While I was pregnant, I found out that women love to recount their birth experiences. It didn’t matter if it was a new mom I ran into at my doctor’s office or the grandmotherly cashier at the grocery store: Everyone had a birth story to share. I’d politely listen and promptly roll my eyes as soon as I got to the car. “I’m not going to be that person,” I thought smugly to myself. Fast forward to about five weeks ago, when I went into labor with my son, who incidentally, is the most precious, perfect little gumdrop of a baby. We’re smitten. But it also turns out that I’m totally, unapologetically that person. I’ll tell my birth story to anyone who will listen. How did I become one of them? Two reasons: One, I’m really proud of myself. Do you know how hard it is to push something the size of a large football through a hole the size of a baseball? Two, I want to share my experience with other pregnant women so that they know what to expect during the whole birth process, because I had no idea what to expect. I really thought I was prepared. I took the baby class; I practiced my breathing exercises; I watched about a billion YouTube videos. Then I went into labor for real. And all that preparation went right out the window. So, if you’re expecting a baby, thinking about having a baby, or just curious about what having a baby is really like, here are the four things I wish someone had told me before it was time to bring my gumdrop into the world.
1. What Contractions Really Feel Like
If I had a nickel for every time someone told me, “Oh, you’ll know when you have a real contraction,” I’d have enough nickels to put in a sock and hit those people. I wanted to know exactly how contractions felt so I’d know exactly when I was in labor. It turns out, all those women are right. I had false contractions pretty regularly during my third trimester. These false contractions, called Braxton Hicks contractions, are usually painless. Your abdomen tightens until it’s hard as a brick, and then the contraction is over in about a minute. When real contractions began, it felt like the worst menstrual cramping of my life. Just when the pain started to take my breath away, the contraction would end, and I’d have a brief respite until the next one began. My experience is pretty standard, according to doula Judith Nowlin, CEO and co-founder of the iBirth app.
“Women can use so many different words to describe the way contractions feel. Here are a few that are top of mind: pressure, hug, squeeze, radiating warmth, ‘like a migraine in my midsection.’ …Drawing the comparison to a menstrual cramp during a woman’s monthly cycle is the most common way to describe what a contraction feels like.”
2. Nothing can prepare you for the pain of labor…
I chose to give birth naturally because the thought of an epidural needle frightened me more than labor. I had a couple of friends who gave birth naturally. How hard could it be? Insert the eye roll emoji here. Some women, like those interviewed in renowned midwife Ina May Gaskin’s book Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, describe childbirth as a pleasurable experience. That may be true for some women. For me, the pain of childbirth was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Nowlin explains, “As labor progresses, when the contractions will be doing their most powerful work the dull menstrual cramp sensation can build ten-fold and transform into an all-encompassing full body experience that calls the mother’s complete attention.” Boy, that is an understatement. I will keep the details of my own labor between myself, my doctor, and the 42 nurses in the delivery room. However, I will tell you that after my water broke, I begged for an epidural. After about five minutes of those contractions, I even used the code word that my husband and I agreed would only be used if I seriously couldn’t tolerate the pain. Ultimately, I didn’t have an epidural because there wasn’t time. Doula Becks Armstrong gets it right when she says, “Nothing can prepare you properly for what it will actually feel like on the day as it can be very different [from your] expectation.” But Armstrong does recommend some tips and techniques to help prepare for the intensity of labor pain:
Doing yoga to learn both breathing and movement can be amazingly helpful. Even just understanding how to be in an uncomfortable position, looking forward to a spot on the wall, and breathing for 30 seconds can be really beneficial. Learning about mindfulness and how to allow your thoughts to come in and out of your head while you focus your attention on different parts of your body and breathing slowly and deeply is also great training.
3. …or the post-delivery pain.
Again, I will spare you the details of my labor, but I will tell you that I had a pretty standard stage two tear. I was all amped up on adrenaline following the birth, so I thought I felt great. I was up and walking around about 40 minutes after my son was born. The next morning? Not so much. Things were very sore. I walked like a cowboy who’d ridden his horse for two weeks straight. Luckily, your nurses will take care of you. They’ll provide cold compresses, pain medication, and a shoulder to (literally) cry on as they help you to the bathroom. I met one veteran mom in my OB-GYN’s office who told me to stick some pads soaked with witch hazel and aloe in the freezer and use those for pain relief when I got home from the hospital. I didn’t catch this woman’s name, but she is a genius and a saint. Those homemade compresses felt great. The witch hazel and aloe helped soothe incision pain and sped up the healing process.
The good news is that postpartum pain shouldn’t last too long. After about a week, I was able to take a short walk around the block without pain. My stitches completely dissolved at week three postpartum. Recovering from a cesarean section is a little bit different and typically takes much longer than recovering from a vaginal birth. New mom Dora Smith-Cook, who recently gave birth via C-section, says that “recovering from an unexpected (for me) surgery just added to stress and frustration to life. Taking things slow and allowing myself to heal took a lot of effort, when all I wanted to do was focus completely on my baby.” After she was home, Smith-Cook focused on healing. “I had to hold off on physical activity, make myself rest for at least one of baby’s naps, and hand off the household chores to my husband.”’
4. How Much Anxiety I’d Have About Caring for an Infant
After delivery, mom and baby get totally pampered. Nurses lavish you with attention, and friends and family drop by with presents and well wishes. And then a mere 48 hours later, you’re shuttled out of the hospital and expected to drive an impossibly small baby home, where you are responsible for keeping him or her alive. Forever. It’s pretty anxiety-inducing. Armstrong tells me I’m not alone:
I think women are bombarded with so much information on what they should and shouldn’t be doing that it can get overwhelming—leading to anxiety. There are a number of things that they can do to help if they are feeling anxious (or finding it difficult to sleep, overwhelmingly tired or teary or their muscles are becoming really tight) … Anxiety often manifests in the inability to breathe deeply (and can lead to panic attacks) so finding even 5 minutes to stop and do some deep breathing can really help with your anxiety. Talking with friends, going for a walk in trees and even watching a funny movie can help with anxiety and [its] effects.
I was afraid to leave my baby alone for five minutes, even with my husband or mother, but Armstrong says, “Having a little time away from your baby can sometimes help, though it needs to be with someone they trust as otherwise it can increase the anxiety.” I thought I’d just be able to wing it when I went into labor. I mean, who needs to learn how to breathe, am I right? But Armstrong says, “Understanding what happens in [labor] is important so doing classes at the hospital to really understand what the different interventions are and when they may be used is important, but actually talking about the bad birth stories (all pregnant women hear them) and finding out what they could do to prevent them from happening to them I think is almost more useful. Instead of worrying that something bad will happen they can focus on prevention.”