We’ve all said it at one time or another: if it was men having to go through pregnancy and birth, they would have found a way to make it less traumatic by now!
Writer Joe Penhall penned a play about exactly that; Birthday was originally staged at the Royal Court theatre – and now it’s been made into a drama for Sky Arts to be shown on Tuesday evening at 9pm. Earlier this week I was lucky enough to go along to an advanced screening of Birthday with a friend and several other bloggers.
In the drama, Stephen Mangan plays Eddie, a man who is heavily pregnant; he’s been induced, and is now in a hospital room with his wife Lisa, waiting for a caesarean. Although different characters come and go, and Eddie and his wife both leave the room at one point or another, the camera does not; the entire drama is set in this one tiny hospital room. In it, we see Eddie begging for pain relief, complaining, arguing with his wife and generally struggling to cope with his discomfort and emotions.
At one point, they discuss Lisa’s experience with their first child; how traumatic it was for him, how difficult to watch, the amount of blood, “like a shark attack” – I was struck, watching this, by how rarely anyone mentions that side of childbirth on TV or in general, really. Even when you watch a show like One Born Every Minute it seems to be a largely sanitised affair, where no blood and guts are really shown on camera or mentioned. It’s like the world’s best kept secret: when you give birth, it’s fairly disgusting and scary and there’s blood everywhere and you will probably shit yourself. For many of us, it can be a big surprise to actually be in the labour room and realise quite how much blood and guts are involved; none of it is mentioned in any of the helpful leaflets the midwife gives you! I remember after S was born, my sister wanted to come in and see her and I refused to have anyone in until we’d cleaned up the bed (and me) a bit, or she would never have children of her own.
During the Q&A after the screening, Penhall revealed that he decided to write the play while his wife was having an epidural; he felt compelled to write it, having experienced two traumatic births which really brought home a sense of mortality to him.
Throughout the piece there is a tremendous sense of disempowerment. Eddie is hooked up to a monitor, and a midwife wanders in every now and then – on one occasion clearly just finishing a snack – every time asking if he’s been induced, talking in a sing-songy voice and muttering platitudes about how everything is fine, not to worry, and so on. His concerns are not listened to, he’s told he doesn’t need an epidural, he’s left with his wife to wait for hours at a time with no assistance and increasing pain and worry. Penhall has captured this part perfectly: the way that for the staff of a labour ward, this really is all in a day’s work; they’re here to do a normal shift and they’ve seen it all before, and can often forget that this not all in a day’s work for the families they encounter. For many of us, a visit to the labour ward is a life-changing and harrowing experience. There’s also this great sense of being trapped in a nightmare, because it’s all filmed in a single room with only two main characters and the occasional visit from a midwife.
Penhall spoke of this public myth that having a baby is what women are born to do, and by giving birth we “become a woman” – while the pain and fear and mess are conveniently ignored. How many times have we seen an actress “giving birth” on TV where there are a few grunts, perhaps a bit of effing and jeffing, and then silence followed by a baby’s cry? We all subscribe to this myth because if the truth was told, the human race would probably die out. It’s uncomfortable to talk about how scary and visceral giving birth can be, how close both mother and child can come to death during the process, and how badly we often feel we’ve been treated throughout.
What’s great about this for me is the way it so easily shifts between laugh out loud funny, and frankly terrifying – and then back again. There were a couple of points where I almost shed a tear, if I’m honest. The thing is, Stephen Mangan is funny. We all know he’s funny; we’ve seen him in comedy shows, and presenting panel shows. We’re expecting him to be funny, and he doesn’t disappoint… but then there comes the point where it’s not just waiting around for things to get started; it’s things getting started, and not going according to plan. And he plays that equally as well. As Mangan himself said in the Q&A, they soften the audience and then slip in the emotional stilletto. There’s a perfect mix of serious and funny so that you don’t leave feeling too traumatised by the experience!
For me, this would absolutely not have worked if it had a woman in the starring role. Then it’s just another film about a woman giving birth. By putting a man in bed with a bump and sore nipples, Penhall has turned the experience on its head and it really works. I think if this had been written by a woman, it could easily be dismissed as “she clearly had a traumatic labour and has an axe to grind” – and if a woman were in the lead role, many of us would probably think “oh, that’s just a dramatised version; I can watch a real birth on One Born Every Minute!” I also feel like because Mangan is the one going through the pain and distress, it softens the blow a bit. I know a lot of people who are still so traumatised by their own birth experience, they can’t bear to watch women in labour on TV. Because this is a man in labour, it’s somehow easier to deal with – even though he’s going through the same things a lot of women go through. I suppose it means that level of trauma is one step removed from what you may have gone through yourself, so it’s not so hard to watch.
I really enjoyed Birthday and feel like it brings up a lot of talking points. Men and women love to argue over whether men could cope with the pain of childbirth or whether things would be different if men were the ones who carried babies. As with anything you would watch on Sky Arts, it’s not just something you put on the TV and half-watch; it’s something that really makes you think.
Penhall said he wrote the play because there were so many things, after their experience of childbirth, that he couldn’t articulate to her. Perhaps this show will spark a plethora of conversations between partners who’ve never really spoken about this life-changing thing they went through together.
Massive thanks to Mumsnet and to Sky Arts for allowing me a sneak preview of Birthday!