I recently heard about a friend of a friend who is pregnant and absolutely convinced that birth will be the most horrifying experience ever. I felt sad for her. First, on a practical level, because fear=tension=pain and her fear could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Second, on an emotional level, because birth has the potential to be a truly wonderful experience.
Our main cultural belief about birth seems to focus on pain. Last year, when people heard about my plans for a home birth, everyone’s first reaction was, “but what about the pain?!?!?!?” After N was born safely and quietly at home they were still asking, “didn’t it hurt?”
This focus on pain actually amused me. Yes, it hurt. But nobody ever asks a marathon runner, “what about the PAIN?” as if the pain is the whole essence of the exercise. I’ve heard that marathon runners hit a “wall” where suddenly their legs are burning and they just want to lie down and quit. Labouring women hit that wall too – it’s called “transition”, it hurts like a bitch, and it makes you want to call the whole thing off. But like marathon runners, labouring women push past the wall. Yes, it hurts. But that’s besides the point.
During K’s birth, the transition contractions freaked me out. They were relentless, I couldn’t get on top of them, and I was imagining having to cope with them for hours on end. During N’s birth the contractions were no less intense (if anything they were more intense as that labour moved much more quickly), but I was mentally prepared. I took them one second at a time. I focused on relaxing my facial muscles, lowering my shoulders, and continuing to get oxygen into my body. I paced myself. I focused on getting to my finish line, and I made it.
My point is, birth is so much more than just painful. Our cultural focus on pain really does women a disservice. How about telling women about the amazing endorphin rush you get afterwards? How about talking about the clarity and relaxation of moments between the contractions? Why don’t we talk to women (and girls, too) about the mental game that is birth?
And then there’s the excellent point that pain does not equal suffering. There’s a difference, as many athletes could tell you. Yes, there was pain. But that just wasn’t the point.
I’m aware that every women needs to make her own choices, and many women wouldn’t be comfortable with mine. This post is not meant to denigrate anyone who used pain medication during birth or who had a highly medicalized birth for whatever reason. But I hate that we’re sending girls and women the message that labour is painful and awful and unmanageable. It doesn’t have to be, if you’re prepared and have the right support. I just wish more women believed that.