Saturday, December 1, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting on Reality TV

As Amelia’s birthday approaches, I always think about the flurry of activity that preceded her birth. Some of this activity was normal – I painted a toy box, read the What to Expect series, and obsessed over cloth vs. disposable diapers. But, some of this activity was downright bizarre. For example, we were the subject of a reality television pilot. The show was called The Family Makers, and it was a “documentary” about open adoption.
You can see clips here
It wasn’t how I wanted to spend my 15 minutes of fame, but Amelia’s birthmom, Amber, had avidly signed on to the project, so Pete and I reluctantly agreed. In the end, I’m glad we did. Not because of the fame and fortune, which were nonexistent, but because it gave me a unique window into how reality TV shows are made.
Occasionally someone will ask about my experience, and I take the opportunity to debunk a few myths about reality shows. I thought it would be interesting to do that here as well.
I don’t know if every show is like this. Different producers and studios might have different modes of operation. But, here was what we learned from our brief stint on reality TV:
1. The money is good. Pete and I refused payment to appear on The Family Makers. Since the show documented our journey to become parents, we felt wrong accepting money. We also wanted an easy out in case anything went wrong with the adoption. But we were offered $500 for three days of filming. That’s roughly $170 per day for a pilot episode of an unproven show that probably wasn’t going to become a runaway hit. (Similar shows like Adoption Story were popular, but they never reached blockbuster level). In addition, every time we were filmed buying something, the show picked up the bill. When they filmed Amber grocery shopping, she filled her cart on the production company’s dime. When I took Amelia’s brother, Bryce, to the video arcade, we were provided with a never-ending supply of quarters.
2. You are given a role before filming begins. Creative editing makes sure you fill that role, whether you want to or not. The show featured three couples who were adopting from three different birth families. If you watch the show, it’s clear that we were pegged as the “sad childless couple.” Both of the other couples already had kids. They were shown taking their children to picnics and to the park. We were shown in our empty nursery.
In hindsight, the empty crib looks creepier than sad, especially with the doll mobile going at full tilt
 The director of the adoption agency, a woman we’d never met, was filmed talking about how a previous adoption had fallen through for us. This segment came close on the heels of another couple talking about how a birthmother had taken back custody of their adoptive daughter, implying that we’d had a baby taken away from us.
The producer frequently coached me to “look sad” or “see if you can cry.” I usually ignored these requests, but there were two or three times when my voice naturally broke and that ended up on TV, probably in lieu of 25 shots of me smiling and happy. In fact, the show begins with a long shot of me crying on the day Amelia was born. They were tears of joy but, out of context, it looks like I’m genuinely upset.
I'm happy I tell you! Happy!
In reality, we weren’t particularly sad to be childless. It was an emotional time, but we’d come to grips with our infertility and had been open to adoption from the beginning.  Furthermore, we’d never had an adoption fall through. We’d been matched with a birthmother and had decided on our own to pull out of the relationship after she’d become indecisive. Less than two weeks after that, we were matched with Amber. The entire adoption process took nine months from the time we were approved to adopt until Amelia’s birth. It’s true that there are some couples who wait years to adopt, but that wasn’t us. However, if you watch the show, you’d think it was.
Also, Amber was cast in the light of a good mom who was devastated to be giving up her child. I don’t want to diminish her decision to place Amelia. It was a hard decision, and she didn’t make it lightly. But, facts were left out. The show omitted the information that she was homeless, and would have likely lost custody, at least temporarily, if she’d decided to parent. They frequently asked her to rub her stomach, to make it look like she had a bond with the baby. (After a few takes of this, she started outright refusing). The even offered to pay for a second ultrasound, providing we all cried when the technician showed us the pictures. (We refused that as well).
At one point, they wanted to show a baby picture of Bryce. Amber didn’t have one, so they asked her to borrow a picture of a friend’s baby, and they showed that instead, implying that it was a photo of Bryce. 
Not Bryce. Not even close.
3. The production company sets the mood of the show. Waiting to adopt was generally an upbeat time for us. We were doing all of the normal things a couple does to get ready for a baby – furnishing a nursery, buying onesies, and taking parenting classes. But, if you watch The Family Makers, you’d probably conclude that we were devastated to be taking this route to parenthood. Sad, ominous music played in the background, and shots of an empty playground were shown between every segment. I don’t know if the empty playground was supposed to represent our childlessness or Amber’s decision to place, but it did the trick. I got a lot of calls after the show aired asking if I was okay.
I think I'm supposed to have phantom limb pains in my uterus when I see this.
4. The production company wants you to fail. Early on in the process, I asked if they’d keep the cameras rolling if the adoption fell through. The very honest producer said that they would. In fact, she said it would make “better television” if that happened. It was creepy knowing that the crew was secretly rooting for our misery.
It makes me think twice about the feuds and drama that routinely occur on other reality shows. I often wonder if there’s a producer in the background, silently pulling the strings or, at the very least, gleefully rubbing their hands together as things go awry.
5. There are things they can’t show. There was a very minor flurry of message board activity the day after the show aired. Quite a few members of the adoption community were concerned that Amber had signed the papers to give up Amelia on TV. They feared she had been coerced. This wasn’t the case. You can’t sign legal papers on television. She was signing a blank piece of paper hours after she had privately signed the real documents.
Pictured: Amber signing absolutely nothing.
The hospital also refused the crew access to the actual birth, so some of the hospital footage is stock footage that was spliced in later. In fact, the hospital eventually kicked the camera crew out of the maternity ward. When that happened, we were secretly relieved.
When the hospital found out they'd gotten this close, they banned all of our cameras, including the one on Pete's cell phone.
6. None of it is real. Remember the shot of me crying in the hospital hallway? That was one of only two shots where the camera crew used the first take, and it was still taken out of context.
The crew asked for second and third takes on everything, including a scene where I change Amelia’s diaper.
To be fair, my kiddo was more than happy to comply with second and third takes on diaper changes.
At one point, something went wrong during Amelia’s birth and the doctor unceremoniously asked me to wait in a supply closet. I had no idea what was happening, and I started to have an anxiety attack. Pete brought me a glass of water to calm me down, and the doctor eventually reappeared to tell me that everything was okay. Ten minutes later, the producer asked me if I could “recreate” the panic attack, because she didn’t get it on camera the first time. (I told her, in no uncertain terms, where she could put her camera).
There were scenes where we were “candidly” caught in our kitchen or living room, talking about the adoption. This wasn’t candid. In fact, we were being fed questions.
Actually, we have awkward side-by-side conversations all the time.
The first day the crew came to our house, they asked if they could film us eating breakfast. I explained that we don’t normally eat breakfast, which posed a problem – they had already filmed one couple at lunch and another at dinner. They needed us to be their breakfast couple. So, I fried up some French toast at noon, and we pretended it was breakfast time. During the meal, they coached our conversation. They wanted us to talk for a couple of minutes about our parenting classes. When we’d said enough about that, they asked us to talk about Bryce.
Also, they ate all of our leftover French toast. True story.
Even when we were unscripted, things still felt awkward. There’s no way to act natural while you’re battling bumper-to-bumper traffic with a camera aimed at your face.
Aimed directly at my face. And I'm already a nervous driver.
In the end, I'm glad we did the show. For one thing, it gave me a different perspective on reality TV and TV in general. I still watch reality shows. In fact, I have a inexhaustible supply of Comic Book Men sitting on my DVR right not. But, I look at it with an eye toward what's being faked, what's being coached, and who's being cast in what role. It's made the viewing process more enjoyable for me, not less. I'm also trying to teach Amelia not to believe everything she sees on TV, which is an important lesson to learn.
But, there's a much more personal reason why I'm glad we did the show. Remember when I said the shot of me crying was one of only two shots that was a first take? Here's the second:
That's me, meeting my daughter for the first time. It was a very personal moment and, since everyone in the room was riveted on the new baby, nobody thought to get out a camera. The cameraman with the television crew was the only person who got this shot. That was the best moment in my life up until that point. It couldn't be faked, it couldn't be retaken, and I'm glad I have a visual record of it.

Plus, there's that video online of the diaper change. That should come in handy when the boys start sniffing around.


  1. "When the boys start sniffing around." Yes, and you should be able to get that in smellivision by then.

    I actually love the shots of you with her, even the one of you changing her. And, of course, especially the last one. That ending brought tears to my eyes.


  2. What a journey you guys went on!

    A brave, beautiful journey. And it's all on tape!