I hesitate to even write this post, because it gives pain a privileged position in childbirth. We all know how pain and birth are talked about: birth as the most excruciating pain a woman will ever endure, pain management in labor (a euphemism for drugs), getting a pain-free labor with hypnosis...
But now that I have been there done that, I feel the need to share my experience of pain. Not because it was awful or excruciating, but because it was one of many, many sensations that made up the entirety of labor.
Before my labor began, even before I became pregnant, I knew that I wanted to experience labor in its fullness. I wanted to feel every sensation, pleasant or not. I firmly believed—and still do—that by numbing myself to the painful parts of labor, I would also miss out on the bliss and the ecstasy as well. I wouldn’t be pain-free by taking drugs or having anesthesia; I would be sensation-free. I didn’t like that idea.
I wasn’t wedded to the idea that labor had to feel a certain way. I didn’t expect pain, but I also didn’t expect its absence. Honestly, I expected to feel a great many sensations as I labored, and I knew that pain might be one of them. I loved reading stories of painless births, ones that take a woman by surprise because she doesn’t realize she is in labor, or the ones where a woman experiences bliss and waves of pleasure. I listened to Marie Mongan’s Hypnobirthing CD and read her book. The CD was incredibly useful for relaxation during pregnancy and helping me sleep when nothing else could, but I resisted her assertion that if you relax the right way, you will not feel pain. I think that often is the case, but I didn’t want to be so dogmatic about my own labor and feel that I somehow failed if I experienced a sensation as painful.
My contractions felt like sharp, intense menstrual cramps, all entirely in the front of my abdomen close to my pubic bone. I can only say they were “like” menstrual cramps because cramps for me don’t come and go like contractions—they are a slow, dull, relentless ache, almost in my pelvic bones. The contractions became more intense and more painful as labor progressed. Pushing brought on a different kind of pain. I think the ferocity of the contractions and the uncontrollable urge to push made the sensations a bit more difficult to integrate. All I had to do during the labor contractions was relax and let everything happen, keeping my body totally loose. During pushing, however, I HAD to actively participate even though I sometimes didn’t want to, because it was so intense.
The funny thing about pain is that it fills any given space. It’s like a gas—no matter how small the amount, it will completely fill the volume it occupies. That’s why I hesitate to say something like “it was the worst pain I have ever felt.” Heck, even a paper cut, at the moment it happens, can be the worst pain ever!
The pain I felt in labor was clean and finite: as soon as it was over, it was over. Completely gone. I calculate that I spent far more time feeling pleasure during the rest periods, than I did feeling pain during the contractions. Except for a few short moments when I became discouraged during pushing, I never felt like I was suffering or in distress. Just very focused on the task ahead of me.
A few times during my labor, I was able to alter the sensations from being painful to pleasurable. During the early morning hours while I was leaning over the kitchen countertop and breathing deeply, I started smiling and making my face look blissful. Another time, soon before I started pushing, I said to myself mentally, “breathe in comfort, breathe in relaxation” (a phrase from the Hypnobirthing CDs). Both times, the pain altered itself instantly into a rushing kind of pleasure, kind of like the dizzy tingly feeling you get before you faint.
One of the best ways I have found to approach labor pain is with this acronym:
Labor pain indicates that your body is working. You know it will come and then it will disappear completely (unless you are having back labor because of a posterior presentation, but that is another story). It is not a signal that anything is injured; instead, it comes from muscles working incredibly hard and from tissues stretching and expanding—as they are meant to do.
Pain was one of many sensations I felt during labor. It was strong when it was present, but it did not dominate the experience. Almost all of the time I was able to integrate it without judgment. Instead of thinking oh no this hurts, I am suffering, make it stop, I was able to think this way: another contraction, the pain is building, inhale, exhale, sway my hips, the pain is ending, now I can rest. I had awareness of pain without labeling it as good or bad. It just was.