In the movies, birth is usually an emergency. It begins with the woman’s water breaking, at the worst possible moment. She appears to be barely in labor, and yet she is rushed, through gridlock traffic, to the hospital. There she becomes angry, and the pain is her husband’s fault. She yells at him, perhaps even injures him, and orders him to get a vasectomy. Then she begs for an epidural, but for some reason, she can’t have it. After four minutes of intense screaming, she’s handed something that looks like the Gerber baby.
The recent Netflix film “Pieces of a Woman,” featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by Vanessa Kirby, tries to subvert this narrative, with a naturalistic home birth scene that occupies almost a quarter of the movie. The extended sequence, which ultimately has a tragic outcome, has gotten midwives talking, especially because film and television can deeply influence the expectations of couples who have never had a baby. In a handful of interviews, midwives across the country applauded the naturalistic birth as a new frontier in screen depictions, even as they argued that several details fell short of a fully empowered experience.
As the labor scene begins, Martha (Kirby) is leaning against a stove, her contractions intensifying. Her partner, Sean, played by Shia LaBeouf, rushes around her, asking repeatedly if she wants water. They eventually move to the living room, where he cradles her in his lap. “I think I might throw up,” she says, burping and gagging.
Hannah Epstein, a midwife nurse practitioner in San Francisco, said that what struck her about the scene is what many other movies leave out: “You never see labor, only birth.” She said that some patients worry they might not know when they’re in labor, and others think labor is entirely pushing. “Pieces of a Woman” helped correct those misconceptions. “It was a good early-labor depiction of that uncomfortable, icky” feeling, she said, noting that nausea and vomiting in labor are also extremely common.