5 Surprising Things I Learned During Natural Childbirth
I have two children. Both were born naturally, meaning I went into labor spontaneously and did not receive interventions to augment or reduce pain. Both experiences, the first at a hospital and the second at a birth center, were full of surprises that neither the standard mommy-to-be literature nor my healthcare providers had prepared me for.
DILATION (OR LACK THEREOF) ISN’T A CRYSTAL BALL
At my 38-week exam with my first child, my ob-gyn examined me and said, “Wow! You’re three centimeters dilated. You could go into labor at any time. I can’t guarantee I will be available when you go into labor. If you want, we can induce you today and I’ll be there.” I looked her in the eye and said, “Thanks. I like you, but not that much.” I didn’t go into labor for almost two more weeks. With my second child, my water broke 14 hours earlier, and my contractions were close together and painful, so I went to the birth center. My midwife examined me and declared, “You’re only three centimeters dilated. You’ll be here for a while.” My daughter was born two hours later.
THE TOILET: A GREAT PLACE TO LABOR
There’s a reason female mammals seek a quiet space to give birth. Yes, stress and lack of privacy can cause your brain to release excess levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, inhibiting oxytocin production and slowing labor. But really, birthing is like pooping.
Physiologically, the two events are similar. You’re trying to get a little tunnel of tissue that’s squinched up tight to relax and release so something (big) can come out. Stage fright in the poop world is something we laugh about because it’s a common experience. Why is this not part of the birthing lexicon? In the labor and delivery department of a teaching hospital where my first child was born, privacy is non-existent. Residents, students, nurses, anesthesiologists (whom I politely dismissed), and my ob-gyn came to ask questions. I hired a doula (birth coach) to manage pain and navigate the hospital birth experience. At her suggestion, I retreated to the toilet for peace and a great brain trick to get those muscles to release.
A (SPIRIT) WORLD OF PAIN
The first surprise about unmedicated labor was that I was “in labor” all day with both children, but the pain was minimal until the last few hours. During Transition, as the second to last stage of labor is called, my contractions were intense and so painful I couldn’t talk. But it didn’t last long, and when the pain was enhanced by an anxious, cold, shaky, about-to-vomit feeling (the brain’s pumping the body full of adrenaline for the final pushing phase), I knew the ride was about to end.
The even greater surprise was that my brain prepared my body for exertion by releasing a hormonal cocktail of oxytocin (the same hormone released during orgasm) and beta-endorphins (naturally occurring opiates) during childbirth.
I was in the spirit world.
I didn’t care who was in the room (not even my husband), whether I was in a room at all, that I was naked, or whether that Relaxing Songs for Childbirth playlist I crafted was playing. I shut my eyes and entered a cavernous space in my mind where it was just me and God summoning the strength and determination to tear my body open (and tear it did) so my baby could come out. An outside listener would describe the sounds I uttered—primal, animal sounds— as shrieks of excruciating pain. But they were not. They were coping mechanisms not of my own choosing. Guttural intonations of my shock and surprise at having felt something completely new. In the movies, the doctor tells the mother when to push. I believed I would need to ask my doctor’s permission until I realized: You. Can’t. Not. Push. It’s like telling someone not to vomit.
IT WAS THE BIGGEST TRIP OF MY LIFE
As soon as I held my babies in my arms, I got to go on the biggest, highest-endorphin ride of my life. Now, I haven’t tried many recreational drugs, so I might be over-promising. But this was better than the best happy hour and orgasmic afterglow I’d experienced. With my second, I sat back in the tub (it was a water birth) with that slippery, fresh baby in my hands, my head arched back, eyes closed, just cackling. The midwife and my mother had to remind me to check whether the baby was a boy or a girl. And when I did, that biggest of life’s surprises (I hadn’t let the 20-week ultrasound spoil this fun) sent me back into uncontrollable laughter. They had to tell me to get out of the tub so the midwife could check my daughter. We were just fine.
My advice to expecting mothers would be to do it on your terms regardless of how you choose to give birth. Listen to and have confidence in your body, and don’t let anyone else’s timeline or agenda rush you into making decisions or being in an environment that will ultimately and ironically slow your birth process. Get where you need to be. Getting to the spirit world for childbirth is a profoundly spiritual experience. You’ll be surprised what a mother’s body can do.