In a special "Saturday Edition" of our blog, Brad Fruhauff has good things to say about the birth of Pam and Jim's child on The Office in context of our popular notions of childbirth.
The Genre of Birth Narrative
Until my wife and I got pregnant, we had not given any more thought than the average person to the phenomenon of the American birth narrative. Yet when the instructor of our childbirth class complained about all the "crisis" births on TV and in the movies, I instantly knew what she meant.
We all know what a birth "looks like" - that is, on TV. The father becomes a frantic, bumbling mess; the family is so excited they only get in the way of the parents' "private" experience; the mother becomes a monster who abuses her husband, renounces sex, and screams like a banshee while pushing the baby out. Once the baby is born all the drama is effectively over and the family gathers around the beatific parents and shares a tender moment (perhaps peppered with a few gags).
This kind of drama and comedy makes for good TV, and it would be fruitless and perhaps irrelevant to complain that it is unrealistic, but surely it is pitiable that such a farce is the primary image many of us have of childbirth. Parody is most effective when the thing parodied is well-known, but since birth has moved out of the everyday and into the hospitals, most of us have to wait until we have our own children to appreciate the distance between the parody and the reality.
That's one reason I appreciated the recent birth episodes of The Office. While participating in the familiar genre, they also manage to present a more nuanced and, to me, emotionally satisfying birth story than even such great shows as Mad About You.
One important way they manage this is by refusing to let Pam act like the roaring, demon-possessed woman from The Exorcist. Instead she remains mostly calm and self-possessed throughout the hours leading up to the delivery.
She and Jim disagree and bicker throughout the episode, but it is about something plausible and partially external - their conflicting desires to deliver the baby safely and to maximize their poor HMO benefits. The narrative acquires dramatic tension because it respects both these desires rather than placing us viewers in a superior position of the "rational ones."
Though Jim does become the "crazy father," it's less due to genre expectations than his valid concern for Pam and the baby. In fact, part of what is both funny and poignant is precisely how uncomfortable Jim is with his own anxiety. Used to being in control of himself, he finds suddenly that he is subject to Pam's stronger will.
We do have a dysfunctional family in the Dunder-Mifflin crew themselves, but perhaps just because they are not biological family, the moments when they escape their own self-involvement to show kindness or concern have a sweetness to them.
The Deliver Will (Not) Be Televised
But the most important factor may be the naturalistic style in which The Office is filmed. The very premise of the camera crew existing within the story we are watching gives the show many of its characteristic features, including and especially the self-awareness of the fact of being filmed - for the characters as well as the viewers. Thus, when it comes time for the actual birth, the show goes against all dramatic logic and denies us entry to the delivery room because we are not family.
We are not totally cut off - Michael's presumptive intimacy with his employees takes him to the delivery room door often enough to let us hear Pam's groaning (not screaming, significantly) and then the baby's first cries, but the show forfeits the dramatic potential of being in the room itself for the sake of its own commitment to representing these characters as people like us who live in a world like ours - a world where you don't let strangers into your delivery room.
The intrusive presence of the cameras is mirrored in Michael's and the others' sometimes oppressive presence around the couple. When Pam becomes afraid of having the baby and Jim comforts her, they are also surrounded by Michael and Kevin, who second and comment upon everything Jim says. It's certainly funny, but as the camera zooms in tight on this huddle of people, it also reveals that our presence is no less strange than Kevin's - perhaps moreso, in fact.
The naturalistic camera, finally, dispels the sentimentalism of the "happy family" moment. Jim, Pam, and the baby do share a quiet, tender moment together, but that's all it is - no soft piano music, no framing them in an idyllic tableau.
What I appreciated most was the time they spent after the birth - the birth was only the first climax of a two-part episode. Afterward, we see Jim and Pam adapting to this new little person, particularly with respect to nursing and sleeping. My son had similar trouble nursing at first, and I felt the show captured, in its brief and subtle way, many of the strange emotions this evokes: worry, sadness, doubt, shame, and finally joy and relief.
One last thought: these episodes contained muted critiques of insurance companies and hospitals that would certainly resonate with a certain kind of parent (like my wife and I). I'm of two minds whether this was simply part of the show's naturalism or was an intrusion of an agenda. I'd like to think that such reimaginations of the birth narrative don't have to come at someone's expense, but one could just as easily argue that denying the economic factors of birth (which are many) would only reinscribe the romanticization of our existing narratives.
So, while this isn't a "perfect" birth story, it does begin to show us that birth can be dramatic, sweet, exciting, and funny without becoming farce and so is really a very fine birth narrative.
Brad Fruhauff is Poetry Editor for Relief. His poetry and book, film, and music reviews have appeared occasionally in small press or online journals such as Salt and Burnside Writers Collective. His story, "The Strangler," appeared in the first issue of Ankeny Briefcase. He currently lives in Evanston, IL, and teaches college English.