Pain is a slippery being.
We’re accustomed to avoiding it. As the menacing herald of injury, pain is frightening and cruel, capable of terrible things. And so we fear pain. Pain is the lightning bolt that conveys hurt, and so we tend to run in fear at the first distant rumble of thunder.
Welcoming pain, as the gateway through which a new life can begin, may thus seem strange and unnatural, even reckless.
How two people “feel” pain can be radically different. As a ski patroller, I’ve attended to people sent over the edge of their pain threshold by a broken wrist, and others who’ve seemed pretty composed with a shattered pelvis. I wondered: Do these two people possess such different physical make-ups that one could actually feel pain more than the other, or does their perception of pain have more to do with some psychological difference?
I once read a study that sought to explore pain perception, and how a person’s mental state seems to affect their sensitivity to pain. People were given a series of progressively stronger electric shocks. Almost everyone in the study indicated that they began to feel pain at the same point in the series. Yet the people who were made comfortable beforehand expressed that the pain was less intense than the people who participated in the study under stressful conditions.
Too often, pregnancy is an opportunity for a woman to fixate on the pain of labor she knows is on the horizon. In the process of anticipating the unknowable pain to come, she finds the grip of a magnified danger to herself or her baby wrap its tentacles tightly around her psyche. Trepidation can so easily twist itself into the ecstatic anticipation of finally meeting a new child that often the two sentiments seem to be one and the same.
Childbirth is at its deepest core an intense, painful, and yes, occasionally perilous undertaking. Yet why does it seem that the current perceptions of childbirth revolve only around pain, and thus fear, rather than a peaceful, joyful entry into the world?
Close to 60 percent of laboring women in the U.S. receive epidural analgesia for pain management. This frequently creates a snowball effect of other interventions, including drugs to induce labor – which further increases a woman’s chances of ultimately having a c-section. (A woman laboring in a hospital today has about a one in three chance of delivering her baby by cesarean, despite current medical guidelines that state that a vaginal delivery is the safest and best option in most cases.)
In our quest to make labor and delivery as quick and painless as possible, with every kind of medical intervention at the ready for every woman birthing in a hospital, have we unintentionally ratcheted up childbirth’s fear factor? Have we perpetuated the belief that a natural, intervention-free labor is unattainable for most women?
I can do this.
Writing my birth plan, I had made it clear that my hope was to have an intervention-free, vaginal birth for my second and likely last child’s birth. “But,” I felt compelled to write, “I ultimately want what’s best for me and the baby.”
What I was really saying was that although I really wanted to let my body do what it is designed to do, I wasn’t exactly sure I could deliver a baby without painkillers, thus reducing my chances of a repeat cesarean. Nor was I wholly confident I was cut out for a vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC), after all.
When most of what you’ve ever heard about childbirth includes stories of intolerable pain and tenuous situations, it’s extremely difficult to trust in your body’s intrinsic ability to give birth naturally. Women who’ve labored without some degree of pain mediation are touted as a peculiar species, either blessed with an unnaturally high tolerance for pain or some twisted disorder in which they enjoy hardship.
Furthermore, our casual attitude about surgery combined with a current medical climate that puts a low priority on enhancing a women’s own ability to give birth naturally perpetuates the belief that natural childbirth is beyond most women’s reach.
I believe a drug-free, natural birth – even a VBAC – is in every woman’s reach. But, we must shift our perceptions about childbirth, from fear and doubt to faith and confidence. We must also change the way we treat women who are in labor.
The help I needed most in those final hours of labor didn’t come from an I.V., but rather in the form of a nurturing community of confident, skilled women who attended Emme’s birth.
Susie, my nurse, knew every trick in the book to help me handle the pain of labor – from pressure points, to massage and heat packs, to helping me into positions where I could find some relief, to simply offering encouragement.
“Your body is making endorphins to handle the pain,” she told me. “You can do it.”
Janet, my midwife, exudes such unflappable confidence it’s impossible not to feel secure in her care. My fear of the hospital, my concern about whether I could “handle” labor, all but vanished when, in my 30th hour of labor and surrounded by a roomful of capable women all rooting me on, it dawned on me: I can do this.
Which, I realize, still leaves the question: Why? Why labor without pain relief? Why attempt a VBAC, when you can easily schedule a safe birth via cesarean?
It’s a question every pregnant woman must ask herself. Having delivered two children – one without any labor, via scheduled cesarean and the other after more than 30 hours of labor, naturally – I can say with confidence that the experience of bringing a child into the world is staggeringly fantastic, no matter how she ultimately arrives.
Yet to experience the wholly encompassing task of working with the instinctual drive of your womanhood to deliver a child without artificial assistance is an amazing gift. The thirty-plus hours leading up to Lena Emmeline’s birth were the most physically demanding and, yes, painful hours of my life. But they also comprised the most psychologically testing and spiritually uplifting journey of my existence.
I was lucky to fall into a nurturing circle of women who’ve made a career out of empowering women to let go of their fears and uncertainties about the process of delivering life; women who joyfully rallied around me during the birth of my daughter, just as women had rallied around them during the birth of their children, and just as women will rally around my daughters, I hope, when they deliver my grandchildren.
It was thanks to that strong sisterhood that I found a pathway to the euphoric birth experience I had hoped for, enabling me to experience a birth without fear, and full of faith.