Sunday, April 13, 2014

misconceptions: facing the inevitable pain of doing hard and beautiful things

I'm writing some short posts inspired by Naomi Wolf's book "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood".  You can read my first post here and my second post here.

Giving birth is painful.  Amen?

Naomi Wolf writes, "Traditionally trained doctors and nurses often deal with the pain of childbirth by assuming that women can't handle it and medicating them at the earliest onset.  Naturalists on the fringes of the movement, on the other hand, can treat pain in a way that borders on puritanical.... [they] sometimes romanticize the pain either by minimizing how excruciating it can be or by idealizing women who choose to undergo it without resorting to drugs.  They use euphemisms such as "discomfort" and "intensity" to describe the pain of birth, or "rushes" and "surges" to describe what can be agonizing contractions." (184)  Wolf recognizes these ideological naturalists as being on the fringes of the natural birth movement, which is truly made of up of people (like Ina May Gaskin, a naturalist who is also a realist) working hard to "humanize in the United States what should be the normal and --dare we reclaim it?--beautiful experience of giving birth. (185)

Does this seem like a contradiction, Naomi Wolf writing about the agonizing, near torturous pain that usually accompanies some part of labour for women giving birth and then calling the whole process still a 'beautiful experience'?  Does preparing women for how extremely painful birth likely will be necessarily bring fear into their experiences or can it actually empower them to face the pain with more resilience and tenacity and courage?

My first experience with labour pains was when I lost our first baby very early in pregnancy.  After a couple days of spotting which became heavy bleeding and an ultra-sound showing our tiny baby with no heartbeat, the pain began.  It was a few hours of the most excruciating cramps I'd ever experienced and in some ways it rivaled the pain of labouring with my two living children.  There was no rhythm to the pain, and no relief.  I rocked on all fours on our bed sobbing, a hot water bottle against my abdomen, my brand new husband of two months rubbing my back and quietly praying, having nothing to offer but his presence in my very physical grief.  After a few hours the pain lifted and the hardest part of the loss was over in my body - so many of us know too well how long lasting the pain is in our hearts.  I'm still amazed at how physically painful the miscarriage was even at such an early stage of pregnancy - but it helped me embrace that something very real had just happened, something very dark and difficult, something that would be written into our marriage and onto our hearts.  That precious honeymoon baby was not a dream, and the loss of that life was not something I needed to quickly brush aside because I was young and fertile and would likely have healthy children.  The pain was able to unite my memories to my actual physical body.

During pregnancy I never was too entranced by the idea of having a pain-free birth; I saw the pain as a rite of passage, something that would be preparing me for the extremely grueling task of mothering real live humans.  Most of the really good things we do in our lives are also really, really hard.  I won't go into the details of labour with the two children who are asleep in our bedroom as I type, but they were both very painful.  No orgasmic birth experiences here.  I had to fight very hard to keep myself on top of the contractions mentally as well as practicing lots of active birthing techniques to keep my body upright and moving.  

Both of my labours unfortunately involved Synotocinon (Pitocin) at some point which increased the intensity and frequency of contractions to an almost unbearable pace.  I look forward to labouring without any sort of drugs increasing the pain to my body, but I do know that even without syntocinon, labour can be extremely painful.  Even my friends who had very peaceful births found the experience at some point to be shocking.  One friend is an experienced midwife whose home water birth felt like she was being torn apart in the process and she worried that she wouldn't be able to handle being with labouring women ever again.

It took some time, but she was able to process her experience and it increased her capacity for empathy when her clients were in the throes of labour.  She knew how close they felt to death in those moments, how they were not being dramatic or weak but were facing some of the greatest pain that humans can experience.

Wolf writes,

"No one informed me even remotely in our birth classes about the kind of courage you need to tap into during labor.  Yet women who are prepared psychologically and physically for extreme pain - prepared, perhaps, to do battle - may well be better able to manage the trial of labor with less fear -- and possibly with fewer medical interventions." (p 93) 

What if pregnant women were helped to understand how physically painful and difficult labour can be, and all the million dark places your mind will take you in those hours?  Rather than suggesting quick escapes from the pain before it begins or minimizing the grueling intensity of labour, what if women were given as much support as possible to face the pain head on? 

People experience pain in unique ways based on many psychological and physical variables - there is no place to judge each other and our decisions when in the extremely vulnerable place of active labour.  For some women, labour is just hard work and for others it is so much more excruciating than that.  I have friends who had extremely long and difficult labours and found an epidural to really help them cope mentally and their body to relax enough to continue the labouring process.  I have friends who were encouraged to have epidurals not realizing how close they were to being fully dilated and ready to push and in hindsight wished they hadn't.  When women are given good support and accurate information they and their partners can make good decisions for themselves.  I think that those decisions can look very different for different people and that women whose labours and births go many different ways can all feel very proud of themselves.  What's sad is when a woman feels they have no choice, no options, and that they were unsupported and unprepared for what labour would bring.

I wrote in my last post about how I erupted into joyful sobbing when I was deep into active labour with my daughter.  That wasn't because the pain had eased, but because I felt so alive and strong and free in the midst of incredible physical pain and emotional uncertainty.  (That being said, when my labour was later augmented with Syntocinon for the last two hours, I relied heavily on nitrous oxide (gas) to help me not completely fall apart.  I was extremely close to accepting the epidural that was being offered to me by a doctor and that was within only twenty minutes of being on the drip.)

At 34 weeks in this pregnancy I can say that I'm looking forward to labour again, even though neither of my previous births went the way I had hoped or anticipated.  While I don't have any assurances that things will be miraculously different this time, I'm still really expectant that they can be.  There are choices we will make differently that will likely increase our chances of having a peaceful birth but ultimately bringing a child into the world is a wild, beautiful, holy thing and nobody is fully in control.

If I believe anything to be truer than true about God, it's that we're never left alone in our pain.  As I wrote in a song, one of my most profound experiences of God has been as a midwife, who labours with us all night.  When we desperately fear pain and avoid it at all costs we miss incredible opportunities to connect with the human experience and the Divine presence.  If we are naive about how joy and pain in life are inextricably intertwined, we will often bypass the risks required to experience life more fully.  And if I believe anything about pain - whether it's the pain of healthy babies born or the pain of grief, loss and chaos - it's never wasted.  Not that all pain inherently has purpose like labour, but God can write meaning and purpose into our very real experiences of pain.  Jessica Kelley writes about this eloquently on her blog after losing her four year old son to brain cancer.  We can partner with God to see green living things come from the black ashes of our burned out forests.  And we can trust that one day, the whole world will be born new, free of suffering and fully alive.


Do you resonate with what I've written here about pain, or maybe you see things differently?  I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences.


  1. Although my own pregnancy experiences will not be soon, I think about them frequently, reading your blog gives me inspiration and hope :)

  2. Oh Becca, everything you write resonates with me. Always.

    I had an amazing labour and birth -- about as good as it can get -- and yet I was still shocked at the intensity of the pain. I had done SOOOO much reading in preparation, and yet nothing could have prepared me for that level of pain. But it really is hard to balance -- you don't want to terrify women by emphasizing the pain; but you also don't want to minimize it so that they're unprepared to deal with it. I guess I'm glad, then, that I read a range of material -- from Ina May (with her "rushes" and orgasms) to Birthing From Withing ("It will hurt. And it will be worth it.")

    I find it VERY interesting to hear that you "look forward" to labour, considering the difficult ones you've already had. As I said, mine was textbook-perfect, and I still dread it. I guess Ina May does that to a person? I really hope and pray you have a better experience this time.

    Anyway, my whiney/squirmy toddler has made me lose my train of thought; but I wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. I've heard Birthing From Within is a great book but don't think I will get my hands on it before baby comes. I try not to look towards this labour as "redemption" because there isn't a promise it will be the birth I hope for - and I hope I'm not romanticising it too much. Oh the birthing amnesia effect! But I've learned a lot in the last two births and hopefully my body will know what to do a little easier as well. I appreciate your prayers and any tips!!