The closest I can come to describing what a contraction feels like is: a sharp, knifelike menstrual cramp that I feel right above my pubic bone, from hipbone to hipbone. It's funny that I use menstrual cramps as my analogy, because for me cramps are a dull, constant ache, whereas contractions are strong, sharp, and intermittent. But that's the closest sensation I can compare it to. Many women describe their contractions as coming in waves or peaks. I would do the same. The prevalence of electronic fetal monitoring has probably cemented that imagery, since the contractions are traced on paper as oscillating peaks. If I think of peaks (as in mountain peaks or steep hills), I think of something that requires effort, that becomes harder and harder, and then goes downward and becomes easier.
When my body began pushing, I experienced three distinct sensations. During Zari's labor, I had about an hour of "throwing down": abdominal pushiness/heaving that felt just like throwing up, only it was in a downward direction. No rectal pressure, very mild. I skipped this stage with Dio's labor. Next, I felt intense rectal pressure as the baby moved down, like my butt was going to split in two. I really didn't like this sensation. And finally, the rectal pressure subsided as the baby began crowning. In its place I felt intense stretching and stinging as the baby's head emerged more and more.
I was thinking about something one of my sisters-in-law told me about her experiences of labor. Her first three births (with obstetricians) were either augmented or induced with Pitocin and, not too surprisingly, followed by epidurals. She had told me that labor felt like your skin was being turned inside out--basically that it was pretty awful. Then with her fourth and fifth babies, she had unmedicated hospital births (with CNMs) and no Pitocin during labor. She realized that the awfulness that she had assumed was inherent in labor itself was due to the Pitocin.
We know that a majority of women in the U.S. receive Pitocin during labor. It's not entirely clear how big of a majority it is, but the Listening to Mothers II survey found that 50% of the mothers surveyed received Pitocin to either induce or augment labor. Others have estimated that the number is much higher. Of the women Robbie Davis-Floyd interviewed for her 1992 book Birth as an American Rite of Passage, 81% received Pitocin during labor. In any case, at least half and quite likely three-quarters or more of women experience a Pitocin-enhanced labor.
I wonder if this is responsible for a large part of our culture's fear of labor pain. It's no wonder that so many women talk about labor as being excruciating if more than half of them have had Pitocin! Almost all women who have labored both with and without Pitocin report that Pitocin makes labor much more painful. Pitocin contractions are usually longer, stronger, and closer together than those of a spontaneous labor. I haven't ever had Pitocin during labor, so I can't comment personally on this.
So I would love to hear from you:
- What did labor and birth feel like for you?
- What made labor more or less painful for you?
- If you have experienced labors with and without Pitocin, how would you describe the difference between the two?