Pregnancy and Childbirth in Books and Movies
This is something that has been getting under my skin for… well, since I had my first son in 2006. Pregnancy and childbirth are often represented in books and movies, and they are usually MISrepresented. Which, frankly, is really irritating. Pregnancy is a very diverse experience, childbirth is a diverse experience. Even one woman will experience multiple pregnancies and childbirths in radically different ways.
This means there are literally MILLIONS of ways to get this right, and yet authors (almost invariably male) still manage to get it wrong. So very, very wrong.
Today, I’m dispelling some of the most common pop-culture errors about pregnancy and childbirth. Most of these are pervasive – i.e. they are repeated by multiple writers, across genres, with no regard for the truth. Use this post as a general set of guidelines, especially if you have no idea how pregnancy and childbirth works.
Error #1: “THE BABY KICKED!” This usually is shown when the woman is verrrrrry far along in her pregnancy, visibly and obviously pregnant. She then doubles over and grabs at her stomach and everyone freaks out and she says, “NO! The baby just kicked for the first time!”
The (more common) truth: Baby is kicking from the second it has gummy-bear sized limbs to kick with. Depending on how and where the placenta and embryonic sac are placed within the womb, mom will feel the baby kick sometime between sixteen and twenty weeks. From that moment – the moment she first feels baby move – it is gymnastics meet/dance party. Some movements will be bigger than others. Some are hardly noticeable. But let’s put it this way: I felt when my babies had hiccups, I could tell whether it was a foot or arm or butt that was pushing on me, and I could tell when they were “swimming” around.
Error #2: “MY WATER JUST BROKE!” It seems like most labors start with a woman’s water breaking, it’s a big embarrassing mess, and then she is immediately whisked away to the hospital.
The (more common) truth: Less than 10% of women experience their water breaking as a beginning to their labor. When they do, it’s usually a trickle of the “Oh my gosh, did I accidentally pee my pants a little???” variety.
Most labors start with a “Was that a contraction?” contraction. And those contractions are far apart and annoying for hours. They slowly get stronger and closer together until you call your doctor and he says, “Yes. You’re ready, go to the hospital.” That early-at-home-annoying-but-not-really-ready-yet labor lasts for HOURS. Most women spend something like 6-12ish hours in this phase.
“Normal” labor can last anywhere from one hour to a hundred hours (literally), and the early stages are very, very boring.
Error #3: YOU DID THIS TO ME!!! Every fictional woman in labor is screaming and blaming the world, particularly her husband, for her plight.
The (more common) truth: Women in labor don’t have the energy or brainpower to spare for screaming coherently at anybody. Most women – even giving natural birth – are fairly quiet. Grunts, moans, whimpers, and crying are common. You can speak normally, except maybe through the “transitional” phase (if you don’t know what that is, don’t sweat it, it’s not a huge deal). You just probably don’t want to. The instinct is to rest between contractions, not to scream at the one person who is supporting you, both physically and emotionally.
Most women who give birth naturally report it being a very peaceful, quiet experience. This is extremely important to remember if you write historical fiction. Speaking of historical fiction…
Error #4: Flat on her back. Fictional characters always deliver babies while lying flat on their backs. This experience is almost exclusively limited to modern, westernized medicine, and even then it’s only the norm for women who have epidurals and other interventions during labor.
The (more common) truth: Natural childbirth – which makes up 99% of childbirths in the history of the world – is usually accomplished in a squatting/sitting position.
Note: Kudos to Michelle Moran who managed to get the births in her historicals much more accurate.
Error #5: The postpartum body. This one is especially bad because we have such insane expectations of a woman’s body to begin with. In fiction, women are back in their pre-pregnancy jeans without so much as an ounce of effort after only a few weeks (or even days!) Scarlett O’Hara achieves a nineteen-inch waist just four weeks postpartum, and every new mommy on TV has nothing but huge breasts to show for her pregnancy.
The (more common) truth: It takes many, many weeks or months to get your body back. Some women never achieve it without surgical assistance. I have a diastasis, meaning my abdominal muscles now have a three inch gap between them, forcing those muscles to bow outward, forever changing the shape of my midsection.
Yes. Some women bounce back quickly. Some look better than ever post-baby. But I have a friend who is a dietitian and personal trainer and she is six months postpartum. She still doesn’t look exactly like she did before (she looks great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just not the same).
What are some of the more common errors you’ve seen in fictional pregnancies and childbirth?