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Giving Birth in NBC's "The Office": TV Portrays Empowering Birth

Waiting until long after her water breaks before going to the hospital, no wincing when the baby tries to latch on, asking for a lactation consultant when the maternity nurse says a lot of babies do just fine on bottles – Pam Beasley may have been the first TV character to portray an empowering birth experience on American television!

For years we in the birth community have been complaining that births on film and television are always depicted as full scale emergency starting with the big rush to get to the hospital at the first sign of labor, to portrayals of women gritting their teeth through the pain of breastfeeding. In last night’s episode of the “Office” Pam calmly labors through each contraction while her coworkers try to distract her with fun and games. Her husband Jim acts more and more frazzled as they debate whether to leave for the hospital when contractions are seven minutes apart or five. Knowing that their insurance company will allow an extra day on their hospital stay if they wait until midnight Pam insists on waiting until contractions are at least five minutes apart.    

In the meantime she and officemate Kevin sit down to a pre-dinner feast. (Imagine that a woman actually eating while in labor!) Later Pam finds Jim waiting outside in the car but to his disappointment she still refuses to go. When he asks why she changed her outfit she casually replies “Oh, my water broke a little while ago.” It’s only when Jim discovers that her contractions are two minutes apart do they begin their rush to the hospital with their boss Michael Scott texting as they race their way through traffic.

After they arrive Pam’s laboring continues behind closed doors as her boss moans about how long it is taking (after all Phyllis has ice cream cake waiting in the car!). We never see Pam in stirrups (thank goodness), instead we just hear a few groans as her boss Michael listens outside the door until we hear Jim saying “Look how beautiful she is!”

The second half of the hour long show is all about Pam’s first attempts to breastfeed her new baby girl. Except for the fact that she donned one of those horrible looking, oversized “hide a hooter” bibs every time she tried to nurse the depiction of breastfeeding a newborn in a hospital seemed very realistic. The nurse offers her no help whatsoever and instead offers first to take the baby away so Pam can get some rest and then try again, and when her second attempt goes no better the nurse tells her that it’s no big deal, “a lot of babies do just fine on bottles.” 

But our Pam knows better than to send her baby to the nursery over night and even though she doesn’t seem to be in any pain she insists that the breastfeeding doesn’t feel quite right, and so she requests a Lactation Consultant. To Jim’s surprise the Lactation Consultant is a man named Clark, but the fact that the LC is a male doesn’t seem to phase Pam in the least. Like every new mother she just wants to know “How do I know that my baby is getting enough milk?”  Apparently Jim’s suggestion that she needs to “push it out” more hadn’t satisfied her. While Clark fiddles with Pam’s breasts and helps her with positioning Jim (who is famous for his silent reactions) looks as if he is ready to climb the walls.

After the Clark leaves Pam still feels unsure that she is doing it right (but still no pain!!) and when another mother joins them in their room she watches her closely in an effort to see how it’s done. In the middle of the night after having refused the nurse’s offer to send the baby to the nursery for the night, Pam nurses the crying baby and is surprised at how well the baby latches on only to discover that she is nursing her roommate’s baby! (I swear the authors must be reading my “Breastfeeding in the News” blogs – I reported on a case of a mother breastfeeding the wrong baby just last week!)  Quickly they put the baby back in the bassinet and push it over to the other side of the room never admitting their mistake.

After trying their hand at diapering together they discover that while Jim may be able to diaper his coworker Angela’s cat, he is no match for a squirming baby. Even though they obviously feel unready to go home they are finally discharged. Both Jim and Pam look apprehensive as she is wheeled out to the curb. Jim hasn’t thought to bring the car around and so he leave Pam and the baby alone on a bench as the attendant takes the wheel chair back inside.  Naturally the baby begins fussing and Pam is left alone to cope. Reluctantly she puts on the oversized “hide a hooter.” (I hate this thing but it makes sense that a character like Pam would be shy about breastfeeding in public. Hopefully in future episodes she will master the art of discreetly nursing and look back on her ‘hide a hooter days’ and laugh.) With no one to help her Pam and her baby finally get the breastfeeding right and she is in total bliss by the time that Jim returns.

I love this show and as a Lactation Consultant I had been biting my nails as I worried in anticipation of how the birth episode would be portrayed.  It was such a relief to be watching a show about birth with my 13 year old daughter without having to constantly yell instructions at the TV (things like “It’s just one contraction – she doesn’t need an ambulance.”  “Why isn’t she breastfeeding? What’s wrong with these people??” or “It’s not supposed to hurt!”) Just the mere mention of the word “Lactation Consultant” made me feel so proud. Finally here was the proof my daughter needed that my job is in fact a real job and that I’m not part of some whacko, totally out there profession! If they have Lactation Consultants on TV then that makes it okay for her mom to be one in real life.

To the writers of the “Office” I say thank you, thank you, thank you! Now when her friends asks no longer does my daughter have to say “my mother writes” now she can hold her head up high and say “my mother is a Lactation Consultant, just like the one they had on the Office.” And when women in this country need a visual in their head of what laboring and breastfeeding look like they can remember Pam Beasley quietly having contractions at work and the look of bliss on her face when she and her baby finally master the art of the “latch”.

To see the show online:

Photo by Chris Denbow via Flickr


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