When my wife, Susan, was pregnant with our first baby, Isabelle, and then again with our second, Lorelei, she watched a lot of television geared toward expectant and new parents. Her favorite haunt was a cable channel called TLC, which features shows like A Baby Story, Bringing Home Baby, and Surviving Motherhood. She used to beg me to watch the shows with her, clearly hoping I'd pick up some useful tidbits that I could bring into the delivery room or, later, into the nursery. I admit, though, I watched only a few episodes with her. It just wasn't my thing.
But now that the reality parenting genre has exploded, I decided to watch a week's worth of television aimed at parents of babies and report on what could be learned. (Mostly, I wanted to get paid for sitting around in my underwear and watching TV.)
First, I went to the place where my wife used to park -- TLC -- but after flipping around, I found the Discovery Health Channel, which should just rename itself the Mom Channel. In one day, you can watch Amazing Births, , Birth Day, Runway Moms, and even Yummy Mummy.
Now, I'm not saying these shows don't offer something for dads, but I know I'm not the target audience. For one thing, there are no titles like How to Get Out of Changing Diapers or My Wife Is Pregnant, Hormonal, and Nuts. Not that my wife ever flipped out during her pregnancies. I didn't mean to imply that. I'm sure that in her eighth month, when I stupidly asked, "How are you?" she had a good reason for stapling my collar to the wall.
Anyway, the fathers on these shows are usually spouting bits of wisdom like "Being a parent comes from the heart" or "The moment I saw our baby, I fell in love." Great sentiments, and I applaud the dads, but it's as if their wives were behind the camera holding up cue cards for them. I was in awe of our babies, but in love from the start? The overriding emotion I felt wasn't love but fear.
On one episode of A Baby Story, a mother was about to go into serious labor when the doctor asked where her husband was. "He's down in the chapel," the mom replied cheerfully. If only I'd thought to do something noble like that! Instead, whenever I wasn't in the room with Susan, I was in the cafeteria having a sandwich, and once I even took a few minutes in the gift shop to leaf through Mad magazine. I did pray a few times, but it was in the bathroom, hoping that I wouldn't throw up.
Which isn't to say that there are only perfect parents on these shows. In fact, if you're looking to feel better about yourself, the majority of programs out there cater to that need. The experts on Supernanny and Nanny 911 are always trying to correct some dummy (read: normal) parent's mistake. And Surviving Motherhood recently offered the story of a mom who never took away her children's bottles, and now, as her twins are hitting 4, she's regretting that. Actually, if I were a single dad, my kids would be on bottles until college, but happily, Susan switched Isabelle to a sippy cup around the age of 1, and quite easily at that. (Hey, if I don't feel superior watching these parenting shows, at least I can feel great about my wife's abilities.)
Then there was Runway Moms, a series about expectant models. Clearly, a show about models had to be checked out. But instead of a bikini fashion shoot, the episode I saw featured a model whose baby needed an intestinal transplant. Stricken, I watched as this lovely model talked about her son. The dad looked at the camera helplessly, saying how he has to "work smart and hard, to prepare a better future for him. That's all I can do." I nodded approvingly, trying to keep myself together. This is the reason I turn off Charlotte's Web midway through. I switch off the TV, depressed. But when I think about it, I can see why people watch these shows. With the ones that reveal a parent's slipups, it's nice to think, Phew, I'm not the only one. And with the shows that offer tragedy, there's something strangely relieving in being able to say, "There but for the grace of God go I." Plus, it's encouraging to see good people rally around their baby, doing everything they can to ensure that he has a normal life. It sure beats watching the news.
That's another lesson I learned during my week of TV. As part of my experiment, I started taking notes on the local news. I saw stories on obese babies, crack babies, babies with abusive foster parents, and babies involved in fires and car accidents. Demoralized, I caught a promo for Oprah that mentioned an upcoming mother-and-baby story, and decided that was just what I needed: something uplifting, a safe harbor from all the heartache. Later that day, at 4 p.m., I settled down to watch Winfrey interview Sarah Brady, a mom who made big news a several years ago when a woman allegedly attacked her with a knife, hoping to steal her unborn baby. So much for the safe harbor.
So, what have I learned from all my surfing? I can see the appeal of some of the shows. And you can pick up bits of solid advice, amid all the pathos. I probably should have listened to Susan and watched more of those shows with her. But if we have a third baby, which we hope to do, I'm going to pay attention to the surprising hero in all of these parenting programs -- the commercials. After all, the ads, many of which were about diapers, baby food, and toys, were really inspirational. I saw repeated images of fresh-faced moms and dads playing with roly-poly babies who never cry and only smile and laugh, on lush, brand-new carpeting in homes that obviously use a maid service. If there was a crisis, like an uncomfortable diaper or a bored baby, it was solved within 30 to 60 seconds. It may not be real life, but it's the way life should be.
Geoff Williams is a freelance writer.