Bringing Up Baby: Pam on The Office and the Issue of Control in Childbirth
A recurring theme in media representations of childbirth is a certain tension, an underlying push-and-pull, between the mother, her partner, and the doctor. The mom resists medical intervention and must be persuaded into submission. Or the mom demands medical intervention (an epidural) and must be persuaded against it. Oftentimes, the father is the broker between doctor and mom. On behalf of the doctor, he quells mom, who is hysterical and irrational. Mom’s hysteria is always legitimized when mom doesn’t get her way and everything turns out well.
This onscreen dynamic in symptomatic of a vague mutual distrust between women and doctors out there in the real world. When a doctor asks a woman to do something that doesn’t feel right based on maternal instinct, tension results. And when a woman insists on something that the doctor thinks is medically inadvisable, tension results. In the end, mom is deemed a “control freak.” The concept of control holds an inherent judgment of the circumstances. A “control freak” seeks to exercise control over a situation that does not demand it, while a prudent champion exercises control in a situation that indeed necessitates her intervention.
During season six of The Office, Pam delivered her baby girl in a two-part episode appropriately deemed “The Delivery.” This episode was notable for handling the issue of control thoroughly and with heart.
Pam has contractions at work, but she doesn’t want to leave for the hospital yet because if she arrives just after midnight, her insurance will allow two additional full nights at the hospital. (Score one already for the mention of insurance.) Pam’s co-workers want to help out; they distract her from the pain and offer suggestions on how to slow down her labor. The only naysayer is Pam’s husband Jim, who desperately wants to get to the hospital. They agree that they’ll leave when her contractions are five minutes apart, even though Jim lobbied for seven minutes. Later, Jim rants to the camera, “I’m not crazy, she’s crazy.” What’s unique here is that the viewer isn’t sure who’s crazy; we’ve not been cued to understand that Jim is correct.
(Special Note: Pam and Jim reveal that their baby was conceived at Burning Man. Really?! Are we really expected to believe that?)
Pam’s water breaks and her contractions intensify, and she admits that she doesn’t want to leave because she’s scared. They rush to the hospital, and we skip forward nineteen hours: Pam is still in labor. The actual birth is not shown; instead, we hear Pam's screams from the waiting room.
Later, a nurse asks is she should take the baby away to the nursery for the first night. Both Pam and Jim look horrified and say no; their wishes are respected. Pam tries unsuccessfully to breastfeed, and when the nurse returns, Pam tells her that the baby has “nipple confusion.” The nurse looks sarcastically at the camera and says, “Oh good, you know about everything.” The nurse takes the baby away to the nursery.
When the baby is brought back, a lactation consultant arrives. The baby still doesn’t latch. Pam attempts to describe her difficulties to the lactation consultant in very precise terms, yet he clearly isn’t listening to what she’s telling him. Her anxiety and frustration is palpable, yet it’s not displayed as being irrational because the lactation consultant is not a sympathetic character, and neither is the nurse who took the baby away. Pam’s constantly thwarted efforts to control her situation are not portrayed as unfounded; if anything, she’s a sensible person in an irrational world.
When Pam and Jim leave the hospital, she stays behind in a wheelchair at the front door while Jim walks to the parking lot to get the car. An orderly comes out and tells Pam to stand up because they have a wheelchair shortage. When he leaves, Pam realizes that she’s alone for the first time with her baby. She sits down on a bench and tries to breastfeed. Finally, the baby latches.
What’s notable here is that Pam is successful when she’s left by herself and to her own devices. This is a subversion of the typical formula, in which the woman learns that success derives from compliance.
Thus concludes on an optimistic note my week of posts about childbirth. Stay tuned next week for posts about infant care, working moms, and our cultural obsession with older rich moms (Bethenny Getting Married) and pathetic teen moms (MTV).
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