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The myth of the myth of the painful birth

The myth of the myth of the painful birth

You may have seen the article, ‘The myth of the painful birth – and why it’s not nearly so bad as women believe,’ doing the rounds on social media recently.

As someone who has given birth – drug-free, because I’m an idiot – I can report that this article is total bollocks for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the obvious.

Birth is VERY f-ing painful.

I hate to say this, because I have a few friends who are expecting their first babies this year and I don’t want to completely freak them out, but giving birth is the absolute worst. Sorry, guys. Giving birth probably isn’t going to be the empowering feminist experience that this article suggests it should be, but more the experience of trying to take a really giant poo for around 12 hours. If you’re lucky.

I didn’t expect labour to be that painful. Despite what I’d seen in movies – labouring women screaming at the top of their lungs and swearing at their husbands – I genuinely thought labour pain was going to be like slightly more intense menstrual cramps. I’m not sure where I got this idea, but I believed it enough that I’d planned to walk to the hospital once the baby was coming, about 15 minutes away from my flat.

Needless to say, that whole ‘walking down the motorway while in labour thing’ didn’t happen.

I genuinely thought I might die in labour. I wasn’t being dramatic – it simply seemed like the logical outcome to the sheer amount of pain I was experiencing. I was laying there on my hospital bed, drenched in sweat, too exhausted to even open my eyes, thinking, “Yeah, I totally get how women used to die in childbirth all the time.”

The breaks between contractions don’t make up for the horribleness of the contractions themselves.

“I wondered why people don’t tell you more about the time in between contractions, when (in a straightforward labour with a well positioned baby), you don’t feel in pain at all,” the article’s author says.

“Quite the opposite. In fact, in my own experience – and that of the many mums I’ve spoken to – in the time between contractions you often feel incredibly strong, excited, or even euphoric.”

She goes on. “In an average eight hour labour, a woman can expect to be ‘in pain’ for only around 23 per cent of the time. The other 77 per cent is ‘pain free’.”

Euphoria? Excitement? At best, I felt a sort of anxious relief in between contractions, because I wasn’t in pain, but I knew that I soon would be, and that it was going to be pretty horrible. It’s kind of like when my husband snores at night. There’s a few seconds of silence in between each snore, but I can’t enjoy that silence because I know the next snore is on its way.

So yeah, that. Only with LOTS OF PAIN.

Words are powerful, but they’re not THAT powerful.

“When you talk to women who are prepared to break with convention and say their labour was not painful, words like ‘intense’ and ‘powerful’ come up again and again. It suggests that it’s the way that these women talk and think about these sensations that’s different, rather than the sensations themselves,” the author says.

I could have been all cute and called my contractions ‘tickles’, but it still would have felt like I was shitting a watermelon.

No one looks like a goddess during labour.

“If a woman doesn’t look like a goddess in labour, someone isn’t treating her right,” said famous midwife Ina May Gaskin, who is quoted in the article. The implication is that the only reason some women feel less than glamorous during labour is because they don’t have proper support from their partner or caregivers.

My mother and husband supported me throughout my entire labour, and I still looked like a sweaty, flushed, exhausted mess when it was over. My mother very rightly made my first post-birth photos black and white so you couldn’t clearly see how gross I was.

Not that I cared what I looked like. I was, as I mentioned before, pretty focused on just trying not to die, so my letting my inner goddess shine through was the least of my worries. She didn’t attempt to make an appearance during the 14 hours I spent in labour, which is just as well. If she’d had, I probably would have told her to bugger off, because I was kind of in the middle of something.

Look, if you’re like Melissa Carver from London, who was quoted in the article saying that she had a “pleasurable birth,” then good for you. But I’m willing to bet that you’re in the minority. For most of us, giving birth one of the most unpleasant physical experiences that we’ll ever have. It’s a good thing the result of all that unpleasantness is so damn cute.

Me in a grey and green striped shirt with a sleeping baby in a pink sleepsuit on me

Rhyming with Wine

47 thoughts on “The myth of the myth of the painful birth”

  • I saw that article and thought it was garbage. Everyone has their own level of pain tolerance and every birth is different. The article was like a slap in the face! #DreamTeam

  • Oh crap… yeah. Very scared. The labour part has been the bit that has put me off so long. But now it’s too late. We want the result (it better be cute) and the seed is sown. Say arrrrrrggggghhhhh! #dreamteam

  • Oh crap… yeah. The labour part has been the bit that has put me off for so long! But we want the result (it better be cute) and the seed is sown.
    Say arrrrrggggghhhhh!

  • Ugh I hate articles like that! I think everyone has a different tolerance level for pain, personally I found it painful but I still managed it drug free and it didn’t put me off doing it five times over!!! #dreamteam

  • Well done for getting through it five times! I think the memory of the pain must fade, otherwise no one would go through it more than once.

  • OMG Katie I honestly thought I was going to die too – I’m not being dramatic either – I was so bloody shocked and thought there was no way on earth that my body could take the pain – the back presentation of a 9lb 2oz baby that everyone thought was a 4.5lb baby was not fun – never been so scared in my entire life. That article can do one! Oh I love the image that you thought you could walk to the hospital – hilarious!! #FamilyFun

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought I was going to die! I really wasn’t expecting it. And no, walking down the motorway was definitely NOT going to happen.

  • It’s funny – I look back on my birth experiences and feel empowered by them, but I wouldn’t deny that giving birth is painful. I had two very different experiences – first time around, my labour was augmented with an oxytocin drip and I had an epidural. I remember feeling that I could (just about!) cope with the contractions but the feeling of pressure in my bottom every time I had one was utterly unbearable (Jessica was back-to-back which is what caused that). Second time around, I had a drug-free labour in a birthing pool at home. I had quite a strong fear of dying second time around and I know that it made the pushing stage a lot longer as a result because I held back. I probably would be more likely to use words such as “intense” and “overwhelming” though to describe contractions rather than painful even though it was painful too. I definitely agree with you on the feeling of anxious relief in between contractions though! #familyfun

  • Ahahaha I also did it drug free (I’m not counting gas and air as a drug), and it hurt me a lot too. I also wouldn’t have been at all surprised if I had died. But strangely, although it really hurt, at points it was excruciating (possible back to back labour—they weren’t sure—syntocin drip), I didn’t find it that bad. In my head I kept telling myself it would be over soonish. My fear of epidural massively outweighed my feeling of pain. I kind of think it’s unhelpful to tell people it doesn’t hurt. Because when it does hurt, they’ll think something is wrong and they can’t do it. #dreamteam

    • I don’t count gas and air either – I had it too and I don’t think it really did much besides distract me a bit. I was afraid of an epidural too!

  • Wow, those quotes are hilarious! In all honesty, I was so flipping petrified of labour that the reality wasn’t actually as bad as I’d feared (and apparently gas and air makes me completely off my face, so I remember fairly little of the whole experience until the end, where the midwife took it off me!), but there’s no way I’d ever describe it as anything other than painful! I’m not looking forward to doing it all over again in a few months! #familyfun

  • Fair play to you for having no pain relief!! I had gas and air and think I would have panicked without some relief! Everyone one has different experiences don’t they! ‪Thank you for linking up to the #familyfunlinky‬

    • I had gas and air too but I don’t consider that a drug! I don’t think it had much effect on me, to be honest, all though it did give me something to focus on. Then I dropped the mouthpiece halfway through and that was the end of that!

  • Haha I love this! I was the same as you, watching One Born and thinking ‘nah, it can’t be that bad’. What an idiot. I couldn’t believe how painful it actually was! I watched a programme recently with a man saying birth doesn’t have to be painful & I wanted to slap him – how the hell would he know!? #dreamteam

  • What nonsense! You don’t get any brownie points for pretending it didn’t hurt. Or she discounted everyone else’s experiences because clearly she is now the expert after having done it once? Well-written rebuttal! #ablogginggoodtime

  • I had no pain relief with Wills (got to the hospital too late) and it was definitely worse than Amelia’s birth where I had Pethadine (spell?) and gas and air. I won’t lie, both my labours were short (4 hours and 3.5 hours) so I don’t look back on them as complete nightmares at all, and the pain I experienced was short lived… initially during the ‘breaks’ in between contractions I was cracking jokes with my other half, but quickly those breaks became nothing more than mental prep for the next one! I didn’t feel like I was dying, but it was definitely the worst pain I’ve ever felt, like EVER! To try and play it down as anything other than that is just a lie haha!! #ablogginggoodtime

    • Four hours doesn’t sound so bad compared to some women, but I know it must have felt like a long time when you were in the middle of it!

  • It’s agony. It’s also worth it! My first birth was more painful than I could ever have imagined. I went to hospital and the midwife sent me home saying if I could still speak then I wasn’t in proper labour. My dad laughed and told me to reconfigure my pain scale! My second 2 births I kept thinking the pain would get worse so didn’t realise how close I was until the urge to push arrived.

    • I heard the second birth can be easier than the second because your body knows what it’s doing – fingers crossed that’s the case if I have another!

  • I’ve had four children and four very different birth experiences, starting with an induced labour and emergency C-section for the first, and a beautiful home water birth for the fourth. Although I experienced pain during labour (most notably during a 3.5 minute contraction caused by the oxytocin drip during my first labour, and a hellish transition phase for my second), I never felt like my body couldn’t handle it. Focusing on my breathing and staying calm got me through, and I have never felt as empowered and proud of myself as after the homebirth.

    • I think it’s great that you found it empowering – and that you’ve gotten through four births! Focusing on breathing can help a lot.

  • I had three back labours. You know the type, where it feels like a blunt spoon is being used to rip out your spine. My labours were very quick, 6 hours (first child), 90 mins and 45 mins. I dare not have a fourth child, I’ll fart and it will fly across the labour ward. The pain I felt was the worst I’d endured. Until I cracked a tooth. That tooth has an exposed nerve and if I bite on anything the pain is intense… far worse than I remember labour. Neither labour, or this toothache is a pleasurable experience. I prefer the labour to the toothache, although I’ve had more sympathy for the toothache. Childbirth hurts. It’s not a euphoric and it should be mandatory for teenagers everywhere to witness a live birth… it will put them off of sex until they’re 50.

  • Hmm I hear a lot about people feeling empowered. I can’t say I was empowered, I don’t think anyway. As for the feeling of euphoria there was definitely none of that it was just straight up relief with an overwhelming sense of foreboding about the oncoming contraction. The only thing I will say, there second birth was drug free like the first but it was considerably less painful. Still awful but definitely less so. I have heard it’s something to do with when your waters break. I am not sure if it’s an old wives tale but in my case it definitely made sense. Thanks for joining us at #familyfun

    • Foreboding was my experience too. I’ve heard that about the second – I hope that’s the case if I have another.

  • Labour is especially painful when you go from 2-10cm in a matter of 40mins. No matter how much you try for it not to be….or when you have a ridiculously short labour and have a baby within 3 hours. I’m not sure how my pain tolerance measures, but it sure was painful!

  • Yeh, yeh, my friggin hurt. I had to have a spinal tap for an intervention and despite not wanting pain relief I have never been so grateful after 18 hours of unrelenting pain…. #FamilyFun

    • I really think the author meant well, but I think she took the idea of it all being in our heads a bit too far!

  • You’ve hit the nail on the head here. I’ve had one induced epidural birth and two drug free ones – and the induced birth was the worst even though I had an epidural! For me getting the breathing right meant I could breathe through it #familyfunlinky

  • Isn’t it funny what crap people write! When my contractions started they were 5 minutes apart and they just intensified. 36 hours later and I thought I was going to die. Thankfully I didn’t but I don’t believe anyone who says they had a pain free labour! #stayclassymama

  • Well, It sure isn’t glamorous or painless for sure. I don’t agree with the article and think that some of the people quoted are probably just suffering from amnesia! Everyone says the same thing but it’s true. We all have different pain threshold but it’s painful and hard work not unlike what I suspect running a marathon might be like but i wouldn’t know because I would never inflict that pain on myself. Let’s be honest there is no cute baby at the end of a marathon 😉 Anyway, I gave birth at home twice with 0 pain relief and it was bloody painful but I didn’t ever feel I couldn’t do it or get to the end of it. Thank you for sharing with #StayClassyMama

    • You’re right – everyone has a different pain threshold, so what works for one woman won’t work for another.

  • This is such a brilliant post for expecting mothers – I have to admit that as Emma was breech I feel like I sort of cheated the system ever so slightly. But from my mum friends I know that they felt betrayed that we were never told in antenatal classes and the focus was on being all zen and positive and then you’ll get through it! Thanks for linking up to #dreamteam x

    • I think that antenatal classes can downplay how hard it can be – I get that they don’t want to scare you, but a little more honesty might help people feel more prepared.

  • Ugh are you for real? Okay I’m going to be honest, I did hypnobirthing and I almost believed this non-pain nonsense. But now that I’ve been through it (and had to have an epidural on day three of labour because I couldn’t take it anymore, the contraction – or “surges” – we’re every five minutes for three fucking days) I know that I will opt in for epidural earlier next time around. My son is fine there was no damage and it helped me get through it. I felt so guilty taking the drugs that I suffered much longer than I needed to (he was positioned the wrong way). I completely agree with you on this one and I have to say that it would have been better if someone had just said, “do what you need to do and don’t feel guilty”. Thanks so much for sharing with #StayClassyMama!

    • Oh god – three days of labour? I actually would have died. I think I’d opt for an epidural too if mine lasted that long. You’re right – mums need to feel that they can do what they need to do and not feel guilty.

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