Guest post by Betsy B. Honest
Three labours. Three babies. 3:30 a.m. — that’s when we called the midwife to come to us.
The midwives have come and gone. The kids are back from Grandma’s. We are five now, in our home. It is day five. She is five days old. I couldn’t tell you what day of the week it is. She has lots of hair! I’m so happy to hold baby next to my bosom instead of my bladder. My belly is smaller every morning. The afterpains have stopped ripping through my abdomen. I’ve gone through that day I go through with the weeping and the frozen cabbage leaves in my bra to ease the pain of my rock-hard football titties-from-outer-space. She’s latched. The birthing pool is deflated and stowed. So here’s what I want to say before I forget and start remembering it all glowy and rose-coloured.
OUCH! Giving birth HURTS! It is a painful, awful endeavor and it shakes you down to the very most wretched reaches of wretchedness. Holy smackers, it HURTS!
Now, I know, I’m not so desperately sleep-deprived and nipple-sore as to suppose that I’m saying something new under the sun. BUT. This was my third natural childbirth and it seems to me that what I’ve most often explained to people about my decision to labour and deliver without access to anesthetic or surgical staff on stand-by is that it “Isn’t that bad, actually.”
“You’re very brave,” they say, by which I can tell they mean some combination of flippant, naive, and masochistic.
But I’m not “brave” when it comes to childbirth and I never ever was. I was terrified, just like any woman. Just like a woman should be, really. Anyone I know who has expected an “easy” birth has found the experience akin to being smacked upside the head sideways by a garbage truck and trampled by a herd of caribou on the way back down.
Nor am I flippant or naïve about birth. I’ve done a tremendous amount of work along my natural birth journey. I researched the snot out of my options. I took classes. I soul-searched and read and read and read and birth-arted and interviewed labour teams and consulted and talked to other women about their experiences.
Flippant and naïve is going to the nearest ob-gyn and not asking questions. I’ve known women who have done this — trucks and herds of caribou ran over them.
When I was pregnant with our first baby I was sure childbirth would be awful — something to be gotten through and gotten over. I wanted a hospital birth, a specialist and an epidural. I was quite certain that natural childbirth was something for religious nut-jobs and hippies who thought that pain in childbirth was part of Jesus’/Gaia’s mysterious plan. I thought it was anti-feminist, dangerous whack-a-doo for dum-dums.
“But you should really look into natural childbirth,” some women told me. Smart women. Sane women. Women I respected. “Just look into it.”
So I looked. And I discovered that natural childbirth was, for starters, safer for mom and baby. Well, I like safer even better than safe!
I’m not masochistic. I abhor pain and will go to elaborate lengths to avoid it. So major abdominal surgery is very, very low on my to-do list. So are episiotomies, massive tearing, infant head trauma, and whatever that horrible disease is so many women I know have contracted after their traumatic births that makes penetration painful for years(!) because their vaginas feel like they are full of broken glass. ACK!
So I switched to a midwife. My level of care went from terse and snappy to tremendously supportive on all levels. I relaxed and prepared for childbirth. When we arrived at the hospital for our waterbirth the midwife pronounced me 7 cms dilated already. Yay! What a pleasant surprise to discover I was already half-way there. It all hurt very much. But when baby was in my arms I thought, “Oh, is that all? That wasn’t so hard.” I was, quite simply, prepared for much worse.
When we were due with number two, again we drove to the hospital for a midwife-attended waterbirth. This time I was only 2 cm upon arrival but it all progressed very quickly. My sepia-toned candle-lit memories of my first birth did not serve me well, however. I expected to be all calm and stoic and way-out in labour-land far away from my body like I recalled being with number one. But I was very, irritably present for it all. And what struck me most about the experience of childbirth wasn’t that it “wasn’t so bad” but rather, that it really, really was painful. A horrible way, in fact, to spend time. I swore and moaned most unheroically and couldn’t help but think of all the many many things I’d rather be doing than feeling contractions tear through my torso.
“I’ve been looking forward to this?” I marveled. “Why?” But I was lucky to have another uncomplicated and quick delivery.
By the time peeing on a stick revealed number three was in the works, midwife-attended home-births became fully-funded where I live. We’d heard positive things from people who had had home-births and we wanted to make our last birth experience special. We were confident we wouldn’t need any of the amenities of a hospital or the security of being in one and we hoped number three would arrive so quickly we wouldn’t be able to make the half-hour’s drive anyway.
“Latent labour” is, according to our midwife, very common for women who have had two or more children. This means that instead of contractions starting out mild and neatly progressing in length, frequency, and intensity as they did for my first two births, contractions started then randomly petered out, started up again, disappeared, reappeared, fizzled, futzed, and infuriated me for two whole days! It was horribly annoying and I am so glad we got to spend that time at home playing cards, dozing, and helping ourselves to what was in the fridge instead of being admitted and discharged repeatedly from a hospital.
Eventually I woke up in the kind of labour during which one neither dozes, snacks, nor plays Gin Rummy. We called the midwife. Hubby filled the Mr. Fishy pool. I lay on my side and whimpered as contractions shook me down. When she arrived and checked me I was 5 cm dilated. I asked her to rupture my membranes and then got into the warm water. Only half dilated! I couldn’t believe how much work was ahead of me. I was exhausted because it was the wee hours of the morning after a sleepless night, not to mention 41 weeks of pregnancy, and while my contractions were obviously strong, they were so far apart that I was worried they’d peter out again or weren’t effectively dilating me.
It hurt. It hurt a lot. If anyone had offered me a way out of that hurt, I would have taken it.
I worked through various scenarios in my head by which I could get out of my bedroom and to the nearest hospital for an epidural — perhaps the easiest way would be if a crane would lift off the roof so that I could be heli-lifted. We could fix the roof later, what was important was that I not feel another contraction. But, really, I knew that transferring to a hospital would be even worse torture than I was in now — that there was only one way out of this mess — letting my body do what it had to do to open up and then the sordid job of pushing.
At about 7:30 a.m., after more than four hours of hard labour, my contractions were still about 5 minutes apart and less than a minute long. My husband was collapsing on the floor beside the birthing pool between them and snoring. Our elegant, Swedish midwife was sitting patiently by on her little stool, undaunted. And I was fed up. I had had enough of this absurd pain, of this unrelenting chore. I stood up in the pool.
“This,” I announced to my labour team, “is bullshit.” I peeled off my sopping shirt and threw it on the ground for emphasis.
I gave them the what-for. They weren’t nearly as concerned as they should be about how poorly everything was going. Baby could take another twenty-four hours to arrive, I conjectured. We might be doing this for days and days, I warned. “We should all be sleeping in our beds right now,” I insisted. “Something has got to change RIGHT NOW.”
They looked somewhat concerned.
“Perhaps you should sit on the toilet,” the midwife volunteered.
I sat through a couple contractions there. Then I flopped down on the bed and had what felt like one really long contraction, replete with primal sounds of all sorts, that ended with my baby in my arms. A healthy girl. With lots of black hair. Her name is Josephine. She is so beautiful. And she smells so good.
Now we are travelling quickly together out of this surreal post-natal haze into cozy, milky bliss. And what I want to say now before I start to remember our home-birth as all sweet and candle-lit and intimate is, it HURT! IT REALLY, REALLY HURT!
The pain is falling away from me so quickly I have to TRY to remember it.
Pain is obviously and inevitably a part of birth. I didn’t choose natural birth because I ever wanted to feel pain. I chose it because the pain of a natural labour seems far, far better than the pain of a traumatic birth and the recovery from one.
Had I chosen the medical model of childbirth I’m certain my journey would be very different. I went ten days overdue with number one. And with number three. Both babies were NOT overcooked upon arrival, the midwives could tell because of placenta health and the presence of vernix. If I had an ob-gyn I would surely have been induced. And I don’t know anyone who was induced and didn’t have an epidural. And with epidurals there are greater risks of all sorts of painful scenarios from C-sections to latch problems etc. etc. I shudder to think what may have been in store.
Instead, I experienced the kind of pain that is finite. It ended. It is done. It ripped through me, left after-tremors in its wake, and now is gone. I cannot believe how quickly I am healing, how quickly I’ve healed.
There are worse kinds of pain. I’ve heard women and men talk about traumatic births that occurred decades ago without being able to hold back the raw hurt from their voices. I know of births that have ended sex lives, ruined marriages, and prevented women from wanting to or being able to have another child.
We, in the natural childbirth community, don’t like to talk about pain in childbirth so much because we don’t want to scare other women. We don’t want women to be so fearful of pain that they make poor choices in order to avoid it. Choosing to avoid the pain of childbirth can, ultimately, be enormously costly and tremendously painful. And we know that when experiencing the pain of childbirth, women will take any out that’s offered them. I would have. I would have demanded an epidural when I stood up in that birthing tub — 10 MINUTES before my baby was IN MY ARMS. But I didn’t. Because I made an informed choice to not be able to.
I am so lucky. I have had so much support and so many resources.
And I can’t believe how quickly and completely the memory of all that pain is sliding away from me.
So before I forget, OH MAN, IT HURT!
And now it doesn’t.
Betsy lives way way up in the wild suburbs of Canada. When she's not procreating, she enjoys esoteric winter sports involving skis, her sled-dog Gus, a jogging stroller with various seasonal attachments, bungy cords, helmets, hockey gear and of course, maple syrup. She has three kids. Big Sis is 4, Little/Big Bro is 18 months, and Baby Jo is newborn. Betsy and her hubby both work from home offices when they work. Her parenting philosophy involves self-forgiveness, creativity, and finding big joy in small moments with small people. You can read more of Betsy's writing, including the full birth story of Baby Jo, at Honest To Betsy.
[Editor's note: Betsy was also the winner of the mei tai giveaway, and now that you've read her work, doesn't it make you happy for her?]