I want to start by saying, of course, that every woman and every labor is different. No one can say what every mom in labor needs to hear... not even someone as thoughtful and awesome as me, a mother of two who has been through the "joys" of labor and delivery twice. But I can say, that as someone who has spent a collective 27 hours in the throes of childbirth, that I have some thoughts on the subject. While the physical sensation of each of my two labors was nearly identical, the experiences were psychologically very different. My first labor gave me insight into my second that ultimately led to a better overall experience.
I was not at all prepared for my first labor. I didn't take any birth classes or immerse myself in any particular pain management technique. Certainly I'd done some reading (because I am nothing if not a Hermione at heart) but that was just about it, and reading can't really prepare you for what happens when those floodgates open (in my case, my water breaking, so, like, actual floodgates). And while all this may have contributed to my lack of preparedness, I'm honestly not sure that my reaction to my first labor could have been prevented. The pain was intense almost from the very beginning of what would be an 18 hour labor (again, thanks in part to the fact that my water was already broken) and put me into a state of subdued panic. I felt anxious, unsettled, and powerless. I just assumed that's what labor felt like.
In the end, 18 hours of labor and all I got was this stupid C-section. (That should totally be a shirt.) I felt good about the way my birth wound up but still: it would have been nice to avoid all those awful, painful contractions.
During my second pregnancy, I knew right away I wanted a vaginal delivery and I knew that if I wanted to be successful, part of that was going to have to face labor again.
I felt anxious, unsettled, and powerless. I just assumed that's what labor felt like.
My midwife suggested hiring a doula. "I know I'll be there and your husband will be there," she said, "But I think there's something to be said about just having a person in the room to stand in awe of you." I think there's a lot to be said for that, actually. Because your midwife or OB-GYN is there to be the expert, your partner is there to help you, yes, but is also excited to meet their new baby. A doula's sole job is to uplift, support, and care for you, to remind you of your power.
Unfortunately, I knew enough about myself to know that while a doula is a great idea for a lot of people, it wasn't right for me. Involving more people than were strictly speaking necessary felt uncomfortable. In fact, I've often been envious of cats: they just go under a porch or in a closet, by themselves, pop out their babies, and then come out when they're good and ready. If I thought I could safely give birth under a porch I totally would do that. Sadly, having already had a C-section and having no real obstetric knowledge made this pretty ill-advised.
Sometimes we forget that at the top of that nervous system is our brain, and the brain is some piece of work. It's a wondrous, dastardly organ that makes pain very, very psychological.
I also knew that it wasn't going to be a birth class or pain management course that was going to make this better in and of itself. I had to delve into what exactly had made my first labor such a unpleasant experience, and I kept coming back to the pain.
When we talk about pain, we tend to focus on the physical, which makes sense. Pain is physical, what with our highly evolved nervous system. But sometimes we forget that at the top of that nervous system is our brain, and the brain is some piece of work. It's a wondrous, dastardly organ that makes pain very, very psychological.
The brain translates pain into something we can think about. Sometimes the brain will have stored memories of other moments of pain that will be brought to the forefront in an attempt to help us process whatever fresh hell we're going through at the moment. Pain, while... ummm... painful... is also very useful. It's nature's way of saying, "Hey. That's not good for you. Stop doing that."
I hope someone says this isn't the kind of pain you're obligated to fear or run from.
Of course, when you're talking about the kind of pain you go through during labor, there's no way to stop doing that. Not of your own volition, anyway. But that doesn't necessarily keep your brain and your body from getting their wires crossed and telling each other that this is the kind of pain that should be avoided. This is where the psychological aspect of pain comes into play. Because even though you "know" that you're not in danger — labor is normal and natural — you haven't really internalized this fact. So when your body is sending pain signals to your brain, even though your brain "knows" what's happening, your brain is still like, "I know what this means."
When I realized that this is exactly what happened during my first delivery, I realized my new labor mantra, the thing I had needed to hear during my first labor but didn't realize, what I think every woman in labor could stand to hear in a calm, reassuring voice
You're in pain, but you're not in danger.
I mean, of course there are times when one can be in danger during labor, but that's what the professionals are there to assess and help you deal with. But under typical circumstances, the pain of labor isn't the kind of pain that puts you in harm's way.
I'd never consciously thought of myself as being in danger during my first labor. I wasn't scared of dying or anything like that. My brain knew that my body was doing what it was supposed to be doing... but my body wasn't getting the message, and that, in turn, was making a subconscious part of my brain go "OMG, body! You're right! This is terrible! We're never going to make it through this."
Lots of pregnancy books or books on birth talk about a "body/mind connection," but in my experience they only ever really talk about it in a positive way. I'd heard a whole lot of soothing mantras about trusting your body and your body knowing what to do. I hadn't gotten too much information on what happens when your body can mess with your mind and vice versa.
But, I can assure you, it happens.
And so, to all my laboring mamas or soon-to-be laboring mamas: I hope someone tells you what I wish I'd figured out and internalized sooner. I hope someone says this isn't the kind of pain you're obligated to fear or run from.
This is pain, not danger.
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