Calling It "False Labor" Is An Awfully Gaslight-y Way To Deal With Pregnant Women

Laboring with my first daughter was not easy. After being sent home from labor and delivery for following my doctor’s advice (given as he boarded a flight to Aruba) to “go straight to labor and delivery” because my contractions were regular, things ramped up again and so I headed back to the hospital… and was sent home from the hospital, again, at midnight. This time I was bleeding, weeping and yelling through contractions that were 3-5 minutes apart, but was turned out because I hadn’t hit the magic 4 centimeters of dilatation. “If we admit you now, your chances of having a c-section will double,” the triage doctor informed me. Perhaps I imagined it, but I could swear the nurses smirked each time they informed me that this was my first labor, it could go on for days.

I hobbled away with a bath towel between my legs, enraged. My cervix might have failed to fulfill the textbook definition of active labor, but I was certain that my baby was coming. Sure enough, I was back four hours later, and by the time I got the epidural I’d been demanding for hours, I was close to eight centimeters; it was almost too late.

“I’m going to kill someone,” I told my husband. It was hour 25; I was starting to understand how a woman might die from the act of childbirth.

Until we reach a critical point, we are told again and again that our experience does not matter.

My story is not unique, nor is it the worst I’ve heard. Despite packing our calendars with ultrasounds and cervical checks during the final weeks of pregnancy, assuring us that when the time comes we will receive all the support we need and more, when labor does near, pregnant women’s concerns are often dismissed. We show up too early at labor and delivery and are made to feel foolish. Weak. Humiliated. We are told our water didn’t break, we’re simply peeing ourselves. We’re threatened with c-sections, told that we aren’t in “enough” pain. We are made to feel that we don’t know our bodies, and worse, that what is happening in our bodies is insignificant. Until we reach a critical point, we are told again and again that our experience does not matter. We are branded as hysterical for embracing what is, for many, the most profound physical and emotional experience we will ever have.

On a very practical level, I get it. There simply aren’t enough beds or resources to support women through the many hours and sometimes days of early labor. Nurses work too hard as it is. Doctors are stretched thin. If we are seeking extra support, we can hire a doula. But doulas aren’t covered by insurance, and I’m sure I’m not the only mom who doesn’t have a few extra thousand dollars lying around to pay for that kind of service.

I blamed my doctor, and the hospital he was affiliated with, for my terrible experience. And when I discovered I was pregnant a second time, I switched. I was determined to have a better experience. And so far, it has been better. All the doctors in the practice have been patient and supportive, happy to answer my questions and concerns. They’ve also all warned me that second births move much more quickly than first births, and since my first daughter was such a straight shot, my second was sure to be zippy. The theme these past few weeks has been “don’t hesitate.” I was even told not to wait until my contractions were less than five minutes apart. And so an expectation was created that once I got going, I would continue, full steam ahead, to fruitful labor.


My experience has defied all expectation. It’s not my doctors’ faults that my contractions keep starting up and fizzling out. That I dilated to 2.5 centimeters and then stalled like a broken-down car. It’s no one’s fault that after ten days of intense cramps, spotting and nausea, I’m still at 2.5 centimeters. My due date is still four long days away; it’s not yet time to talk induction. It’s quite clearly not yet time for my daughter to be born. So no, I don’t blame my doctors for failing to be oracles.

What bothers me is that no one ever mentioned that such a prolonged labor was possible. Not until it happened was I assured, “Oh, this is normal.” Really? I wanted to say. Because for the past eight months all I’ve heard was how fast this labor was going to move. Should I have looked it up myself, trusted the Internet more than I trust my doctors? Maybe. Because right now, I feel like the information I’ve been fed has been more about protecting the medical staff’s liability than about actually preparing me for the emotionally-draining and physically-demanding experience ahead.

It wasn’t just me. Many women experience very intense labor symptoms, including very real contractions, that don’t progress to active labor.

So far, I’ve been sent home once this pregnancy. Wrongly assuming my contractions were going to lead to active labor, I arranged care for my 2-year-old and headed to the hospital; by the time we arrived, contractions had nearly stopped. The attending doctor gave me the good news about the dilation, then in the same breath said I’d be going home because my contractions were “just Braxton Hicks. False labor.”

I was confused because last I’d heard, Braxton Hicks don’t result in dilation. But the doctor was already gone. It was only because a nurse casually mentioned, “Oh, prodromal labor can go on for days” that I became familiar with the term. I spent hours huddled over my cellphone screen that night, reading about the very common experience of stop-and-go labor. It wasn’t just me. Many women experience very intense labor symptoms, including very real contractions, that don’t progress to active labor. These contractions often come in waves, like mine, at the same time of day, like mine, and there is nothing “false” about them. All of these women experience the same emotional roller coaster of expectation and disappointment I’d been riding for days. So why hadn’t any of the six obstetricians I’d seen over the past nine months so much as mentioned this to me?

Why are expecting women so often told that their early labor symptoms are “false,” and made to feel a sense of shame for mistaking that the first steps of the birth journey were in any way important?

Because “false labor” is an easy answer to a complicated question. In a society that can barely offer postpartum mothers the most basic support, such as decent (orany) maternity leave, the idea of improving antenatal support or tackling our disgraceful maternity mortality rates seems far-fetched indeed. So we tell women their experience is not valid and send them home.

The past 10 days have left me feeling anxious, embarrassed, and doubtful of my own intuition. And I’m lucky. I have a loving partner, an incredibly supportive family nearby, and a community of badass moms who are on-call for whatever I need, whenever I need it. I have great health insurance and when it is time to deliver my baby, I will have access to top-quality care.

Far too many women don’t have such support systems, health insurance or even health advocates. How do they feel when they are turned away, told to return only when the pain is unbearable because without health insurance, they won’t be able to shoulder the expense of an extra hour of care? Do they feel scared, lost, and helpless when a medical professional assures them that what they are experiencing is “wrong?”

In a better country, insurance would cover doula services. Hospitals would have “early labor labs,” places where women could connect, talk to doulas, and draw support from each other. All women, regardless of their race or income bracket, would have equal access to comprehensive information about the birth process as well as their rights every step of the way. Doctors would listen and offer honest answers instead of regurgitating the requisite information needed to cover their asses in the case of error. Quality of care would be valued over profit. We would support one another and seek out ways to celebrate this beautiful, but often terrifying, moment.

We aren’t there yet, but opening the discussion feels like a first step. A step we all can take.

For now, it’s back to birthing ball I go…