Too Real for Reality TV

Watching outdoor births on YouTube is fantastic. On Lifetime, not so much.

There are few experiences more simultaneously universalizing and polarizing than childbirth.

Photo by iStock

At the beached-manatee stage of my recent pregnancy, I did what countless other expectant mothers do when they can no longer mount or dismount furniture without a spotter: I ate my considerable weight in gummy pandas, and I binge-watched Castle (which everyone knows is the best show for pregnant ladies and geriatrics to fall asleep to). And when I awoke, I read birth stories and watched birth videos. A lot of birth stories and a lot of birth videos. Water births. Unassisted homebirths. And the grand doula of them all: this (extremely NSFW) video of Australian Simone Surgeoner, whose fourth child arrives outdoors in a gurgling stream, with only the assistance of a yoga mat and her parents. The baby appears to slide out, purple and decidedly blasé, after three dare-I-say gentle pushes. “That was a hard one,” says a glowing Surgeoner afterward, the way I would refer to a set of burpees at the gym.

Even before I got pregnant, I was transfixed by this video—can a birth really be that simple? Does a woman’s body, as so much of my midwifery literature insisted, just know what to do? And who doesn’t love the outdoors? I wasn’t the only one fascinated: Since it was posted two years ago, “Birth in Nature” has been viewed some 32.8 million times.

Not all 32.8 million of those views come from awestruck new mothers and mothers-to-be such as myself—equal awe at Surgeoner’s unadorned “Earth birth” and at the nonchalance with which her older children frolic in the stream as she labors—although many did. “You were calm, graceful and helped to dispel the fears I had about labour and child birth,” writes new mother Louise in an email Surgeoner shared on her public Facebook page. “ … Your beautiful video helped me discover the innate confidence to trust my body.” Then there were the gawkers and the skeptics, out in full force in the Troll Thunderdome of the YouTube comments section. “What are these kumbaya drum circle freaks thinking?” wrote one. “This is actually the most disturbing thing I’ve seen in my life,” wrote another. “Eew!” “F—ing hippies!” “Why did I click on this?” Yet, they did, over and over again.

I am sure that Yoshi Stone, the executive producer of the Lifetime show Born in the Wild, sought to capitalize on exactly this spectrum of viewers—both the awestruck and the aghast—when he managed to locate six American couples who were planning to birth in the out-of-doors. I’m sure that he assumed the short series would be a hit for being equal parts sensational and aspirational (all right, 80/20). And I can see why: There are few experiences more simultaneously universalizing and polarizing than childbirth. The sheer volume and vehemence of birthing opinion online is actually more disturbing to me—I managed to avoid the Childbirth Internet altogether until the age of 37—than any birthing video. So if you could combine it all, the vehemence and the videos, what could go wrong?

At the top of every episode, the narrator of Born in the Wild promises: “Modern parents, giving birth in the wilderness, like their ancestors” All righty. Yet, having watched the entire six-episode season, my reaction isn’t awe. It isn’t disgust. It’s boredom. Wild? Try tame.

First of all, let’s talk accoutrements. It’s true that many of the couples on the show chose to birth in climates far more inhospitable than the Daintree Rainforest, where Surgeoner was able to squat naked for hours with nary a breeze to chill her nether regions. Still, every setup on Born in the Wild is the home-birthing equivalent of those families who come to the beach and erect the miniature sovereign nations of Giant Tentistan and Behemoth Coolervania and the Democratic Republic of I Brought My TV and Plugged It in Somehow, until you wonder why they came to the beach in the first place. From tricked-out RVs to fully equipped birthing pools to custom-built, heated freestanding edifices, the Lifetime approximation of an Earth birth is a far cry from a yoga mat and a water bottle.  

Secondly, obviously (and Lifetime was clear about this in publicity for the show), the producers provided medevac teams in case anything went awry. And finally—and this was a good idea, but it does dial down the X-Treme Birthing factor—every birth on this show is attended by an experienced midwife; even Audrey, who births unassisted in Alaska, is herself a midwife.

This is not to say these births are identical to your garden-variety hospital experience. All of the mothers on Born in the Wild do indeed labor without the aid of epidurals or surgical interventions (both of which I had in the hospital), and their babies arrive without major complications (although one mother, Hailee, does suffer a rather alarming postpartum hemorrhage). And each participant seems truly delighted with her experience. “I can’t imagine anything else in this world that’s more worth it,” says Arizona mother Amy, who delivers her ninth child to a soundtrack of elk calls in the woods outside Flagstaff.

Good for them, if that’s what they wanted. I’m not judging the birthing choices of the families on Born in the Wild, just as I wouldn’t want some home-birthing devotee to judge my emergency cesarean section. I am, however, judging the attempt to commercialize those birthing choices, which abjectly failed. Whether for insurance purposes or just because Americans always take an ass-ton of stuff with them everywhere they go, Lifetime’s “wild” births appeared seriously watered down (and I’m not talking about the birthing pools).

The show has gotten largely poor reviews, both from those who think it’s too dangerous to those who believe, as I do, that its dramas are manufactured. But you know what? I’m glad that the show is a dud. Not because its unpopularity will discourage people from trying something similar—I’m all for home birth if that’s your thing, and these were all just routine home births that happened to take place in elaborate tents.

No, I’m glad that an actual hardcore, ultranatural birth remains stubbornly outside the purview of reality television. Surgeoner says she didn’t know Lifetime was attempting to make a buck on the virality of her video; it didn’t contact her (which I guess makes sense, since nobody owns the idea of giving birth in the out-of-doors). She doesn’t appear to have profited from her experience at all or even want to; her YouTube video does not play ads.

As my sad-looking bank account will tell you, there is little about the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and baby-having that can’t be successfully monetized—including natural birth (those Ina May books ain’t free, after all). There have also been relatively successful birthing shows on reality television before, including TLC’s A Baby Story and Lifetime’s own One Born Every Minute (the most famous episode of which, by the way, derided natural).

With Born in the Wild, Lifetime sought to monetize the unorthodox birthing choices of nature lovers, assuming it’d grab the gawkers from “Birth in Nature.” But it didn’t. This is partly because Lifetime’s “wild” births are severely toned down. But I’d like to think it’s also because a birthing style as hardcore natural as Surgeoner’s, as simple and (relatively) effortless as squatting in a stream, is a profoundly sincere—if gnarly—expression of her actual reality. Profound sincerity and actual reality are, of course, antithetical to commercial reality television.