When I was younger, I believed that the youth in big cities partied all the time, that women in the publishing industry had the best romances, and that even the most dysfunctional families could mend themselves during Christmas. These were the harmless things that TV taught me. As a grown up, I’d laughed at myself for believing them.
Although sometimes, I missed watching movies and TV shows with childlike innocence, without a smidgen of doubt about its accuracy or even its responsibility. But that was only until I became pregnant. Having never seen anyone’s pregnancy journey from close quarters, I caught myself being constantly surprised every step of the way. The lessons I’d internalized from years of watching TV pregnancies unraveled rapidly.
The irresponsible way in which pregnancies are portrayed and the naiveté with which I consumed them lead me to discover the hilarious, shocking, and mind-boggling lies TV perpetuated.
Lie #1 Hiding your pregnancy is so easy
Countless Tamil movies have sequences where the wife surprises her husband with the pregnancy announcement, usually after three months. I have several questions – did the wife fake her period for 3 months? If yes, did it include taking multiple bathroom breaks and complaining about non-existent cramps? If no, how unobservant was the husband to not notice that his wife hadn’t had her periods for 3 months? How did she hide her morning sickness and aversion to food, which are usually the worst during the first trimester? Did she really deprive her husband the experience of being there for her and the baby during their first hospital visit just so she could throw him a surprise? Speaking of which…
Lie #2 Your first hospital visit will be magical
My first visit to the hospital was fraught with tension because I had on and off spotting and was called in at 5 weeks (it usually happens between 6 and 8 weeks but during the COVID lockdown, doctors encouraged later visits for uncomplicated pregnancies). Inspite of the stress, I was very excited to see the ultrasound. I knew the drill from so many American TV shows. The doctor will apply a gel on the woman’s abdomen and use a probe to form an image of the uterus. A supportive partner or friend usually holds the woman’s hand as they listen to the tiny heart beat for the first time and weep with joy.
My first clue that Indian reality is very different than American TV show came when the gynaecologist sent me to the ‘Scan Area’ where R and I waited with several other pregnant women. When our turn came, we were told that partners were to wait outside. I went in alone and was instructed to remove my pants. I don’t know how I rationalised that to myself because I realized, only as it was happening, that it was a transvaginal scan; an invasive scan as opposed to the abdominal scan that we are used to watching on TV. Suffice to say that I was very unpleasantly surprised. The ultrasound doctor barely confirmed my pregnancy before the next person was sent in.
Lie #3 C-sections never happen
The number of C-section deliveries have been on the rise for years, so much so that it is being called an epidemic. But you never see it on TV. No matter how complicated the pregnancy is, for dramatic effect, the babies in movies and TV shows are always delivered vaginally. It is sometimes used to move the plot along, like when the child’s birth causes the mother’s death leading to the baby growing up to be a complicated antihero. Sometimes, it is used for comedy – Ha ha ha look at a woman screaming during the most painful moment of her life ha ha ha!
We’ve seen more home births (that are rare in urban settings) on screen than C-sections. Granted a closed door surgery and a lengthy recovery may not be ideal for entertainment. But I do think that this contributes to the bad rep C-sections already get.
Lie #4 Last moment changes to the birth plan are hilarious
I planned and planned for 9 months. I ate the right things, exercised, read up about birth extensively, talked to the doctor and made a plan that was best for the baby and me. According to this plan, my husband was supposed to be right next to me during birth and his reassuring presence was something I was counting on. We learned, when I was about to get an emergency C-section, that he wasn’t going to be allowed in during the surgery. We didn’t even get a moment to talk to each other before I was wheeled into the operating theatre.
When you find out, moments before birth, that your doctor is not available or the hospital has run out of epidural or you have a complication or your partner cannot be with you, it can be really scary. If things go wrong, it can cause lifelong trauma. But often, changes in birth plan are the foundation of childbirth episodes in sitcoms. Dramatizing it is not much better. Having your baby delivered on a ping pong table by a bunch of unqualified engineering students just so your father can appreciate their genius? It’s obvious that these plots are never written by mothers, or even anyone who’s been a part of someone’s birth plan.
Lie #5 You will love your baby at first sight
When I was pregnant, I didn’t feel very connected to the baby. In the first few months, it felt like an alien was growing inside me making me feel queasy all the time. But I never, for a second, doubted that I might feel that way after the baby was born. Falling in love with your baby is easy according to every movie and TV show. In fact, this attachment towards the baby helps women forget the pain of childbirth. So when I did not feel any rush of loving feelings towards my baby as soon as she was born, I felt like a bad mother.
There were no tears of joy when I held her for the first time – I was too dehydrated to make tears anyway. I felt relief that she was okay and I thought she was cute but that was about it. Since I was recovering from the surgery, she spent most of the time being cared for and adored by my parents, my husband, and his parents. She was only brought to me when she was crying for milk. I remember thinking of her as a very needy toy. Taking care of her was a job for me. A job to which I devoted myself fully, but a job nonetheless. It took a full month of recovery and getting to know her as a tiny person for me fall in love with the baby. On top of everything a new mom is dealing with in the first month, she has to bear the burden society’s unreasonable expectation (fuelled by what we see on TV) that she is supposed to love the baby at first sight.
Lie #6 Breastfeeding is a breeze
Apart from one perfunctory shot of a mother feeding the newborn, none of the shows I watched made a big deal out of breastfeeding. So I thought it was easy.
Did you know that newborns needed feeding every 2 hours and that each feeding lasts around 20-30 mins? I learned this interesting fact when I was feeding my baby for the very first time. The most you can do when you are recovering from a surgery in between feedings is go pee. By the time you make your way to the loo and back, your baby is crying. By the time you soothe her, it’s time for another feed!
Baby’s first day out in the world is hard for her and you. But somehow the second day is worse. By the second night, the baby has fed enough times that your nipples are cracking. You are supposed to hold this new, delicate, squirming baby up so she can latch on to your breast when you can barely hold yourself up. Every feed is painful, every suck sending a shooting pain up your back.
It continued to be difficult for at least three weeks. The road to discovering that breastfeeding is the best way to bond with the baby was long and filled with moments when my baby and I learned from each other. Maybe some moms and babies are good at this instinctually and maybe those are the moms they show on TV. But most of us are not so fortunate.
Lie #7 Baby blues don’t exist
When I was pregnant, I was amazed by my body’s ability to create and nurture a baby without my conscious thought. Although it caused discomfort, the fact that my internal organs moved to accommodate my growing womb and loosened muscles to prepare for birth fascinated me. I tried my best to not think about the pain that was to come.
I read exclusively about recovering from vaginal labour as it would cause the most pain. I didn’t bother reading about recovering from a C-section; it was supposed to be easy after all. After the first few hours of my surgery, when I was happily high on the medications, pain and anxiety about the pain dogged my every step (which could best be described as a shuffle) the whole week. For the first time in my life, I felt like my body had let me down. Taking care of the baby now required conscious thought and effort. Try as I might, I did not have the power to rework 9 months of changes my body went through in a few days.
Imagine being given the biggest responsibility of your life when you are at your lowest. Serena Williams said it best in her birth story: “Consider for a moment that your body is one of the greatest things on the planet, and you’re trapped in it.”
Emotions hit me like waves constantly. Some of these emotions were negative and the guilt of feeling them and not being able to talk about them out loud was suffocating. It’s only way out was tears. I cried and cried and cried. I cried when I was alone, I cried as my husband soothed me, I called my friend and cried, I cried as I fed my baby and I cried myself to sleep. During the first week of my child’s life, the world was blurry to me. So the next time you see a show where a couple goes back to doing the same antics as they did before the birth, know that it is a big fat lie.
I wanted to end this post by saying that inspite of all the hardships and being blindsided by the pregnancies I saw on TV, ‘the little bundle of joy made it all worth it’. Have you noticed how every mother says that when they share a little bit of the difficulties they faced? A part of them is worried if they don’t express gratitude for everything that happened for their child to be born, the world will judge them. But another bigger part of them is convinced that if they don’t feel that it was all worth it, they are a bad mother.
It must be okay to wish for less pain or for things to have happened differently in their journey towards having their baby. New mothers will find this easier to accept if their friends and family can support them without judgement. For that alone, an accurate portrayal of pregnancy and childbirth in the books, movies and TV shows we love will go a long way.