Painful Birth- Loving it, Embracing It, Accepting It

I live at the top of a hill.  After I have a baby I try to get back into shape by running.  The easy part is getting DOWN the hill.  But, inevitably I must come home at some point and that includes going UP hill.

Sometimes, since I am tired and at the end of my run, I try to avoid the hills.  I see one coming up and so I turn before I get there.  But then I find something awful.  ANOTHER hill.  Then I try to turn again.  Surely, I can get home without going up a hill, right?

As it turns out, NO.  I live on the top of a hill and to get back home I must go up a hill.  Trying to avoid the hill is simply going to drag out the inevitable and possibly get me lost.

When it comes to birth, I think all of us have done women a disservice, birth nuts included.  We have told women over and over that birth doesn't have to be painful.  It can be painless and easy.  You don't have to sweat!  You don't have to scream!

Different groups go about this in different ways.  The doctor set says to get the epidural or even a c-section to avoid the pain of natural birth.  The natural birth set says to learn to relax, hypnotize, comfort, doula, or dance your way out of the pain.  But often the focus is simply on AVOIDING PAIN.

I am not advocating that we all going into birth expecting it to be excruciating and scared to death about the prospect.  I realize that some women insist that their birth was painless.  I have even had a birth that I never felt was painful, so I GET IT.

But I would say that even natural birthing mamas who say that their babies birth was painless are often using different words (like intense, rushes, pressure, surges, etc) to describe what some call the pain of birth.  And even those painless birthers will admit that the final moments of birth are overwhelming and all encompassing and convulsive and powerful.  I guess what I am saying is some of this is just choice of words.

But back to the subject at hand.

Over and over again I see women actually ashamed to admit that they felt like natural birth was painful.  It is like it is some kind of badge of honor to have a painless birth.

Guess what.  I think that is lame.  I think we have sold women a bill of goods and we are not adequately preparing them for the realities of birth when we act like they can have a painless birth if they just "do everything right" and "have their mind free of fear."

There.  I just said it.  I think the idea of painless birth is a little lame.

Let me explain.  

The most beautiful thing about birth to me is what it can teach us about real life.  I think that is why the journey of birth is so intense and beautiful and multifaceted- it is teaching us a lesson about the rest of our lives when we are fairly young and when we are embarking on parenthood.

That lesson is this-  Real joy requires some pain.

I don't know how much of my life I have spent avoiding the hard stuff, but I can tell you that it was far to much.

Too many a year was spent waiting for things to get easier and hoping that THEN I could really enjoy life.  I missed out on enjoying the hard times and learning from them.  I dragged out the misery and I didn't appreciate what I could have been learning at the time.  I told the universe to keep trying like mad to teach me the same lesson, over and over again, because I didn't want to learn it.

I don't believe birth is supposed to be easy.  I don't believe it is supposed to be painless.  I think, in fact I KNOW, that the people who first said this, were men.  The idea of modern and painless natural childbirth belongs to Grantley Dick-Read.  A pioneer for sure who did a lot of good for childbirth, but still, not a woman and not somebody who ever actually experienced BIRTH HIMSELF.

What should you love, embrace, and accept about the pain of birth?

Love that it is telling you how to move your body in such a way that will get your baby out sooner.

Embrace that it is teaching you that you are strong and the only way that it can teach you this is by having you go through something that you didn't think you were capable of.

Accept that it is bringing your baby closer and closer to you.

Love that when it is over you will feel intense joy and satisfaction because the change- from the intensity of transition and pushing and the ring of fire, to the joy of a slippery baby, will make you euphoric when it is over.

Embrace that birth makes you a mother that knows she is capable and willing to sacrifice for her child.

Accept that it is something you must, no- are BLESSED- to go through.  It isn't a punishment, it is a journey and it is great one.

When we try to avoid the hills of birth we short change ourselves, we fight what was meant to be and make longer a journey that, though it includes difficulties, gives us an amazing prize at the end.  When women fight this, avoid this, or are surprised by this it simply makes that hill harder to climb. 

We need to stop avoiding the pain of birth and we need to love what it teaches us, what it does for us, and what it means to us when we have gone through it.  The pain of birth is your teacher, your lover and your friend.  It is not something to be feared.  It is what makes birth so magnificent. 


mamamia said…
Quite true of lots of things about life really! :)
MentalMom said…
Personally, I have always despised the idea that if you do it (birth) "right" it won't hurt. If it hurts the mother was too tense, too fearful what have you. This blame the mother crap and resulting guilt trip is not what natural childbirth should be about. Birth hurts, in humans it only makes physiological sense. Can being relaxed and not fearful make it hurt less? sure but painless birth is the exception to the norm folks.
The focus should be that the pain of birth is different than other pain. It isn't pathological and this makes a difference physically and psychologically. It hurts, it can hurt a lot, but with support a woman can usually cope BUT when something is wrong, things change. How many unmedicated moms, when something isn't right,come out of laborland and TELL those attending, "Something is wrong, something isn't right!" We instinctively can tell when pain goes from normal to pathological. It may be from a malpositioned baby or something far more serious like an abruption and sadly, how often are these women patronized and told that everything is fine?
How about we listen to the mothers. Just stop telling them how they should do it, how they should feel and LISTEN. NCB advocates are almost as bad as the 'other side' in patronizing and guilting mothers. Do it *our* way, we are *right*, THEY are wrong, if you have a bad experience or outcome during NCB it is your fault. You didn't eat right, or sit right or read enough or trust birth. Drives me crazy. All of it.
/rant off
T said…
I always tell my clients, "It's pain with a purpose" and that "purpose" is multifaceted. It prepares you in some sense to the journey of parenthood. I totally agree with everything you just said! Right on, Mama Birth!!
Katie said…
I've had two "easy" labors (spontaneous, physiological, unmedicated) and births.. and while I wouldn't call them painless, I wouldn't call them painful, either. Yeah, there was stuff that hurt - especially crowning - but I would truly call my experiences overwhelming and intense rather than painful. It's not about it being painful for me, it's about my body taking over control from my conscious mind and doing the work necessary to push a baby out, and that's really overwhelming for someone who doesn't even like to drink alcohol because of how it throws me out of control.

I wouldn't ever say that someone whose experiences were different from mine was 'doing it wrong' or anything so thoughtless; every mom, baby, and birth present a huge number of variables that render every delivery and therefore every experience unique. I'm a doula, and have seen that labor can be very painful, and I don't mean that the mom simply feels out of control (or whatever BS). But I would say that classing people who describe birth as "intense" rather than "painful" as being in denial (yes, I'm paraphrasing by my understanding of what you said) is inaccurate. Intensity is not at all the same thing as pain.
I must say simply that I think it's a disservice to women to say that birth HAS to be painful.

Pain does NOT have to be part of the birth journey, although it often time is for women who chose particular birthing paths. Intensity? Sure. Discomfort? Maybe. Pain? Not necessarily.
Maria said…
I just had my third baby (first homebirth) yesterday and this made me cry. Boo on you, LOL. His birth was far from painless. Very intense and I absolutely ROARED him out! I am STRONG. :-)
Tricia said…
Thank you thank you thank you. Your post brought tears to my eyes. I knew somewhere inside that my feelings of inadequacy relating to my behaviour while birthing my boys were unnecessary, but I still felt them. Your post helped me see that I can feel strong and empowered even though I screamed, panicked, and felt afraid at times while birthing my babes.
Unknown said…
Oh my goodness, K, I LOVE your comment!!! I was SOOO ill-prepared during my last birth - my first vaginal birth - because so many people either glossed over or dismissed or flat-out denied the pain. Everything I read told me that yes - if I relaxed, ate right, etc., that I could have this beautiful, pain-free, tear-free birth. Works for some people, but not everyone. And because of that dynamic, I felt extremely isolated after DS2's birth. Pro-med people thought I was just being proven insane; but I sure didn't have a "normal" NCB birth story, either.

The NCB community needs to welcome the entire gamut of experiences, not just propagate orgasmic birth videos as their big selling point.

THANK YOU, Mama Birth, for keeping it REAL!!!
Unknown said…
Thank you so much for your post. My son was born when I was 24 (14 months ago). I was very ideological about natural birth and expected, as you say, this beautiful, serene lovely thing. I was utterly shocked by what actually happened. My son was, as planned, born at home in the water and was healthy and happy as a horse, but the birth was the most violent thing that I ever experienced. I have a high pain tolerance (like, ridiculously high ladies, I get fillings without novacain, etc.) and I was very fit, but the birth was agonizing. I still feel lost drowning in the sounds of my own screams . . .my own tears . . . the horrible tearing . . . the blood pouring down my legs afterwards. I felt and continue to feel very betrayed by the natural birthing community and I feel so.very.inadequate that I didnt experience natural birth the way I was "supposed" to. Where was all my empowerment? where was the joy? I have experienced a lot of tears and PTSD afterwards and I do consider whether I will ever go the natural route again. In many respects I want to . . . I believe in its benefits, I would LOVE to experience this joyous empowerment, but my first birth experience was horrific and did horrible damage to my body. It was pathological pain absolutely. I think the women who sugar coated birth also did me a great GREAT disservice and they are still a big cause for the emotional pain I continue to put myself through daily over my behavior durin the birth and especially my feelings afterwards. I hope these feelings can change. RIght now I feel very sad and angry at people who told me I would feel a certain way about it. I have suffered a lot of emotional and physical trauma from natural birth and very very few people in the natural birth community believe me and want to hear about it. I really think the middle ground is right. know the risks, know its not easy, it may be very hard, it may be very easy, it may even be horrific (and indeed, it is for a large number of women). In a pain study a full 25% described unmedicated birth as excruciating. Repeat: a full 25%. I feel the natural birthing community MUST talk about this 25%, because I am in it and we need help. we need help to deal with this. Thank you for your post. I hope one day I can be ok about how it all happened and my feelings. I want to just remember the joy of his coming and not my screaming and the agony and the damage and the blood . . . I dont know if I ever will though.
Misty Pratt said…
Childbirth can hurt like a SOB, and as a doula, I would never tell women it's not supposed to hurt. That's doing them a disservice, as you say. Instead, I tell them that on a scale of 1 to 10 the pain will be a 20. BUT, if it actually turns out to be less than that, then thank heavens! :)
Theresa said…
I was totally one of those moms who thought I might be able to have a painless birth. When I had practice contractions, I kept thinking, "This is it! And it feels great!" Yeah, I had no idea. It hurt. A lot. And I yelled at the top of my lungs. It's certainly not the same kind of pain as, say, stubbing your toe, but I would still call it pain. During my labour I remember having to deal with the fact that I wasn't having a painless labour. I was disappointed that I wasn't achieving the painless labour I had a read about. But, I accepted that it was going to hurt, and I was going to yell about it. I did it. I'm glad it's over. ;)
Ashley said…
K, thank you for your comment. I had a totally dysfunctional natural labor that wound up with a c-section due to malposition. My daughter was posterior, asynclitic and a brow presentation, my contractions were strong and frequent AND there was never a clear start stop or peak, it was just waves of pain. It sucked, but part of me enjoyed it because of the intensity, the idea that I was doing it.

Until her bad position came really into play when she got to 0 or +1 station and the pain went from "labor hurts" to "SOMETHING IS WRONG!!!!!" It was probably the scariest moment of my life, and also one of the most valuable. Amongst other things, because of that I know that my body works, that it can tell me what's going on, that natural birth is better (for me), even when it doesn't work out. The fact that I experienced that wrongness first hand rather than through reports from nurses thanks to an epidural did a lot for how I felt about my birth outcome and probably prevented PPD.

Even though it hurt, and it was hard, and it went wrong, I wouldn't change a thing about my birth and I can't wait to go through it all again (though not the wrongness or the c-section).

I also hate the blame the mother phenomenon amongst NCB people. I had morning sickness because that's how my body works, NOT because I feared parenthood or some other b.s they wanna spout. Bah!
The Colvins said…
Great post! I must agree with everything you said. My first two births were medicated and after having experienced natural birth with my third I can now understand how amazing and life changing it is. I have learned so much about myself from that experience. I grew leaps and bounds...birth is a great teacher.
Sweet Beats said…
ABSOLUTELY agree with much of this - my last labour was excruciating (35 hours) and afterwards I felt absolutely awed to think of all the women, everywhere who have been through this. I can't stand the dick-read philosophy that if only we could be 'natural' enough we would not feel pain, like the cockney woman or african women he uses as examples (of course he did not actually ask any african women what they think about this idea).

You don't feel pain in birth because of fear, or tension, or intervention - you feel it because it hurts. Fear, tension and intervention impact upon the way that you experience and respond to the pain, and can worsen it. But ultimately, the pain is a physiological phenonemon.

What I don't agree with is that we should embrace it. Expect it, prepare for it, learn to manage it,don't fear it - yes.

I am ambivalent here - I feel proud of getting through my last labour. But I don't want to go through that again, and I don't feel great about my daughters going through it either.

I really strongly believe that every woman who gives birth is a hero, has had a tranforming experience and however she managed that, it probably drew on all her resources. I think a woman should be supported in all her choices surrounding the approach to pain in labour, so long as they are informed, and provided with respect.
Unknown said…
I've given birth to 8 babies. All of them intensely painful, so much so that my heart went into syncope and I blacked out with a couple of my daughters' labors.
I worked in maternity for a number of years and was always flabbergasted to have women say their labor and delivery was like having a bowel movement.
Mine were a poop from hell if that was the case!
At one point, I said with tears to the OB physician, "I feel like a failure. I got an epidural at 3 cm with numbers 6, 7, and 8. I never got 'good' at childbirth but it was a beast every single time and took 15 hours a piece with the last two. By then I should have been able to unzip and have them fall out of me...." He looked at me and said, "This isn't a graded system. You don't get an 'A' or an 'F'. You labored, you delivered, you succeeded."
I will say this, no matter the outcome, and whether the baby was born live or still, there is no "grade" or judgment. The hope is the mom will not be pregnant forever. HOW delivery of the child occurs isn't the important thing, THAT it occurs by whatever means is what counts.
Pain is what the woman says it is and comfort and support should be offered as able.
Unknown said…
As I prepare for the labor process, I find this viewpoint so refreshing. Thanks for sharing!