience if they tried anything different, but it would really be refreshing if they would buck even one stereotype.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterallison

Sounds like every birth story and every TV show ever. Not pushing the envelope by any stretch of the imagination. While there were unrealistic elements to the births on Friends (for example), I have to give them some credit for having vaginal birth and breastfeeding be the norm for their characters, although Phoebe's vaginal birth of triplets and Rachel's SURPRISE BREECH strain credibility for sure.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElaine

I actually agree with most everything written here. While I somewhat enjoy this show, I definitely think some of the writing and dialogue is a little naive and mildly inflammatory despite the attempt to be humorous. These are supposed to be intelligent, accomplished people but they always seem so dumb when talking to each other.

I don't think it's fair to knock people who think birth is gross, though. The blood, the tissue, the fluids - it's very messy. And some people find that kinda thing gross, especially if they're not expecting it and/or nauseated and/or in pain.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentershasta

Two things:
1) When I got my epidural with my second, I remember the anes. telling me he added "a little something" to the drip (I assume the IV drip) to help me while the epi kicked in. And my husband told me that he assumed it was narcotics since I was acting quite stoned afterwards.

2) I walked into the hospital at 7 cm and dilated to 9 cm before I got the epidural -- and the only comfortable position for me during that was sitting STRAIGHT up in the bed. It hurt incredibly much to even try to move my legs/hips around.

So those two points to me were quite realistic while I was watching, even if they aren't what most people experience.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersharah

Wow. You really hit on everything I noticed this past episode. I particularly found the rushing to the hospital and being stoned on an epidural to be hilarious. I always thought it weird that there is a big rush scene in every media portrayal of birth. Most of the time, you have time! Also, as far as being stoned, I didn't experience that either. My epidural worked wonderfully. I could still feel my contractions very minimally, I never lost feeling in my legs, I had no adverse effects. However, I will say my epidural fell out and I had no idea...maybe that's why it worked so well...


October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenna@CallHerHappy

"This story line is so predictably tried-and-true that not only would showing something different help break down those stereotypes, but it might also be more entertaining."

Good point. I completely agree.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I agree. I have often been at baby showers where everyone is talking about their necessary c-section (perhaps, perhaps not) and about how AMAZING the epidural is and that you should never give birth without it. It is hard to speak up as a lone voice in that type of crowd and say that my natural birth was actually easier and better than my epidural birth.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I agree. Good point about the deprogramming.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I don't know, Hannah. I think it was to show those "crazy" women with the 18 page birth plans that it is just silly to think that you can plan your birth. Which, I agree with to some extent. However, that doesn't mean that it is silly to prepare properly for a birth and I think that is what was missing here. They didn't differentiate between preparing and needing to be in control.

I wrote about that at length in my post about birth plans: http://www.phdinparenting.com/2008/09/14/birth-plan-yes-or-no/

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I love Modern Family too. :)

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I wish comedies for mainstream audiences tried to change the world. That would be awesome.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I was actually incredibly moved by the birth, simply because, as a woman who had a c-section, I don't recall ever seeing one portrayed in the mainstream media before. Or, if I did, it was before I had a c-section, so I wasn't paying attention. Does it normalize the way many births happen in our society? Yes, I guess it does. But as someone who was very prepared to have a natural birth and then had it go all wrong, it was very moving for me to see a story similar to mine. Things that I thought were "not at all the norm" for a mainstream media portrayal of a birth:
- Reagan didn't immediately appear to go into transition and freak out with insane contractions
- I actually didn't think she was in a hurry to get to the hospital (compared to most media portrayals)
- Nor did her water break and then she immediately rushed to the hospital
- She was talking in between contractions throughout labor and making decisions. She seemed very empowered to me.
- Okay, so she wasn't on a birth ball, but I was amazed to see her sitting up in a chair and sitting almost upright in the bed. You never see that. Women are always flat on their backs.
- To me, she accurately portrayed what it's like to feel frustrated that your plan didn't work out
- She was resistant to having a c-section, even if it didn't work out in the end

So, all in all, was this a super natural birth a la natural birthing videos, no? Does is accurately reflect many of the births that happen in this country? Absolutely. I was thrilled to see it.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCaela

For whatever it is worth I had two totally med free births and never took a single pain management class. I knew I could do it and I did. I did, read a few books and watch a few births on video though.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterUpstatemamma

I was thinking the exact same things. Seriously, the exact same, to the point that my own rehashing would just repeat your excellent post. :)

But, just to draw out the worst to me: I do think this birth is normal for U.S. births, and that makes me sad. And I also kept rooting for Reagan to stand up already. Like, literally. When she's pushing and the baby's not descending, gravity could really help! Unfortunately, people in TV land never hear me yelling through the screen.

October 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauren @ Hobo Mama

The episode really bothered and annoyed me, and I'm not usually bothered much by tv shows. I'm so happy to see your posts related to each episode and I hope someone affiliated with the show reads them and makes some improvements. Or, better yet, creates a whole new & better show! Hmm, what do you think are the odds of that? haha.

Having had a c-section much in the same way as portrayed on this show made that particular segment of the episode hard for me to watch. When I see women having them in that way, whether in real life or on tv, I find it very hard to not feel a mixture of sadness and anger.

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJaime

I meant to check for this after that episode because it bothered me quite a bit. I've grown to actually like this show, despite the fact that they very rarely seemed to have, you know, the baby in it! It seems sometimes more like a show about a guy and his TV producer wife than it does about a family with a young baby in it. But, despite the flaws, I think there is a lot of humor. When Reagan gets the "hot" OB and starts talking about how things are going to get "real. I mean REALLY real" and Chris whispers "I think she's talking about POOP") I lost my mind. Too funny. (And yes, too real.)

But I was piqued at the portrayal of the birth. On the one hand, I actually thought the way they handled the c-section itself was well done. But most of the stuff leading up to that point was just annoying. I don't care if she seemed loopy on the epidural - dramatic license and all . What bothered me was that the show almost seemed to have an axe to grind against natural birthing moms. Reagan seemed like a caricature of a natural birthing wannabe mom drawn by someone who really thinks those things are true - that natural birthing moms want it all to be about them, they want to be a superhero (Reagan's comments about they were going to push baby out in 5 minutes), 18 page birth plan, etc.

I had no problem with them thinking birth was gross or with them mocking the people in the birthing videos. My husband and I got a lot of laughs out of the dated pictures of overly tanned hairy people from the 70's in our bradley books and before I had my birth and learned a lot about it, I too kind of thought the whole thing was a bit "gross." But...

anyway, this comment is getting long and rambling but I think I wouldn't have minded if they were just trying to score some laughs off of a stereotype, but they went far enough that I suspect someone, whether one of the actors or the writer of the show, might be one of those moms I encounter on message board who has active vitriol for someone who "thinks she can plan birth," or "wants to be a superhero" etc.

But, maybe I'm being too sensitive. I do like this show, though I have a hard time relating to the characters as parents, I like them as people. The show has a lot of funny stuff going for it that I'm overlooking the birth.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterF.B.

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