Welcome to the Back to School for Writers blog series. Every Wednesday until the end of September, a guest poster will share their knowledge and expertise on a specific topic. Today’s guest is Liv Rancourt. Welcome, Liv!
I WISH Birth Looked Like TV
Thanks, Rabia, for having me on your blog. Since your theme is Back to School for Writers, I wanted to talk a little about a topic I deal with on a daily basis and the disconnect between reality and the way it’s portrayed in the media.
My daughter is a big fan of the TV show Bones, and has watched many if not all the episodes. In the 2011 season finale, Bones gavebirth to a baby girl. She and her partner Booth were in a barn in the middle of nowhere when the baby arrived. On his own, Booth prepared to attend the birth, and after a series of discrete camera angles, there was a lovely baby cradled in the arms of her weary mother, the brave father reclining at her side.
Um, yeah. In case you were curious, that’s not exactly how it goes.
In reality, giving birth is a hard and glorious thing. I know this from both personal and professional experience. I have the enormous privilege of witnessing deliveries almost every time I go to work, and while I don’t want to violate anyone’s privacy, I’d like to share some observations about what birth is not…and what it is…
Birth is not a political act, regardless of what you’re told in your birthing classes. There are as many ways to have a good birth as there are women having babies. People will share opinions about everything from the place the baby is born to the use of pain control medications to clothe diapers vs. disposables. And really, the important thing is to have a healthy baby, right? My observation is that people who approach things with that attitude – who aren’t hung up on living out their fantasy birth – are better able to cope with whatever the outcome.
Birth is messy. St Augustine said, “Inter faeces et uriname nascimur.” Between shit and piss we are born, and while smell obviously doesn’t translate to the movie screen, it’s definitely part of the real birth experience. So is blood, and sweat, and sometimes pus, and other less-appealing matter.
It can be loud, too. In addition to the laboring woman, you’ll hear the father and attendants coaching and cheering her on. I can usually tell when Mom is getting close to delivering because the pitch drops and her cries become grunts. I’ve heard older nurses talk about the days before epidurals became common when “women used to scream babies out.” It’s a raw experience, and I have yet to see a dramatization that comes close to capturing what really goes down.
Birth is not safe. Wikipedia cites the most recent infant mortality rate in the US at about 7/1000 live births. Canada does better with 5.3 infant deaths per 1000 live births, while at the other end of the scale, Afghanistan has an infant mortality rate of 144 babies per 1000 live births. Equally concerning are the statistics for mothers. The maternal mortality ratio looks at the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. For 2003, those numbers range from 2000 deaths per 100,000 live births in Sierra Leone to 0/100,000 in Ireland.
Something about statistics: it’s real hard to drill down a cluster of numbers to ONE individual birth experience. As a neonatal provider, I only get invited to someone’s first birthday party if they meet certain criteria. There have to be risk factors, indicators that something could be going wrong. And I’ll tell you what, even after fifteen years of doing this job, when I hear the baby’s heartrate start to slow down as Mom is pushing and see the tension in the obstetrician’s eyes, my insides clutch and I start praying. A couple quick Hail Mary’s help me focus and keep me from hearing the pleading in Dad’s voice or from seeing the tears in Grandma’s eyes.
That’s the part that the media NEVER gets right. Regardless of the type of birth you choose, there’s only so much you can control, and it’s that struggle, with the possibility of disaster hanging out in the corner of the room, that makes birth so scary. It’s also incredibly humbling, as again and again I witness this miraculous occurrence.
And birth is a miracle, folks. Whether your baby is an eight pound cherub delivered in your bedroom at home or a one pound peanut delivered in a major medical center, it is one of the few truly universal experiences. You get any group of mothers together, and sooner or later they start swapping birth stories. It’s a bonding thing, a rite of passage. And every birth I’ve ever attended has brought up deep emotions for the people involved. I can’t say they’ve all been positive feelings, but it’s never a neutral thing.
On an intellectual level I understand why they don’t show the reality of birth on network television. They don’t need to. Seeing Bones and Booth on the ground in a barn with their new baby gives us an outline, and lets those of us who have been through it fill in the raw, messy, scary bits. Every time I watch an episode like that, however, I end up shaking my head. The portrayal would be so much richer if they’d just get a few more of the details right.
So how do you create a realistic portrayal of a birth? With such an overwhelming experience, it’s easy to fall into melodrama or rely on clichés. The best approach should start from the truth. If you’ve never given birth before, ask those who have what happened and how it went. Most women are willing to talk about their birth experience and will share possibly more than you ever wanted to know. Did they have problems with preterm labor, high blood pressure, or diabetes? How did they know they were in labor? It doesn’t always start with a broken bag of waters. How did they cope with the pain? You can learn a lot from real-life experiences.
For a concrete template, Wikipedia has a nice write-up on Childbirth, which gives an overview of the process and explains many pertinent terms. Each birth is unique, and a woman who has given birth to more than one child has more than one story. My daughter was born a month early. I had several days of early labor before my water broke and things began to progress. My son was a week late – isn’t that just like a guy? – and I had to get mad at God before labor would start. The one common element was how little I could control in either situation. Well, that and the pain. And the incredible peace and joy I felt, holding a new little person in my arms.
Birth is a complicated process and the media rarely gets it right. To create a realistic portrayal of birth, start from the truth, using a few smelly, painful, frightening, joyful details. Remember that most of the time the outcome is beautiful, except when it’s truly devastating. It’s that fear, the wild-card element, that makes it so humbling. If you can capture that in your writing, then you really are creating art.
Liv Rancourt writes paranormal and romance, often at the same time. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, two cats and one wayward puppy. She likes to create stories that have happy endings, and finds it is a good way to balance her other job in the neonatal intensive care unit. Liv can be found on-line at her website (www.livrancourt.com), her blog (www.liv-rancourt.blogspot.com), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/liv.rancourt), or on Twitter (www.twitter.com/LivRancourt).
Thanks for this post, Liv! This is a topic I feel strongly about, having had three very different childbirth experiences. I am personally tired of the “help! my water broke and the baby’s coming in the next five minutes!” trope in TV and film. Yes, that *sometimes* happens, but mostly labor is a pretty long process, more akin to a marathon than a sprint.
The reminder that birth is not safe is a sobering one. For a long time, infant mortality was really high, and women frequently died in childbirth. I don’t see that depicted in pseudo-medieval fantasy and historical fiction as much as the time period warrants. I confess, I am a little pessimistic at the end of historical romances–I mean, the chances of the woman in the couple dying in childbirth within a year or so was pretty high! But of course that isn’t part of the HEA, so the epilogues always conclude with happy families with strong, handsome sons and beautiful, spirited daughters (which may be unrealistic but more emotionally satisfying!).
Liv Rancourt says
Thanks again for the opportunity to post on your blog, Rabia. I think part of the difficulty with portraying birth has to do with the need for speed. The plot outline might say, ‘and then she had the baby,” before moving on to the next plot point, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for describing or developing HOW she went about having that baby. It’s a tricky thing.
Right. It depends on the genre and tone of the story. In a fantasy, all you may need to know is “The Queen had a baby, and then died.” In women’s fiction, if you’re deep inside your character’s POV, you’d want more detail.
Also, mothers of young children as main characters are not common in fiction, especially not in speculative fiction. I understand the limitations, of course, but I’d love to see them done well–or even done at all!
Amber Kallyn says
Awesome points. You made me tear up when you talked about your job. Brave woman. I think with media, including books, a lot of things are glossed over – partly because, books or TV, it takes us to another (sometimes better & happier) place then the real world. We read as a kind of escape, and we don’t want the harsh realities of life meeting us there 🙂 At least, that’s me, LOL. Thanks for sharing.
Liv Rancourt says
Good point, Amber. I mean, part of the reason I like to read and write paranormal is because the fantasy element gives you a safety net – none of the bad things could actually happen in real life. I just think there’s a middle ground between “harsh realities” and “didn’t I see this once on a Saturday morning cartoon?” Thanks so much for checking out the post!
Suzanne Stengl says
I agree. TV birth just doesn’t cut it. RE: Bones & Booth – I thought the “baby born in a manager” was a bit much.
But I do wonder how they get the infants for TV. They don’t look like dolls. They don’t look like newly born either. I think they look closer to a month old, but really can’t tell.
How would you audition for that sort of thing?
Liv Rancourt says
Aha! Success through google. Found a 2007 article from Slate.com (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2007/06/where_do_hollywood_babies_come_from.html) that says California infants as young as 15 days old can be on set, as long as they have a note from a physician and a work permit, though some states have NO limits. They are limited to very short periods – like, 20 minutes a day – in front of the camera, and (blessedly) there are limits to what can be applied to their bodies (jelly, cream cheese) to imitate birth scenes. Funny, they always look so cleaned up when I see them on camera. And at a guess I’d say there are parents out there who sign their kids up with agencies as soon as they can. Different strokes, I guess (I almost typed ‘storks’…oops).
Thanks for looking that up, Liv! I figured there were laws about infant props… er, actors, but I’m surprised that some states have no limits. O.o
And, truth be told, older babies probably are more photogenic (camera-genic?) than the wrinkly, red newborns with their funny-shaped heads. The exceptions being my three children, who were, of course, perfect from day one. 😉
Tami Clayton says
What a job you have, Liv. Makes my job in mental health look easy. 😉 I’m glad you shed some light on this, especially because I adopted my two girls and don’t have any stories to compare or draw from. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
Liv Rancourt says
Wait a minute, Tami, you actually have to deal with patients who can talk. I’m thinking my job is easier from that standpoint.
Thanks for checking in!
I don’t know why it is, but women who’ve given birth are (mostly) more than happy to share about their experiences. Even me, though I am normally reticent about such private matters. It’s like swapping war stories. 😀
Suzanne Stengl says
yes, Rabia, war stories. And Liv, the poor little babes in the cream cheese and jelly. They really do have weird “storks”!
Lisa Ahn says
I love the truth in this. And thank you for being a neonatal specialist. My first daughter was high risk and we had 5 neonatal people in the delivery room to help clear her lungs and get her on a safe start. She was and is a miracle. My second daughter arrived before the epidural kicked in and I screamed her into the world. I’m glad to see a post that really explores the complexities of giving birth — and I love your first point about birth not being political. Both my girls had to be induced, which led to more interventions and a far-from-“natural” experience. But they are both healthy and happy. And so am I.
Stories like yours make me so so grateful about the advances in modern medicine. I had a brother who died because he was very premature. If he’d been born today, he might’ve lived.
Lisa Ahn says
I’m so sorry, Rabia.
We were very lucky and blessed with R’s birth. She really is a miracle baby.