We Do Moms No Favors by Sugarcoating How Much Labor Hurts


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They called it a surge. They told me it was like riding a wave that built and crested and fell, and that you could ride that wave and keep your head -- no, your whole being -- above water, and it could be spiritual and amazing and even orgasmic. They told me this and I nodded my head, because I wanted to believe that I had control over my labor experience. I wanted to believe that birth could be, like they say in hypnobirthing, pain-free.
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It was not. For me, birth was three days of back labor, during which I screamed, cursed, paced the floors, and arched my back -- which felt like someone was with-a-gun-shooting it -- for days on end. My husband says I moaned like a dying wildebeest. I was so far gone that I didn't feel the epidural, a needle the approximate width of my pinkie finger. And when the relief came, I wept -- partly because it didn't hurt anymore, and partly because I thought I'd failed. 

Labor, after all, isn't supposed to hurt. It's supposed to make you feel fulfilled and empowered. It's supposed to be a life-affirming testament to the strength of your own body. That's what so many expectant women hear from books and websites, labor documentaries, and even childbirth advocates. Laura Shanley is one such prominent unassisted childbirth advocate. "I enjoy giving birth," she writes on her website. "I find it exhilarating and exciting, sexual and spiritual, magical and miraculous!" She explains that birth should be painless and easy, but it's our "fear response" that makes it painful. So, if we can just align our good thoughts and want it badly enough, maybe we can all have painless, hippie-patchouli births with yogic breathing in a birthing pool filled with rosewater.

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Unfortunately, a lot of us fall for that one, and we end up disappointed when we're one of the 60 percent of women who want an epidural or the 32 percent of women who need a C-section. And that's not the only labor ideal we have thrown in our faces. There’s also the run-of-the-mill pain-free birth: "Oh, he just slid right out!" Then, there's hypnobirthing, where practitioners tell us openly that if we rid ourselves of negative thoughts, our labor will be easy. And, finally, there's the ultimate birth experience, the one everyone chases: orgasmic birth. It's the one where you're so pain-free, you're coming!

If you're mellow enough, chill enough, and "good" enough, your birth will come without pain, we think, secretly. But that's a lie. And we need to talk about what labor really feels like.

Before, women knew what labor felt like, because they'd seen other women give birth before they did it themselves. They knew the rhythm of it; the ebb and flow of pain; that at the times when the pain was greatest, payoff was imminent. They didn't feel like failures if they didn't have a picture-perfect delivery, because they understood that nothing about the birthing process was neat or easily controlled. But our antiseptic culture has sequestered birth. We know nothing of labor, and so we fill the gaps with lofty ideals that only end up making women feel totally inept.

Labor isn't perfect and painless and easy, and it certainly isn't a matter of willpower. So I put out a call to the experts on my social media feeds -- and by "experts," I mean people who have actually given birth and know what it's like. I asked them to share their birth experiences with me and not hold back on the graphic details.

"[It's] the only time I ever remember truly wanting to exit my body," a mom named Kathryn, 25, told me. Another mom, Jennifer, age 43, said, "I remember having a contraction so hard, it felt like I was struck by lightning. I can only describe it as an electric convulsion. I've been in a lot of other kinds of pain, but that crazy intensity seemingly affecting every cell in my body is incomparable."

Annie, 42, had back labor like me, and said it felt "like someone sticking a red hot knife into my tailbone during the pushing phase."

Several women I spoke to noted that they got through the crowning phrase by singing Johnny Cash’s "Ring of Fire" in their heads. There were also noises -- and not just like a dying wildebeest, either. With my second son, I screamed out prayers like an old Catholic woman at her beads, just really, really loud. A mom named Melanie told me, "If there was a video of my first birth experience, it would end with me repeatedly saying, 'Please Lord Jesus, get this baby out of me.'"

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Wendy, 40, says she, like me, screamed at some points, but was given the advice to moan instead, which "actually helped with the pain." And Dana, 38, was given a medication called Demerol, so she would pass out between contractions, wake up at the pain, bolt upright, and scream and cuss the nurses out. She asked me to note that she is not, under normal circumstances, a regular user of profanity.

Lauri, 34, told me that when a doctor looked at her and said, "Looks like we’ll be pushing for a long time," she swiveled at him and said "in a demon-possessed Ghostbusters voice, 'Who is WE? There are no humans coming from YOUR vagina!'" Her doctor, she reports, was a man.

Lauren, 45, might have summed up all of our feelings as she dangled from a birthing bar, begging her husband to "punch her" in the lower back. "Fuck, fuck, fuck! GET IT OUT!" she screamed.  

We need to talk about this. We need to let pregnant women know: look, it's all well and good to tell yourself that this doesn't hurt. But for the most part, birth hurts like a motherfucker, and this is what it's like. You might scream and cuss and moan. You might, like Stephanie, 34, stand up on the bed and try to rip out all of your IVs, or, like Heather, try to rip off the hospital bed railing and throw it across the room. You might cry and collapse. You can do this, but it might look a little different than the perfect birth stories you see on Instagram.

Women need to know what they're in for so they know when it will hurt badly (transition and crowning), and when it will not; to surround themselves with a good support system; to trust in their bodies and the people around them. And it will still hurt like hell. But it will hurt less, because you're expecting it. You will know how it's supposed to go. You won't feel (as much) fear. And, best of all, you won't feel like your body or your mind have somehow failed you. Every woman deserves that.

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