The word "dread," in American English, usually refers to a creeping sense of horror. Back in the day, however, it was also used to refer to someone or something worthy of reverence. I feel like labor and delivery pretty much sums up both versions of that word. There's no denying that there are awesome things about labor and delivery that are gross, because while birth is beautiful and emotional and profound, it's also completely unromantic, messy, and yucky.
While most women I've talked to will acknowledge the messy grossness of labor and birth, they're usually, and simultaneously, swept up in the overall experience (and, of course, the beautiful and beloved result) to the point that the grossness becomes sort of inconsequential. That's not to say, of course, that one can't have deeply ambivalent feelings about birth, but when it comes down to it, most people don't remember the gory details as much as they remember the emotional side of things. The gory details, in short, are often a footnote in a much bigger experience.
After the birth of my first child, my child-free best friend asked to hear "everything" and assured me that I should feel absolutely free to "spare no details." Per her request, I didn't. As I recanted my labor and delivery, I was still on a high from the experience and, despite the otherworldly weirdness at times, the whole affair seemed totally normal to me. After all, I'd prepared for it, I'd lived through it, and I got a cute baby at the end of it. I really and truly wasn't trying to shock or horrify. My friend's reply to my "no holds barred" play-by-play?
"Oh. Well, I guess I asked for all the details."
As I re-read the email, I thought "Oh, yeah, that does sounds really disgusting when you say it out loud or put it in writing so, um, I guess you just had to be there."
So what are the gross but nevertheless amazing aspects of labor and delivery you can expect? They're innumerable, but I'll give you a few...
"Water breaking" is a term used to describe the rupturing the the sac of amniotic fluid surrounding and protecting your baby before they're born. TV and movies usually depict a pregnant woman's water breaking as the first sign of labor that portends an almost immediately impending birth, but that's not always (and in fact, rarely is) the case. Only about 1 in 10 women will experience their water breaking as the first indication that the baby is "coming soon to a birthing bed near you." In fact, many will already be in active labor when their water breaks, either spontaneously or with the help of their provider.
I've depicted it here as a wave because, for me, it was very sudden and very, very gushy. (I was also one of those 1 in 10 women whose water broke before contractions and oh, don't worry, they started pretty immediately after that.) For many woman, amniotic fluid leaks more than gushes, though. I have a lot of friends who thought they were peeing their pants when their water broke (and more still who were peeing their pants and thought their water had broken). The long and the short of it is that this sac of water that has basically been acting as full-body armor for your baby for the last few months is absolutely incredible, but it's also pretty gross once it starts leaking (or flooding) out of you.
Dilation in pregnancy refers to the widening of your cervix (through which your child will pass, if you give birth vaginally). It's pretty awesome, because your cervix opens up from, like, basically closed to 10 centimeters wide. On the other hand, it's pretty horrifying because your cervix opens up from basically closed to 10 centimeters wide. Think of it like this: that's the difference between a blueberry and a bagel.
I've had two children. Between the two, I've been in labor for 27 hours of my life, most of it unmedicated, but I got epidurals both times and, personally, I think of those times as some of my finest parenting decisions to date. Because contracting every 1-2 minutes when you're only 5 centimeters dilated? That sh*t suuuuuuucks. An epidural is like a magical fairy godmother who takes all the pain away but, pretty horrifyingly, she comes in the form of a catheter placed directly into your spine. That second part is, well, less charming.
Pooping While Pushing
Doctors, nurses, midwives, and pretty much everyone else who is regularly involved with childbirth will tell you that this is not at all something they especially care about, and yet for all their insistence that, "No, seriously, it's not a big deal," pooping during childbirth is frequently cited as one of a woman's #1 concerns about having a baby. Guys, for real: nobody cares.
"Okay, fine, so no one cares, but why is this awesome?" you may be asking. Well I'll tell you. Pooping while pushing is an indication that you are pushing correctly and productively. Have you ever seen what the muscles of the pelvic floor look like? They're all super-interconnected. That's pretty awesome in my book. Also? Pooping while pushing absolutely relieves some pressure, and you're going to be feeling a lot of pressure during labor and delivery, so pooping can be a bit of a relief. This is, um, you know, just what a friend told me. Yeah. A friend.
Many women have extolled the benefits of water birth, during which a pregnant woman gives birth in a tub of warm water. A birthing tub gives an expectant mother natural pain relief and (hopefully, relaxation) and freedom of movement. Everyone I personally know who has had her baby this way has said she would absolutely do it again, however, you're also left with the undeniable fact that all the gunky stuff coming out of your body along with your baby is going to come out in that tub and float around with you for a bit. Like, it's not that gross and it certainly doesn't really detract from the overall awesomeness of a water birth, but it's still pretty gross.
Baby Heads Sticking Out Of Vaginas
Remember the dual meaning of dread? That also applies to those moments when a baby is, in essence, straddling two worlds: part in, part out, seen and unseen, here and not here quite yet. Yep. An entire bloody baby head sticking out of a vagina.
The majesty of it all. The horrifying majesty.
C-Sections In General
I am in awe of c-sections. I am in awe of the medical technology that enables them. I am in awe of a doctor's ability to perform this surgery. I am in awe of a woman's ability to endure and recover from it. I am in awe of a baby's total chillness with and about the whole endeavor. I frequently refer to c-sections as "Viking Births," because I honestly feel like there's nothing in the world more badass-sounding than a c-section. It's also sort of gross. Like, someone is cutting into you and you're awake and if you or your partner peeks over the curtain they usually set up you're going to see inside yourself. I'm sorry, but gross, even if it's also incredible and awe inspiring.
Vernix aka vernix caseosa is the greasy deposit covering the skin of a baby at birth, which sounds about as gross as it actually is. If you're thinking, "Oh, that actually doesn't sound so gross" please know that "vernix caseosa" actually means "cheesy varnish." So, yeah, pretty gross. No one is 100% certain as to the point of vernix, which is made up of shed fetal skin, lanugo, and fat. Some say it helps the baby slither on out of the birth canal. Others say it helps regulate body temperature after birth or helps moisturize their delicate skin. Whatever the purpose, it's awesome, but also pretty disgusting. Like, some cheeses can be covered in a protective wax and that's cool. But newborn infants? Barf.
The L&D nurse, a super amazing sports mom who helped deliver my daughter, was, by her own admission, obsessed with placentas. "Here, look at your placenta!" Without warning, she brought the surgical tray over to my bed and held up my discarded organ so close to me, I could have touched it without reaching. (Fortunately, I was curious myself and not squeamish.) "That's pretty awesome," I agreed. "Yeah," she said, with a gleeful glint in her eye. She wasn't looking at me, she was gazing down at my placenta. "It looks like raw steak." You'd think maternity nurses would be used to placentas at this point. Not so much with Jennifer, it turns out. But I get it, because placentas are absolutely amazing, they're just also bloody heaps of blegh.
It looks like a stringy, vein-covered intestine attached to a screaming, bloody mini-human. Yes, it enabled them to be nourished by your placenta for months and months, but it's still pretty yucky. Then, after it's cut (my midwife offered my husband the honor to which he replied "No, thank you" because he and I are on the same damn level) a tiny stump of it is still left on your baby (gross) and then it dries up and looks like a cat turd (gross) and then one day it falls off and you can't find it and then one day you find it when you're not even looking for it (so gross: why do we even have babies)!
First Post-Birth Meal
This isn't a general rule. I'm sure most women can do this with grace and decorum. I am not one of those women. I was starving after I gave birth. (It wasn't even like they were starving me: I had been allowed to eat during labor.) So, when my French toast and ice cream came I seriously destroyed it. I was like an animal. To quote my sister, "It was savage and beautiful."
Labor and birth are full of these awe-inspiring contradictions. In a word? It's dreadful.