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).