Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What Labor's Really Like For Your Wife

A version of this post first appeared in Pregnancy Magazine.

What it’s Really Like
By Jennifer Margulis

When I was a freshman in college, my boyfriend told me that his mother said that giving birth to a baby was like trying to defecate a watermelon. Fifteen years and three children later, I would describe labor differently: for me it feels like being on a rollercoaster (a tortuous, nauseating, terrifying, neck-breaking rollercoaster) with no way off. Labor slams into your body and happens to it. My second labor was manageable but my third labor was so painful that after my son was born and before the pain receded (you really do forget—that’s why so many of us have more than one child), I would literally cry when I saw pregnant women. My tears were in empathy—I felt so sorry that in order for these pregnant mamas to hold their babies in their arms they'd first have to survive labor.

Here’s the real skinny on what it’s like to be pregnant and give birth, culled from interviews with women around the country. We’re giving it to you straight up with no cream and sugar. Warning: what you read here you won’t find in the advice books. If you don’t want to know the unfrosted truth, read no further.

What does it really feel like…

…when you're nauseous during pregnancy?

“It’s like being really, really carsick—like you’re studying a roadmap in the passenger seat and you only had barbeque potato chips and a 300-ounce Coke for lunch and you are simultaneously coming down with the stomach flu—only with a kind of bionic-smell thing thrown in for good measure.” Catherine Newman, Amherst, Massachusetts.

…when you feel your baby move?

“Being kicked wasn’t like being kicked from the outside. It felt like my stomach was a drum, like someone was playing on me but in a good way. We went to a Bonnie Raitt concert when I was eight months pregnant, and the music was really loud. Every time the baby moved, I wondered: ‘is he dancing? Writhing in pain because he doesn’t like the music?’” Faulkner Fox, Durham, North Carolina.

…when your water breaks?

“My water was broken by the doctor and it felt like she was trying to pick my nose via my cervix. I had read up on everything but amniotomy and the pain took me completely by surprise. I was lying in a hospital bed and it came out like a flood! It was the weirdest feeling, all this liquid just pouring out of me. I felt a bit humiliated, like I was peeing the bed in public, and very vulnerable. Afterwards, I felt almost weighted down without the water—almost like I was the one who had been floating around instead of Josie.” Lynn Spirelle, Portland, Oregon.

“In my second labor my water broke on its own and my delivery took all of three hours, versus 24 for the first. I was lying on my bed reading and heard a muted pop. I jumped off the bed and felt warm water trickle down my legs.” Vicky Mlyniec, Los Gatos, California.

“There was all this pressure in my crotch—literally down in my crotch since I was way along in labor and the bag of waters was bulging out of my cervix—and then WOOSH, a big gush. Like a popped blister or a really volcanic squeezed zit, except the water kept coming and coming for what felt like a full minute. And since I was contracting really rapidly by then, each contraction set off a mini-woosh of yet more water. I was having a conversation with my labor nurse, who was standing near my feet, and it was hard to talk to her because these rhythmic spurts of amniotic fluid were gushing out of my vagina.” Marrit Ingman, Austin, Texas.

…when you have a contraction?

“For me there were two kinds of contractions—the bearable kind that made me quiet, drawing in, trying to hold it together and keep the pain in its place; then there were the unbearable kind that made me scream and curse and wail with every ounce of my power, because that would take me outward away from what was happening inside, because it would equal it or balance it or shout it down. It is a wild jagged electric twisting and squeezing that feels bigger than you are and that completely overwhelms any other thought and sensation and it goes on and on and you have no idea when it’s going to end. It is like the worst stomach gas pain multiplied beyond insanity.” Marion Winik, Glen Rock, Pennsylvania.

“The pain was all over. From the bottom of my toes all the way up to the top of my head, my whole body was in a wave of pain. It was not isolated to my stomach or cervix. It’s not like being stabbed with a knife, which is what people had told me, it was a different kind of pain that you can’t even locate, or at least I couldn’t. It just seemed like it was the worst pain I ever felt, it was totally overwhelming. I had to work really hard to get through it.” Faulkner Fox, Durham, Durham, North Carolina.

…when you have back labor?

“I had 24 hours of back labor, and I felt like I was being torn in half by a very long and continuous explosion. I felt like I was giving birth to a wrecking ball. I felt like someone was performing a spinal tap with a jack hammer. And still—none of that really gets at it. It was like hanging onto a bucking mechanical bronco, and the trick was to hang on, even though you had no other choice, and there was some kind of faulty wiring, so the bronco was electrocuting you, but with that electrocution-feeling coming incessantly to a crescendo.” Catherine Newman, Amherst, Massachusetts.

…when you're in transition?

“I felt like a Civil War soldier receiving an amputation without anesthesia. I felt like I was being murdered. There was nothing anyone could do to help me.” Hilary Flower, St. Petersburg, Florida.

…when you're pushing?

“My body began ‘pushing’ before I even knew what was going on. I felt these endless agonizing intense contractions, like the worst menstrual cramps and the worst diarrhea feeling. I felt my uterus squeezing and squeezing, and then it was like the squeezing squeezed upon itself and it was one big giant throbbing contraction as Emi was eased downwards. I remember feeling like the lower half of my body was having an internal convulsion, and thinking that it felt like being swept into an undertow. I pushed for about ten minutes—intense pressure, intense sensation. It reminded me of the time I was eight years old and slammed my finger in the car door: I wasn’t looking, so all I felt was this strange tingling and numbness and an electric sense of something being wrong, and when I looked and saw my finger, the pain hit me—and then she was out.” Andrea Buchanan, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“Everyone talked about how the pushing was going to be difficult. But it was less bad to me. I liked having something to do.” Faulkner Fox, Durham, North Carolina.

“With my first, with an epidural, there was a whole team of irritated people standing around my spread legs counting for me to hold my breath and push. I felt so inadequate and helpless, like I was doing it all wrong and I couldn't even feel the pushing for God’s sake. I felt like a failed athlete. With my second, at home, it was the opposite. As long as I put my chin down, this strange grunting/growling noise came out of my throat and my body pushed HARD. It as totally involuntary, my body just did its thing. No counting, no holding breath, just chin down and shazzam. It hurt like hell but at least the pushing part took care of itself.” Hilary Flower, St Petersburg, Florida.

…when the baby crowns?

“It was like a blistering acid bath washing over my genitals that felt really good! like I was getting some place after seven hours of pushing.” Ayun Halliday, Brooklyn, New York.

…when you hold your baby for the first time?

“Holding the baby for the first time is like realizing someone was missing for your entire life and here they are.” Gwendolyn Gross, Ridgewood, New Jersey.

“It was so great. We didn’t know what he was. My husband was saying, ‘he’s a boy,’ in this kind of amazed way. Like he’s saying, ‘he’s a human being.’ He was so happy. It was kind of surreal. He handed him to me and his head was really pointy. The holding was all combined with the looking at. You have this relationship with someone that you can’t see. It is so amazing to see who was this person who I had this relationship with for so long.” Faulkner Fox, Durham, North Carolina.

…when you're recovering from labor?

“Honestly, I hadn’t understood that the days—and weeks—after the birth would be such a mess. Even though you know, abstractly, that you’ll need to get up in the night and nurse the baby and change its diaper, I think that most of us secretly picture sun-drenched days spent dressing the baby in one charming Swedish cotton outfit after another. Instead the baby is clothed haphazardly, if at all, because every 11 seconds you or the baby is drenched with poop (the baby’s), milk (yours), spit up (the baby’s), sweat (yours), blood (yours), or pee (this could be anybody’s). The things I was least prepared for was the sweating. You go to bed one night with your fat, swollen pregnancy ankles, and you wake up the next morning and the ankles are gone—but your pajamas and your sheets are soaked with sweat.” Catherine Newman, Amherst, Massachusetts

“It was like recovering from a mountain expedition, all that satisfaction of completion, all that pride, only the pictures are much better, someone’s waking you up every hour at night, and your blister-equivalents are in unmentionable places.” Gwendolyn Gross, Ridgewood, New Jersey.

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