Why There’s So Much Pregnancy Trauma on TV and Podcasts Right Now

16 minute read

Spoilers for House of the Dragon, Succession, The Last of Us, Yellowjackets, Fleishman Is in Trouble, Dead Ringers, This Is Going to Hurt, The Retrievals, and Exposed. 

The first of many horrific birth scenes in House of the Dragon made me vomit. The king is desperate for a male heir, and the queen is in labor with a breech baby. At the king’s command, a maester (a healer with a medieval understanding of science) cuts the queen open. There’s plenty of blood, but the most disturbing moment comes when the queen realizes what’s about to happen to her without her consent. She dies and so does the baby. I ran to the bathroom to throw up—though I was admittedly pregnant at the time so my stomach was easily upset, as was my psyche. 

I didn’t know it then, but that pregnancy was an ectopic pregnancy—a nonviable pregnancy that occurs when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. Left untreated, the embryo would have expanded until it ruptured my fallopian tube. It is the kind of pregnancy that would have certainly killed me had I been born prior to the 20th century, including the Middle Ages or whatever time period the Game of Thrones universe claims to parallel. Still, some things don’t change even with the lifesaving advances of modern medicine. Even today, ectopic pregnancy is the leading cause of maternal mortality in the first trimester. And the treatment for the loss of a much-wanted pregnancy is still physically and psychologically traumatic.

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This year I got pregnant again, and much to my relief, the embryo implanted in the correct spot. But as I’ve turned on the TV at night to relax, I’ve found myself repeatedly confronted by the travails of pregnancy and childbirth. Even beyond the fantastical realm of Games of Thrones, there was Fleishman Is in Trouble, the adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel about a mother who disappears after experiencing a mental break partially precipitated by a traumatic birth experience; This Is Going to Hurt starring Ben Whishaw as an ob-gyn working in a chaotic delivery ward; Dead Ringers, in which Rachel Weisz plays twin gynecologists performing experimental treatments on women; an episode of Yellowjackets that featured a teen delivering a stillborn baby in the woods; an episode of The Last of Us in which a woman gives birth while being attacked by a zombie; Succession, which spent much of its season tracking a pregnant Shiv trying to hide her growing belly from the sexist corporate world; and now the latest season of American Horror Story, subtitled Delicate, which centers on an actor who, after multiple failed IVF attempts, begins to suspect that someone is intentionally interfering with her journey to motherhood.

Yellowjackets - Two Truths and a Lie
(L-R): Sophie Nélisse as teen Shauna and Jasmin Savoy Brown as teen Taissa in Yellowjackets season 2, episode 5Kailey Schwerman—Showtime

Read More: A Subversive New Dead Ringers Reboot Makes Cronenberg’s Original Look Tame

True-crime podcasts, which for better or worse the culture now consumes as a form of entertainment, have found fodder in the topic too. The Retrievals, a Serial and New York Times investigation into a nurse who stole fentanyl from patients undergoing egg-retrieval surgery at the Yale University Medical Center, became the podcast of the summer. The nurse’s deception left patients in unimaginable pain, and when they complained, their doctors dismissed them. And just last week, the team behind the ultra-popular true crime podcast Dr. Death dropped the first episodes of its latest show, Exposed: Cover-Up at Columbia University about an ob-gyn who sexually assaulted patients for more than two decades.

Writers have always turned to pregnancy and birth for drama—never forget Bailey delivering while her husband was in brain surgery on Grey’s Anatomy or Peggy not realizing she was pregnant until she was in labor on Mad Men. Call the Midwife has churned out 12 seasons centered on birth. Jane the Virgin turned what could have been a traumatizing moment—an accidental artificial insemination—into fodder for comedy. And pregnancy as body horror has been a mainstay since Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Alien (1979). Dead Ringers is itself a remake of a 1988 David Cronenberg film, though series creator Alice Birch has gender-flipped the conniving twin doctors in the new adaptation. 

But lately, these tales in television and podcasting have proliferated and expanded their scope to reckon with how pain in pregnancy and childbirth can be compounded by flawed and patriarchal systems: A family system in which the father is encouraged to prioritize a child over a partner and mother, a medical system that’s overstretched and blatantly ignores women’s pain. Set against the backdrop of last year’s Dobbs decision, the horror of being caught up in an uncaring system without true autonomy takes on new resonance. 

Watching and listening to these shows as a pregnant person was uncomfortable—perhaps unwise—but it was also a relief. When I lost a pregnancy, I felt alone. I thought I knew only a handful of women who had miscarried and none who had had an ectopic pregnancy. I was wrong. Once I started talking about my experience, I found many friends had struggled with fertility issues, loss, traumatic births, and even ectopic pregnancies. I had reported on pregnancy and motherhood since long before I was expecting myself, yet I had to enter this terrible cabal of suffering women to understand the true extent to which the quest to become a mother can take a toll. 

I felt seen by these shows, even if I couldn’t finish all of them.

Some of the recent depictions have more compelling things to say about the state of womanhood than others. In House of the Dragon’s first episode, the soon-to-be-dead queen tells her daughter, “The childbed is our battlefield. We must learn to face it with a stiff lip.” That metaphor is hammered into the audience’s head again and again. In just seven episodes, three characters endure three horrific births. One mother dies by suicide after asking her own dragon to burn her alive rather than submit herself to an unmedicated C-section. “We felt that was an interesting way to explore the fact that for a woman in medieval times, giving birth was violence,” showrunner Miguel Sapochnik explained to The Hollywood Reporter. Perhaps it was interesting the first time, but as many critics agreed, by the third time, the point had been made.

The birth scene in Yellowjackets carries with it the equally unsubtle message: Stripped of the formalities of civilization, we’ll revert to a cruel and primal existence, and birth is no exception. The pregnant teen is one of a group of high school soccer players who have been stranded by a plane crash and turned to cannibalism. One of her friends reassures her, “Women have been giving birth for millions of years” before labor begins, an old adage of natural-birth practitioners—and a line, if you’re familiar with the beats of fiction, that all but dooms the young mother to a disastrous delivery. The teen seems to have a case of placenta previa, which would usually require a C-section, but without access to medical care, the baby dies in childbirth.

The Last of Us Ashley Johnson
Ashley Johnson in The Last of UsLiane Hentscher—HBO

The mother of the protagonist Ellie in the post-apocalyptic series The Last of Us faces a similarly grim fate: She goes into labor while being hunted by zombies. Though she manages to deliver the baby, she is bitten and thus fated to become one of the undead. She asks her friend to shoot and kill her shortly after cutting the umbilical cord. In a more optimistic twist than the other two shows, Ellie becomes immune to zombie bites because of the method of her birth, a final gift from her dying mom.

Fleishman Is in Trouble has a more complex take on the trauma of a birth that doesn’t go according to plan. A mother named Rachel (Claire Danes) comes to the realization that her ob-gyn failed to request her consent before manually breaking her water. When she reacts in shock and asks her husband Toby (Jesse Eisenberg) to remove the ob-gyn, the ob-gyn replies, “I think we might need to get psych in here” before turning to Rachel and asking, “Are you planning on being a baby or delivering a baby?” 

It’s an instance of gaslighting and a breaking point for Rachel. Like approximately 3% to 16% of women who give birth, Rachel has postpartum PTSD. Toby can’t manage to empathize. He complains that she retells the story too often and overdramatizes it. When, after they’ve separated, she fails to pick up the kids and disappears for days, he spends most of her absence calling her selfish rather than considering that she is in crisis and needs help. In contrast, when Rachel finally attends group therapy for victims of assault and lets out a primal wail, the women surround her, hold her, and comfort her.

Read More: About that Horrific Birth Scene in Fleishman Is In Trouble

Shiv on Succession also faces patriarchal challenges, if not the same violations. She strives to hide her pregnancy from her brothers, semi-estranged husband, and others in their orbit knowing that they will disqualify her as heir to the family business—a prediction that’s borne out when she does reveal she’s expecting and is met with sexist dismissals by the man buying her family’s company and the next President of the United States. At the end of the show, it’s her husband who ascends the corporate ladder despite the fact that he’s far less competent, and she becomes little more than a vessel for her father’s eventual heir. Her efforts to put off the inevitable while dealing with the realities of her changing body had me squirming—from a moment when she deftly avoids taking a bump of cocaine to one when the actually pregnant actor Sarah Snook falls down some stairs.

Then there are the meditations on how a broken medical system can compound the problems women face. Dead Ringers shows viewers the gynecological realities usually left on the cutting-room floor in Hollywood—tampons, C-section scars, the group of cells that leaves the body during a miscarriage. Showrunner Birch largely renders them as normal functions of a female body. Yet the show also skewers the way capitalism and wellness interact in the American medical system: The private birthing center that the twin ob-gyns are trying to open privileges the wealthy and discards those who need help the most.

Dead Ringers - First Look
Rachel Weisz in Dead RingersNiko Tavernise—Prime Video

This Is Going to Hurt deals more explicitly with a different kind of health care system: one that is publicly funded and resource-strapped. Even more graphic than Dead Ringers – one of the very first births in the British series begins with a baby’s hand poking out of the birth canal – the show focuses more on the worn-down doctors at an understaffed maternity ward than the individual patients rolled in and out of their lives on gurneys. There are no heart-to-heart chats or blooming romances like on Grey’s Anatomy or ER. The sheer number of births serves to educate audiences on why the most important and often distressing day of your life as a birthing person is just another moment in a series of brutal workdays for the sleep-deprived medical staff. They’re suffering, yes, but it’s the patients—for whom one mistake can mean life or death—who are the actual victims, particularly those on the wrong side of the class divide.

Read More: This Is Going to Hurt Is the Best Medical Drama in Years

And yet several of these stories suggest that the trauma of birth and pregnancy are inescapable even for the privileged. This is certainly true of Fleishman Is in Trouble’s Rachel, an Upper East Side striver whose husband is a doctor at the hospital where she gives birth, theoretically conferring advantages upon her. Similarly, the upcoming season of American Horror Story focuses on a famous actor (played by Emma Roberts) who becomes convinced that someone (possibly a character played by Kim Kardashian who appears to be pregnant with a spider in posters for the show) is manipulating her chances of getting pregnant with subterfuge, like leaving her IVF medication out overnight. When Roberts’ character is told she miscarried, she remains sure there’s still something inside her. "It's a novel exploring…the medical gaslighting that even modern, very privileged women experience as they're going through their pregnancies and the symptoms that I feel we as a culture still don't talk about for strange reasons,” Danielle Valentine, who wrote the book upon which the season is based, told Entertainment Weekly.

But the most unsettling tales of all aren’t some fiction involving dragons or spiders, but true stories of what real women have endured at their most vulnerable. Within just the past three months, two podcasts have revolved around medical providers who victimized women seeking treatment.

In The Retrievals, patients’ hopes of building a family collide with the realization that their insides are being literally scraped out without the pain medication they were promised during their egg-retrieval procedure. We already knew that women’s medical issues are under-researched, their problems dismissed as delusions: Doctors used to diagnose women with “female hysteria” instead of treating their very real pain, and in the trailer for American Horror Story, the pregnant character’s partner pointedly tells her to “stop being hysterical.”

But what struck me about the podcast was not the cruelty of the nurse who stole their pain medication, the doctors who ignored their screams, or even the institution that failed to offer support. It was how many of the women who underwent retrievals at the Yale University Medical Center rationalized the pain they experienced before they found out the truth, and even afterward. They either thought they deserved it in some cosmic way because their bodies had failed to perform this basic biological function of creating a baby, or they expected it because they associated motherhood with pain. 

When Yale eventually sent a letter to the victims informing them of what happened, it wrote that there was “no reason to believe this event has had any negative effect on your health or the outcome of the care you received.” 

Though the circumstances of The Retrievals seem extraordinary, the similarities between its stories and those of another new podcast are eerie. Exposed, released in conjunction with reporting from ProPublica and New York Magazine, deals with a betrayal of trust at another esteemed institution. It focuses on hundreds of patients who accused Columbia University ob-gyn Dr. Robert Hadden of sexually assaulting them, often during pre- or postnatal appointments, and here, too, some women found ways to play down their experiences. “I immediately started rationalizing it,” one told ProPublica. “Something must be wrong with me for being uncomfortable because he’s a doctor.” 

The first episode centers on a woman who called the police after the doctor licked her vagina during her first postpartum checkup. Hadden was arrested after that incident, but Columbia allowed him to see patients days later under supervision. According to ProPublica, he continued to practice for five weeks after that, and eight patients claim he assaulted them during that time. When Hadden stopped practicing, ProPublica reported, Columbia sent a letter with no mention of the arrest or acknowledgement of any harm that may have been done. “Dear Valued Patient,” it began. “We regret to inform you that Dr. Robert Hadden has closed his private practice at Columbia University Medical Center.” In 2016, the Manhattan DA accepted a plea deal with Hadden that did not require him to serve jail time. It was only after more victims came forward that federal investigators charged him with sexually abusing his patients. Hadden was sentenced in 2023 to 20 years behind bars. 

It is tempting to pin the trend of investigating trauma in pregnancy on the overturning of Roe v Wade, but many of these projects were conceived before the Supreme Court’s ruling. Still, anyone who was paying attention (or watched or read The Handmaid’s Tale) feared what was coming. I don’t think “Dobbs” is ever uttered in The Retrievals, but it haunts the story of women lying prostrate, immobile, in pain as the medical system does what it will to them. Valentine explicitly cites the battle over Roe v Wade as an inspiration for her book and this season of American Horror Story. The creators of House of the Dragon, too, have suggested the birth scenes are a nod to the grim reality of post-Roe America by repeatedly describing them as “timely.”

For some watchers and listeners, these tales may feel like the long-awaited validation of women’s stories. Game of Thrones caught flak (including from me) for making rape was a mainstay on the show. Even the most traumatic scenes, like Sansa’s assault, focused on the pain of a male witness instead of that of the woman being violated. House of the Dragon can often feel like an apology for its predecessor. Here: Instead of watching men cut limbs from one another and gouge each other’s eyes out, watch women die pushing babies out instead.

Matt Smith and Emma D'Arcy in House of the DragonOllie Upton—HBO

Within the text of Fleishman, a female journalist-turned-stay-at-home-mom rails against the male journalists who have gotten to write about their exotic adventures while her perspective and experiences are not considered worthy of magazine features. Of course the reader is aware that Brodesser-Akner has smuggled a story about the female experience and female trauma into a book you initially thought was about a man. (The “Fleishman” in the title turns out to be the wife.)

Perhaps the crises of our time demand a closer look at the moment that brings us closest to both life and death. The spread of COVID-19 forced pregnant women to attend anxiety-producing appointments without partners, to deliver in often frightening circumstances. Nothing quite like a worldwide pandemic to force us to reevaluate our medical system and its many cracks. The deterioration of our planet has also led many to question the wisdom of bringing children into this world at all, helped (along with COVID-19 and the economy) to spur a baby bust, and forced those of us who are having children to reckon with that decision in a more granular way. Maybe it’s just the trauma plot on steroids.

Whatever the reason, our storytellers are confronting us with a reality that flies in the face of Instagram photos of mothers serenely breastfeeding perfect babies. With each gruesome birth, tragic miscarriage, and instance of abuse, these shows dismantle what TIME once dubbed the Goddess Myth. Fertility, pregnancy, birth, and motherhood involve pain. It’s time we confront it.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com