You don't know what you don't know. It sounds like a reasonable, basic premise, but actually coming to grips with unknown unknowns can be simultaneously terrifying and awesome. Never will this become more apparent than when you are having a baby. The things I didn't know about labor and delivery until I was in the thick of it are emotionally indescribable, but I'll go ahead and try because this is what writers are supposed to do and my business cards all say "writer."
I've had two children, and maybe it's because my first was a c-section and my second was a VBAC, or maybe it's just the individualized nature of each birth experience, but I learned something new each time I delivered. Even the things that were the same from one delivery to the next had a fresh sheen or deepened level of understanding the second time around. Of course, I didn't go into either birth without doing a whole bunch of reading and falling down YouTube birth video black holes. (I'm a Ravenclaw, guys: we're natural researchers.) still, while everything I learned proved useful, it was ultimately insufficient.
In the end, no amount of reading or research is going to teach you all you will learn through actual labor and delivery. Which is why, of course, laboring women need to be kind to themselves, especially when they're postpartum. You cannot and will not predict the future, my friends. So, what did I specifically learn after going through labor an delivery twice? Well...
Sometimes Labor Does Begin Just Like In The Movies
Before I had my children, I was always very keen to point out that one's water breaking is not usually how labor begins. In fact, only 10 percent of women will experience that Hollywood trope of being surprised by a gush of amniotic fluid followed by intense contractions. I'm still pretty keen to point that out because it's true.
That said, it hadn't really occurred to me that I might be one of those special snowflakes in the 10 percent. For the birth of my second, my midwife manually broke my water, which got labor into full swing (though I was having some minor contractions before that). But my first was the classic "wake-up-to-go-pee-and-worry-for-a-second-that-you-have-peed-yourself-and-realize-your-water-broke-only-to-start-contracting-immediately." Is that classic? It is now.
The Precise Excrutiating Pain Of Contractions
Some people say that contractions aren't all that terrible and that they just feel like pressure or a bad menstrual cramp. That may very well be true for them, but mine were torturous almost right away. An OB-GYN friend of mine has suggested that I had such a singularly miserable experience because, unlike most people, my water breaking signaled the start of labor, so I had less cushioning against the pain of such uterine constrictions than most. Broken water contractions hurt more, apparently. Lucky me.
Making A Noise Like An Orgasming Woodpecker Helps...
There is no other way to describe the sound that naturally came out of me when I was in labor with my first. I don't know what inspired me to make that noise, but I did and it didn't take away the pain but it made it more manageable. I think it must have to do with controlling my breathing or something. My partner was a real champ trying not to laugh until I finally gave him permission because, even in my state, I could see the humor in it.
...So Does Singing...
It's basically the orgasming woodpecker principle, but refined with experience. When I'm not in labor I'm a singer, and I have a pretty powerful voice. I never took birth classes (no regrets), but I know how to sing and I feel like it's probably the same basic idea, what with the breathing and all. (In her book Ina May's Guide To Childbirth, Ina May Gaskin relates the story of a mother who sang her way through labor, too, so I'm not alone here.) I wasn't belting show tunes like I usually am, though. It was more of a musically sustained "Om," like you do in yoga. I'd say I probably sounded like a musical theater major playing the role of a Buddhist monk.
This lady went viral for dancing her way through labor. She knows WTF is up, you guys. We could all take a lesson from her. I did this (my moves weren't quite as sweet — I basically stood in place and did a dance like I had to pee) and it helped more than just about anything other than a needle full of drugs injected into my spine.
Labor & Delivery Nurses DGAF About Your Contractions So You Need To Answer Their Questions
I don't think I have ever hated anyone more than the surly L&D nurse who insisted on asking me a barrage of personal and medical questions as I was contracting every 90 seconds and had been in labor for 12 hours. It's like, "Woman, I know you're just doing your job, but pardon me if I don't respond immediately. Also, I already checked in with this information a week ago with this information so I wouldn't have to do this now. Get off my damn back."
L&D nurses: you guys are great. I know you have to get all this information, and I know you deal with women in labor every day, multiple times a day. However, please remember that this is not an every day occurrence for us and this sh*t hurts.
You Will Never Wait For Anything As Long As You Feel You Will Wait For Your Epidural
I opted for an epidural after 13 hours with my first child and 5 hours with my second. From the time I asked and the time I received it was, maybe 30 minutes, but when you know it's coming and the end of miserable contractions is nigh 30 minutes feels like eternity.
Just How Interconnected Your Ladyparts Muscles Are With Your Butt Muscles
Perhaps what surprised me the most about labor was just how involved my butt became in the process. Like, I know I would probably have a lot of physical sensation in my abdomen and vagina, but I didn't expect to feel contractions deep in my bowels. My OB and midwife both assured me it was totally normal and a good sign — it means the baby's head has descended and is pushing against your colon from the inside. But that encouragement didn't take away from the awful sensation that I dubbed "a buttraction."
You Can't Always Tell How Far Into The Birth Process You Actually Are
My first child was a c-section and, because I couldn't really feel anything that was happening below my collarbone, I didn't know my doctor had even made an incision by the time she said "I'm about to deliver."
With my daughter, who was born vaginally, I had absolutely no idea how much of her was out at any given point because while I could feel pretty much everything (more on that in a minute) I didn't know where I ended and she began. At one point my husband informed me, "There's a little bit of her head sticking out!" to which my midwife and L&D nurse gently but firmly corrected him "There's a lotta bit of her head sticking out." Then, after 45 minutes that I felt sure would never end, I was told that I just needed "one more big push," at which point it was like "Where did the time go?!"
Epidurals Wear Off Sometimes
Fortunately, it didn't wear off when I was having the c-section, but just around the time I had to start pushing with my second, all of a sudden all that unpleasantness was back in full force.
"It's a good thing," said my midwife. "That way you can get a better sense of how to push most effectively."
Said the woman who wasn't pushing a nine pound baby out of her vagina. Weird.
Your Birth Team Is Clutch
Most important are the people who are going to be in the room where it happens when it happens: the doctors, nurses, midwives, and partners involved all have the power to shape this experience for better or for worse.
Everyone you interact with in the course of your labor and delivery will have an effect on how you feel about it. The little kid looking at you wide-eyed in the elevator of your apartment building, the taxi driver who gets you to the hospital, the bereaved-looking family standing in front of the hospital when you arrive, they all influence how you think about, interpret, and remember the overall experience. And, strangely, this was something I realized in the moment (despite having other things on my mind) and has stayed with me.
After A While You Do Not Care Who Sees What
Between two pregnancies and births, I'm pretty sure approximately 784 people have seen my vagina. An entire operating room has seen inside of me. Several nurses have watched me poop and pee. After 18 and 9 hours of labor respectively, I really didn't care what was exposed as I sought to become more comfortable and get those children out of my body and into my arms. At one point I tore off my hospital gown. A doctor, who popped in to assist my midwife at one point, considerately covered me up, thinking the robe must have slipped. I moved it back because "No, leave it. My boobs are hot feeling really hot right now. I need them to not feel hot."
During The Worst Of It You May Question Literally Everything That Led You To This Point
It's OK. It doesn't make you a bad mom or anything, but all of a sudden the moment you've waited for goes from being hypothetical to, like, the one of the realest things you'll ever deal with in your life. It's emotional. Also, I really don't think I've stressed this enough, so I'll say it again: it hurts. I remember in the midst of pushing out my behemoth of a daughter, "WTF was I thinking? Why did I want this? Why didn't I just schedule a c-section when I had the chance?" (Of course, in recovering from a c-section I bemoaned the fact that I hadn't "tried harder" to delivery vaginally, so there's seriously no winning, dudes.)
These questions eventually go away, sometimes as soon as your ordeal is over, sometimes a bit later, but don't let the fact that you're questioning things get you down.
My Vagina Is Athletic AF
I didn't know that ahead of time, but as I started pushing my midwife and nurse were impressed by how well things were going. I've always sort of daydreamed about not knowing I was naturally really good at something simply because I've never tried it before. I've never played chess, but what if I'm the next Bobby Fisher? Granted, being good at pushing out babies was not on that list of wishful thoughts, but, hey, I'll take it.
I Am A Goddess
A shimmering, powerful, magnificent, baby-having goddess.