Something is happening over at Bravo. Previously, its reality TV programming was all about rich, gaudy, ambitious, tanned, shit-talking, table-throwing, materialistic socialites. Now, these same people have babies.
Chef, entrepreneur, and first-time mom Bethenny Frankel from The Real Housewives of New York left the show after season three to star in her own reality series, Bethenny Ever After, about her wedding and pregnancy. According to the show's description at Bravo.com, Bethenny must plan a baby and a wedding all while "juggling her career as an author and natural foods chef." As for The Real Housewives of New York, Bravo didn't want to throw the ratings out with the baby drool; Bethenny's replacement on the show has twin babies. Then there's Kim Zolciak of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, whose baby with pro football player Kroy Biermann will be central to upcoming season 4. But wait! She gets a spinoff show too! According to the Huffington Post, "Kim's new show is going to follow the very successful Bethenny formula. A new mom and her fiancé trying to make everything work. Juggling baby, boyfriend and career."
We can't forget the mother of all Bravo mom shows, Pregnant in Heels, about "maternity concierge" and "pregnancy guru" Rosie Pope, who helps wealthy pregnant women on Manhattan's Upper West Side prepare for their babies, which involves bringing them clothing from Rosie's very own "couture maternity clothing boutique." Of course Rosie helps with other matters too, like finding a doula or a prenatal nutritionist.
This season on The Rachel Zoe Project, fashion stylist Rachel is pregnant, and during this week's brand-new episode, she had her baby. And I watched it. Not just this episode, but others from the season as well. (The things I do for Bitch!)
Ten minutes in, I could tell they'll be playing up the "baby versus career" concept this season. The following quotes are from a single episode:
"I am six months pregnant and I'm at the busiest point of my career right now. The timing could not have been worse." - Rachel
"Its not like things have slowed down because I'm knocked up." - Rachel
"I like that there's two babies. Your [fashion] line is baby number one, and then there's your baby baby." - Rachel's husband Roger
There's way more, but you get the idea. The ongoing story arc is that Rachel is a workaholic who must learn to prioritize her baby over her career. It's clear that her workaholism is something to be deeply admired. The brigade of Bravo babies all belong to very attractive, very rich, very successful and fashionable women, and the message is clear: It's admirable and sexy to juggle a baby with a busy and wealthy lifestyle. Zoe runs a fashion empire; Bethenny recently wrote some books and founded an alcoholic beverage company; Kim Zolciak became a professional musician just in time for Bravo to market her show as being about "juggling" a high-powered career with a baby.
I worry that these shows contribute to the widespread romanticism of the "baby as the dream deferred" scenario that I wrote about in an earlier post: that delaying childbirth will bring you lots of money, which you can later shower upon the baby that you conceive as you enter your middle ages. Older motherhood is a stroller walk in the park, and the unfair necessity of delaying motherhood in order to first be successful is never questioned. Don't expect to hear these Bravo moms complaining about workplace policies that are not family friendly. To the contrary, surviving a family-hostile work environment is glorified. As Rachel says proudly about one of her devoted employees, "Mandana hasn't seen her husband since they got married."
I will say, however, that I had a positive reaction to Rachel Zoe's childbirth episode. Never before have I seen such a complete departure from the "water breaks, rush to hospital, lots of screaming" childbirth cliché that I wrote about earlier. Rachel goes to the hospital and just kinda sits around. There is no tension or dread. There is no implication that something might go wrong with the labor, which is the bread and butter of most television portrayals of childbirth. It was a mundane—yet happy—event. As Rachel's husband puts it, "One thing I can say about childbirth is it's nothing like the movies... you sit around and wait and wait, and you have visitors, you have lunch, then you wait."
While I'm wary of Bravo's chronic portrayal of motherhood as some final reward for being a no-nonsense, hardworking, trend-setting capitalist, these shows do portray pregnancy and early motherhood with a depth that can't be found on scripted shows—and when it comes to motherhood on TV, I'm willing to settle for baby steps.