By Dianne Kemp
I have been asked this question more times than I can count. Asked by students in the childbirth classes I taught, by friends who were aware I worked in the field of obstetrics, and by my children and their friends as they got older and started thinking about starting families. And it is truly a question that is impossible to answer. Let me explain.
The moment a woman announces that she is pregnant – or even that she is thinking about getting pregnant – people (especially another woman) start coming out of the woodwork to tell their labor stories. I have never understood why women like to scare each other with horror stories about labor and birth – is it to make them look like the hero that they “survived”? Or to tell a secret? I don’t know but I do not like it.
I find that these stories are rarely true – factually true. They are certainly true in the mind of the person telling the story – perception is truth. In the present day, the story usually starts out with “you HAVE to get an epidural – and as soon as possible”. I often told my students that everyone was different and there was a wide range of pain tolerances and pain management. And that desire for pain management in some woman started with wanting an epidural at week 38 of the pregnancy – or at least in the garage on the way to the hospital.
The story continues with every gruesome detail – from the ride to the hospital over bumpy roads to painful IV starts, painful exams by sadistic nurses, failed epidurals that had to be redone, catheters, monitors, pushing, ripping and tearing, blue babies who did not breath or cry at birth, fainting partners – the list goes on and on. And if a mom dares to say “Oh, labor was easier than I thought it would be”– she is ridiculed and hated by the horrid storytellers and told she must have been drugged and had forgotten most of the pain.
OK – now what did I tell them. Well, first there is no one answer to the question: “What is labor really like”. Everyone has a different pain tolerance, a different labor, different emotions, different situation, different support staff, different medical staff, etc.
I tell them that it is important to note that we live in an age of choices in childbirth – from home birth with no medical interventions or medical staff present to a cesarean section with all the trimmings!!
I believe it starts with your emotional state at the time you go into labor – how you feel about having a baby, do you have support, have you really prepared for the experience with accurate knowledge – and do you trust yourself and your body to get the job done. Do you believe that birth is a task that the female body is meant to do – or do you believe that you need all of the help medical science can give you. And are you able to give up control and let your body do what it is meant to do?
This was hard for me as I am a true believer that woman are meant to birth – that home birth is fine in the right situation for the right people. I had to keep these beliefs hidden when I taught childbirth classes or I would have been tarred, feathered, and fired by the physicians. So, I taught from a place of choices.
First – the old days – the way my mother gave birth to me – unconscious. Some women thought this would be ok – but very few. Then, the epidural – a thin catheter placed in the epidural space – just outside of the spinal cord. This is done with a large needle and although most women express fear of this needle, it is a very popular option for the mother to be as awake and alert but feeling no pain. Narcotics were popular before the epidural came into vogue. These are given either into the muscle or the IV and cause the mom to be sleepy and foggy, to “relax” between contractions – but the narcotics do not take the pain of contractions away.
Then comes “natural” – my definition of natural? A healthy mom and a healthy baby no matter how the baby gets here – but that is not the definition most people understand.
Natural to most means no medication, no epidural. Women who have natural childbirth use breathing and relaxation to get through their contractions – they work with their bodies instead of against them. Let me explain this the way I did in class. When I go to the dentist, I am usually very anxious. When the dentist comes at me with a drill in hand, I grip the armrest, tense every muscle in my body and hold my breath. When a muscle contracts, it uses oxygen and when I hold my breath I am not giving my muscles much to work with.
In labor, the uterus contracts to push the baby out. The uterus is one big muscle and needs oxygen to do its job. So, if a mom-to-be uses the breathing and relaxation techniques that I taught in class, they would relax all of their muscles during contractions and breathe – giving the uterus what it needs to do its job in labor. We would practice this in class and I could always tell who would use the techniques and who thought I was crazy and just wanted “drugs”. The people who believed the relaxation could work asked me for audio tapes of my relaxation exercises so they could practice at home. They took my suggestions of practicing the techniques with the same music and planned to bring that music with them to use during labor. And it usually worked for them.
I was always adamant in class that a mom-to-be should never make their partner promise to “refuse to get an epidural”. I believe this is unfair to the partner. As I have said, every labor is different and no one knows how they are going to respond – so options must be kept open.
In class, I often told the story of my third labor. I was determined when I found out that I was pregnant for the third time, that I would “do it right” this time. For my first birth, I had a spinal anesthetic at the end with a forceps delivery (which was the practice of the time). My second birth was medication free and I did well – but I did not practice the breathing and relaxation as much as I should have.
So, during the third pregnancy, I practiced relaxation every day. And I used music – Four Seasons by Vivaldi. I would play the music on headphones and consciously relax my muscles – contract and relax on command. And it worked well during my short four-hour labor.
But then, my son had many congenital anomalies and went through many painful and scary procedures. I took the tape player to every hospital stay, every surgery and played Four Seasons for him. It was amazing. This baby who everyone thought was mentally impaired and did not really feel – after all, newborns do not really feel, right!! Well, as the music started, he would visibly relax – he remembered what it did for me when he was living inside of me and he used it for himself. With all of my guilt over his problems and what he had to go through – looking back at least I was able to help him a little.
Back to the question – “Tell me what labor will really be like”.
I do not have an answer, just information, and suggestions.
- Do not put too much pressure on yourself
- Get all of the ACCURATE information you can
- Practice relaxation and breathing
- Use all of the support you can find
- Give up control – go with the flow
- Trust yourself
- Accept what happens and always be proud of yourself
- Do not look back with regret – but with pride at your accomplishment
Dianne Kemp was born in Detroit and moved to Lexington at age 9. She received her Associate Degree in Nursing Science in 1972 from SC4, and a Bachelors in Healthcare Psychology from Graceland College (Iowa) in 1996.
Dianne’s career developed from her love of babies. She was a Maternal Child nurse for 45 years – developing and teaching childbirth and parenting education classes, working as an RN in Mother Baby Care and was the first lactation consultant in the county. She is now volunteering as a chaplain at River District Hospital since losing her vision in her left eye due to a retinal detachment in 2010.
Dianne is the proud mother of three children (one who was disabled and passed away in 2007) and two grandchildren.