In reading up on labor and delivery during both of my pregnancies, I frequently came across the following sentiment: the body knows exactly what it's supposed to do. "Listen to your body," chorused the well meaning, hippy-dippy birth gurus who wanted me to know there are things my body would try to tell me during labor. "There are millennia of womanly wisdom in your hips."
I took this all very seriously the first time around and at face value. However, (and I say this with no malice to the birth gurus or those who feel otherwise) I attribute my c-section in part to "listening to my body." Look, my body didn't know WTF was going on. My body was very confused and worried and then it convinced my brain that things were going south and, after 18 hours of labor, I wound up with an emergency c-section. (It's actually fine, as I'm one of the lucky ones who had a really lovely experience with the whole baby extraction surgery.)
Second time around, I tweaked my expectations for my body a little bit. Deep down, I knew the old girl was perfectly capable of handling labor (she'd already logged almost a full day of it) and could push a baby out of her vagina. I also knew that my body, for all her virtues, got jittery and hysterical when she was in pain. (This makes sense, of course: most of the time if you're in pain you're in a situation you'd like to get out of. Your body reacts accordingly.) If my body were its own entity, separate from everything else that I am (mind, soul, etc.), she would type entirely in caps locks. I knew that I had to believe in my body, but not listen to her. Like, at all. In fact, I would have to prep my brain to talk her down basically the duration of labor, because my body would try to tell me crazy things, like:
"You're Gonna Die!"
Body, my sweetheart, you are not going to die. You're doing fine. You're in pain, but you're not in danger. This is normal. You have a baby inside of you and she needs to come out.
"You Really Need To Poop"
I listened to my body at first on this one. Hey, she didn't know too much about having babies (without my brain calming her down) but she had kept my pooping for 30 years at that point. I trusted her. However, every time I would slip to the bathroom to try: nothing. Eventually my brain got wise and it was like "OK. Body? You don't have to poop. You're just all psyched to push, which feels pretty much the same. It's not time to push yet, though. Seriously, you're dilated to, like, 5 centimeters. So just hold off for a little bit and we'll get through this."
"ARE YOU SURE?! BECAUSE I REALLY HAVE TO..."
"Stop. Just stop. I promise: if you have to you're allowed to poop during delivery."
"Yeah, which is a sacrifice I'm making for you, I'll have you know."
"Shout Really Loud. That'll Help!"
"REALLY LOUD SUSTAINED SCREAMING IS GOING TO MAKE THIS ALL BETTER?!"
"I don't think so, body."
"JUST DO IT! PRETEND YOU'RE AN ANGRY MONK SHOUTING OM TO TRY TO CALM DOWN!"
"That's not how 'om' is supposed to work."
"JUST DO IT! WE'RE GOING TO DIE IF YOU DON'T!"
"OK, we're not going to..."
"If I do it will you calm down?"
"IT'S THE ONLY WAY!"
"OK! OK! Ummm... AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! ... Hey, what do you know? That's actually pretty good."
"I TOLD YOU! QUICK HERE'S ANOTHER CONTRACTION! DO IT AGAIN!"
(Hey. Every now and then she has some insights.)
"This Was A Terrible Mistake"
In the throes of labor (which, for me, was very painful from start to finish), it's easy to think that everything you've planned on (specifically having a child vaginally, and holding off on pain relieving drugs for as long as possible) was the worst decision ever.
Like, why the hell are you even doing this? What is this achieving? This sucks so tremendously. My brain needed to remind my body to keep her eyes on the prize and just imagine what a newborn's fuzzy little head smelled like.
"If You Move You're Screwed"
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!"
"I'm trying to help us walk, sway, and breathe through contractions."
"AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH! GIRL STOP!"
"Why? This is supposed to be..."
"NO! DON'T MOVE! YOU'RE GOING TO MAKE EVERYTHING WORSE!"
"I really don't think so."
"IT'S LIKE WE'RE GETTING TORN APART BY MEAT HOOKS ON THE INSIDE!"
"I think you'll find if..."
"DON'T DO IT!" *Walks, sways, breathes* "OK. KEEP DOING THAT. THAT ACTUALLY FEELS GOOD."
(Sometimes the body can be reasoned with.)
"This Is The Rest Of Your Life Now. Seriously, This Is Never Going To Stop."
To be fair, this is easy to think labor is never-ending after you're in pain for a long enough period of time. Think of how long the director's cut of any one of the Lord of the Rings movies were. I could have watched all three twice during my first labor. That's a lot of hobbitses, dudes.
So, OK body: I'll be understanding here. Labor does feel like it's never going to end. However, the brain constantly had to reassure her that it wasn't going to be forever and, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't going to be so terrible.
"You Think A Mere Epidural Is Going To Shut Me Up Completely?"
Body (at least my body) thought the idea that an epidural is going to completely zonk her out is hysterical. The best way I can think to describe it, is like muting the TV while closed captions are on. You're still experiencing everything that's going on except, for one thing. In the case of labor with an epidural, that one thing is pain. You're still getting a physical sensation, often an unpleasant and uncomfortable one. Body is still making herself known.
(Oh, and over time: the epidural starts to wear off.)
"You're Freezing. Here, Let Me Shiver For You. That'll Help."
Apparently this is an extremely common symptom of labor. Some women say they feel cold. I didn't, but I was shivering like someone who'd done a polar bear plunge. The first time around I didn't know what was going on and my body did not appreciate my brain's complete lack of explanation.
"WHAT IS THIS?!"
"Oh. Ummm, no idea. Are you cold?"
"F*CK NO I'M NOT COLD! IS THIS A TRICK?"
"WHERE'S ASHTON?! I'M I BEING PUNK'D?!"
"I don't think..."
"I PAY YOU TO THINK! START THINKING! WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?"
"I wish I knew."
"WE'RE GOING TO DIIIIIIIIIIIIIE! WE ARE ACTIVELY DYING RIGHT NOW!"
"Your Baby Is Going To Come Out Of Your Butt"
If you've ever examined the muscles of the pelvic floor, you will see there's a lot of interconnectedness with all the other "down there" muscles. This means that when your baby is descending into the birth canal, it puts pressure on the entire region, including your colon. This creates a really horrible sensation like you have to take a massive poop.
At one point my body tried to convince my brain that my assorted plumbing and pipes were all mixed up and I was, in fact, going to crap out my daughter. Brain had to calmly remind my Body that someone definitely would have noticed that before this moment if that had been the case.
"Your Butt Is Going To Explode"
So. Much. Pressure. I really can't overstate this.
"I'm Not Stretching Any More, So You're Going To Tear"
"NOPE! NO! TELL THAT CHILD TO EXIT ELSEWHERE BECAUSE SHE IS NOT GOING TO FIT! SHE NEEDS TO GTFO SOME OTHER WAY IMMEDIATELY!"
"It's OK. The vagina is designed to deal with a human being..."
"YOU WILL SHUT YOUR DAMN MOUTH RIGHT NOW! I KNOW WHAT I'M ABOUT AND THIS IS A PHYSICAL IMPOSSIBILITY!"
Again, I'll give it to my body: this is not an unreasonable fear. Third and even fourth degree tears are real and scary. However, my body also underestimated herself: a vagina is pretty magical and can stretch a lot. Did I tear? Yes, but only second and first degree tears (which is impressive with an almost 10 pound baby), and those tears healed within six weeks.
"Your Vagina Is Literally On Fire"
"OH LORD IT'S HAPPENING! THE MOUTH OF HELL IS OPENING FROM WITHIN MY VAG!"
"That's the Ring of Fire. It's normal, body."
"AHHHHH! IT'S THAT DAMN GREEN WILDFIRE! LIKE ON GAME OF THRONES! IT BURNS FOREVER! OH CRAP, THIS BABY IS CERSEI! SHE'S GONNA BURN EVERYTHING TO THE GROUND!"
"I promise it's..."
"SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!"
So, as you can see: listening to your body is a mantra to be used with caution. Because every body is unique and different, and some bodies are out of their damn minds and will freak you the f*ck out if you listen to them intently and without question.