Expectant mothers are too often treated as an inconvenience – and we can’t blame a TV drama for that
The BBC’s new show This Is Going to Hurt is about overstretched doctors – but patronising pregnant women is a long-standing problem
It’s funny, isn’t it, childbirth? Periodically, someone says something true about whether or not it hurts (I won’t pick a side here), and there’s a flurry of panic that people will be put off doing it and that’ll be the end of the species. In real life, nobody has ever been discouraged from reproducing by its harsh realities, any more than Roy Orbison could deter you from falling in love. Pain is very abstract until it’s almost upon you, and by then it’s too late.
But that isn’t the main charge against This Is Going to Hurt, the BBC’s adaptation of former doctor Adam Kay’s ward diary. Rather, it’s that the series, and by inference the diaries themselves, lift the lid on the casual disrespect, bordering on misogyny, with which obstetricians treat mothers. This, again, is a hardy perennial. As a criticism of Kay, it’s way off: the system he describes is of doctors so overstretched as to leave you in awe.
Yet anyone brushing against medics in the business of producing young invariably feels, on some level, after some encounters, patronised or undermined or disregarded. It can be the truly insufferable habit of using the word “discomfort” when a better word is “agony” (though, in fairness, the real devils for this are dental hygienists). It can be the feverish overpolicing of behaviours in pregnancy, while at the same time, genuine reported problems are minimised: so everyone’s got time to give you a 10-minute lecture on blue cheese, yet is magically way too busy to hear about your debilitating morning sickness.
It certainly isn’t just a cultural problem within the NHS, it transcends all borders; Naomi Wolf, back when she was a feminist icon and 20 years before she was suspended from Twitter for spreading vaccine misinformation, wrote Misconceptions about obstetrics in the US; the C-section scene in marketised healthcare sounded terrifying.
What’s really hard to take is the drop in status. You go through your entire life interacting with medicine, if you’re lucky quite infrequently, as a person, and then suddenly – even if you’re still lucky, very frequently – you’re interacting as more of a vessel. You’re an inconvenient interface between medic and baby; it would help everyone considerably if you could perform this role as quietly as possible.
The hot indignation of being suddenly a non-person is worse, considerably worse, than the fact that you’re already literally too hot. My hunch is that this has been true since long before medicine.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist