I’ve seen a few episodes of the American sitcom Black-ish, which will be returning for season4 on 3 October (in the US. in the UK, who knows? I saw the finale at 10 am in the morning on ITV. I think.).
Season 3 had centred on the late-in-life pregnancy of the female lead, Rainbow, and the finale gave a mostly-accurate depiction of a sudden, scary turn: she developed pre-eclampsia and delivered the baby two months early (so about 32 weeks gestation).
I wrote about prematurity as depicted by Pampers a couple months ago – in general, I would say, pop culture doesn’t have much of a track record addressing prematurity. Which makes sense: prematurity is not telegenic. Preemies can be ugly or scary or just a bit too….fetal…to be comfortable to look at. They are tiny and fragile and hooked up to all sorts of crap.
Black-ish did a pretty great job with the maternity stuff; everything they said about pre-eclampsia was correct, and the parents’ fear and panic was pretty on point too. But then the show was stuck with a premature baby that they had to deal with, and that’s where I thought the show went off the rails a bit.
First of all, that baby was gorgeous. Small, but chubby. Not hooked up to any breathing apparatus. No long lines, or lines of any description. No incubator. Just a few monitoring devices so we knew this was Not a Normal Baby.
I mean, I understand. I thought Daphne was gorgeous straight out of the womb. In the first picture ever taken of her, she has one eye just cracked with Not Impressed expression that remains her trademark seven months later. Watching from the operating table, I saw the nurse hold up my tiny 2 lb baby and I knew that things couldn’t be that dire or they wouldn’t be hoisting her up like Simba for photo ops. But really, to the untrained eye, she looked pretty raw. I had that picture printed but my mother suggested I not send it to my grandmother. I look at it and think, ‘damn, my baby is a fighter’ but in retrospect I can see how other people would just react with alarm.
Preemies are alarming. But the show could easily have circumvented the need for a close-up by showing an incubator (also called an isolette), or by simply reporting on his condition. Instead, they made it look like the scary part was over. Anyone watching would see that baby and think ‘oh, that’s not so bad, he looks fine.’
I realise I am complaining about a sitcom, and I shouldn’t hold them to documentary standards, but the experience of having a premature baby doesn’t end a couple days postpartum. The fact that the girls were early is still very much with us seven months later (five months adjusted), and will likely stay with us forever, in the form of soft teeth of poor vision or attention or behavioural disorders. We are very lucky that the biggest thing they faced in the NICU was ‘smallness’ – they were just really, really tiny. Daphne was so small that, for a long time, she kept cutting off her own airway when she moved her head. She just didn’t have the strength/maturity not to.
September is NICU Awareness Month. The show originally aired this spring, but it seems fitting to me to talk about it now, after it ran in the UK. Most NICU babies are, in the grand scheme of things, Just Fine. But they are fine because they have the benefit of an incredible amount of care and support and science: they NEED incubators and long lines and various unpleasant, humming machines, and for a television show to skip that part of it – while demonstrating the very accurate fear and anxiety of the parents – is to do NICU babies, and neonatology in general, a disservice.