Dawn Pannell gained 35 lb. within the span of a few months, but she figured that was because of depression. She felt movement in her abdomen but assumed it was gas. She had mood swings but thought that was because of her recent unemployment. Finally, mistaking labor pains for constipation, she delivered a full-term baby into her toilet.
Such are the stories told in sensationalistic, Unsolved Mysteries style, complete with voice-overs and re-enactments, by the most outrageous of all of TLC's notoriously melodramatic baby shows: I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant (the series airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. E.T. on Discovery Health). Flashbacks show unwittingly pregnant women partying, playing sports, looking at their heavyset bodies in mirrors and then, as the grand finale in many episodes, hovering over a toilet, looking really, really surprised.
"How could I not have known this was going on in my body?" the real women inevitably say in their on-air interviews, which are intercut with dramatizations featuring marginally more attractive actresses.
Not surprisingly, the program has been mercilessly mocked. Two comedy shows, E!'s The Soup and Current TV's InfoMania, have created parodies, both crassly titled I Didn't Know I Had to Take a Dump.
Not all of the women who have approached the producers (you too can apply, via a seven-page pre-interview form obtained through the show's website) gave birth on a toilet, though that seems to be a recurring theme. For the show's third season, which begins in June, "we are pulling back on the toilet births," says Wendy Douglas, a good-humored executive producer for TLC and Discovery Health.
Judging from the coverage on parenting blogs, the series is not only a gasp-inducing freak show; it has also become a guilty pleasure for new mothers. A stay-at-home mom in Iowa who blogs on the site Funny in the 'Hood and reports having seen every episode of the show, some twice, expresses wonder that anyone can make it through nine months of pregnancy without having a clue something is up. "Can you imagine sitting down on the toilet and thinking something is going to come out of somewhere," she writes on her blog, "only to discover that something totally different came out a completely different orifice?"
Viewers' horror and repulsion may hide a perverse envy. The cult of pregnancy today requires a lot of self-denial. Women are advised to avoid alcohol and cigarettes as well as deli meat, sushi, coffee and a million other pleasures. But the women of I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant didn't deny themselves anything during those nine months, had few if any symptoms and still wound up with perfect-looking babies!
The show's executive producers, Mike Mathis and Tammy Wood, insist they are not suggesting that prenatal care isn't important. And yet in every story they choose to present, the prenatal-careless women are happy and the babies are healthy.
Somber voice-overs try to explain why each woman didn't notice her pregnancy, often to comic effect: "She urinated normally." Sometimes the woman doesn't realize she's pregnant because she's obese or has irregular periods. Sometimes it's because she has been told it's impossible for her to get pregnant or because she thinks she's on fail-safe birth control.
Or maybe she's just in deep denial?
"Pregnancy can be a scary thing," says Judy Norsigian, executive director of the nonprofit foundation Our Bodies, Ourselves. "For some terrified girls, they plead ignorance even if they really aren't."
Norsigian is among those who are not thrilled with the success of the show. "These TLC shows make it look like every birth is a crisis," she says. "We need to create a climate of confidence rather than a climate of doubt."
Perhaps the show doesn't have the best message: that a woman's total ignorance of her body results in a happy surprise. But that observation is unlikely to stop anyone who can stomach the toilet humor from tuning in.