What is giving birth really like?

December 15, 2014

What is giving birth really like? |

Before I fell pregnant, and throughout my pregnancy, I really wanted to know what giving birth felt like, and how much pain and indignity I could expect – it was the first question I always asked new mothers (oops). With Oscar’s first birthday coming up this week, I’ve been thinking about my own ‘birth story’ and wondering how I would describe the experience to expectant mums.

I know birth stories are two-a-penny and no two experiences are alike; for a start, people have different pain thresholds and different coping strategies. In my NCT group alone, we had one caesarean, one three-day heavy-labour marathon, and one unplanned home birth. So the only surefire way to find out how hard-going, exhausting, uncomfortable, stressful and, at times, terrifying giving birth will be for you is to go through it yourself (sorry about that.) But for what it’s worth, here’s an abridged version of Oscar’s birth.

Things started off well. The birthing ball was a nice distraction. The TENS machine seemed to have an effect. Having waited eight days past my due date, Juan and I were both excited, if apprehensive. We set to it, trying not to imagine what the neighbours were thinking as I lowed and roared in the corner of the bedroom.

I suppose the most profound thing that occurred to me about seven hours into my 15-hour labour was this: contractions feel very much like an unpleasant, dystopic orgasm. With the onset of each, there is a sense of anticipation, then the waves of sensation build steadily, getting stronger and stronger until you feel you can’t take much more without losing control. And then you scream. I’m not trying to be flippant with this analogy – that is the most evocative way I can describe my experience to non-mothers.

In NCT classes, we were told that giving birth is a marathon in the sense that you don’t know how long it will take and it will demand every ounce of your energy. I can remember Juan calling the hospital once my contractions became frequent and strong, and being told to stay at home for another hour, then another, then another, until I could clearly see myself having the baby right there in our tiny bath. But as the taxi pulled up outside, there was another part of me that was equally horrified at the thought of arriving at the hospital and being told I was only one or two centimetres dilated, meaning the pain I was experiencing was going to get significantly worse before things improved.

Thankfully, by the time I got to the labour ward, I was seven centimetres dilated. I naively did a few sums in my head – it had taken me seven hours to get to seven centimetres, so the remaining three centimetres would probably only take a couple of hours more, right?

Wrong. Because the baby’s heart rate was so high, I had to be monitored throughout the remainder of my labour, meaning that I had to lay back in a hospital bed and couldn’t use gravity or movement to my advantage. By the time the baby was crowning, eight hours later, I could hardly summon the energy for the final pushes. When Oscar was finally out and had been given the OK, I had turned yellow with fatigue and Juan told me it had been the worst night of his life. We both burst into tears.

Needless to say, the preparations I had made for Oscar’s birth were roundly redundant. The pizza I suggested we order as I entered the first stage of labour sat in our lounge, uneaten and abandoned, for 24 hours. The water birth I’d requested was vetoed. The birth plan… where to start? It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? Penning a Sliding Doors-style fiction is indeed a charming way to pass the time when pregnant.

Meanwhile, my hospital bag – brimming with books, energy bars, a specially selected iPod ‘birthing’ playlist, massage oils and the like – sat untouched at the edge of the ward, silently mocking us. That’s the salient piece of advice I have taken away from my birth experience: the only things you need to take with you to hospital are a change of clothes for you, some clothes and a blanket for the baby, a few nappies and your washbag. Everything else just becomes an embarrassingly naive footnote once labour starts for real.

For me, though, the real hard labour started after Oscar was born. Unlike when you complete a marathon, once you’ve given birth there is no silver-foil blanket, warm bath and day off to recover. I entered a new waking terror, one borne of not knowing what to do or when to do it, being alternately bone-tired and too wired with anxiety to sleep, and feeling completely out of my depth and removed from reality.

One lightning-fast year later, it’s difficult to remember how helpless, demanding and despotic Oscar used to be. With each passing week and month, newborns make these astonishing leaps in ability and independence, all the while establishing a hard-wired personality that makes you love them all the more. If I were to give birth again, I’d tell myself to relax, block out extraneous distractions (and the panicky voices in my head) and concentrate on conserving as much energy as possible. But that, as all mums will know, is easier said than done…

I’d love to hear your birth stories – how was it for you? And what do you tell people who ask you what giving birth is really like?

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  • Reply Rachel December 15, 2014 at 9:05 am

    I’ve always been (weirdly) interested in giving birth and when I was pregnant I read millions of birth stories. Yet I was still shocked by how hard it was and I found the sheer physical intensity of contractions so scary, that it was hard to relax and breathe deeply, although when I did it helped so much.

    The day that George was born, I said to my boyfriend, ‘I am NEVER doing that again’ but it’s amazing how memories fade with time and two years later, I almost look back on it fondly!

    Reply Kim Carberry December 15, 2014 at 10:21 am

    I have always wanted to know what labour feels like….I have 2 children but had planned c-sections with them both….I even remember asking the midwife could I just go into labour and see what it feels like then have the c-section! lol She said no! The spoil sport. lol x

    • Reply Nicky December 16, 2014 at 9:09 pm

      Yes, a Caesarean must be a completely different experience – although probably best to only have to cope with one or the other! Thanks for your comment x

    Reply Joanna December 15, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Oh my… I loved reading this Nicky, thanks so much. Even though I haven’t given birth, your story doesn’t fill me as full of fear as might be expected: I’d rather know what I am in for!

    • Reply Nicky December 16, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      I always used to ask friends who’d had babies, ‘Is it true you poo on the table?’. Helpful. And the least of my worries when I was actually in labour! Glad you enjoyed x

    Reply Kaye December 15, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Great post! I had a good experience with labour (no complications) yet I’m terrified as I think surely it won’t be as straightforward next time!

    I agree with Rachel. For the first 6 weeks after giving birth I swore I’d have no more babies and almost a year on, I want at least another 2.

    • Reply Nicky December 16, 2014 at 9:07 pm

      I know – me too! The only thing that puts me off having more kids is wondering whether I would ever get a full night’s sleep again…

    Reply Sabrina December 15, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    Needless to say I have been thinking about this a lot today! With a sort of simultaneous shudder/smile. I in no way want to sound smug and pleased with myself, (always a danger when you are too positive about anything to do with pregnancy/labour/early motherhood) but for me the physical event was less painful and traumatic than I feared, and for the most part quite tolerable. I was in a zone. Didn’t speak much, didn’t scream much, just was in a sort of trancelike tunnel for most of it. Wish I could summon up that level of focus in other aspects of life, bloody hell, just think what I could achieve?! I’d be so productive! Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t painless, it HURT, but it just didn’t seem as bad as I worried it might be. Maybe it was the 20 years of angry periods leading up to giving birth which made early labour seem like any other ‘time of the month’, or maybe it was my incredibly calm and encouraging midwives, but it never felt like a pain that was beyond my ability to cope with. And the elation I felt when it was all over was unreal. I was flooded with a sense of complete euphoria. I felt like a total badass… and then came the crash. I was completely unprepared by how physically and mentally difficult I found the following few weeks. For me, THAT was the hard part. I Certainly think next time around, if there is one, I’ll be far less worried about the actual labour, and far more apprehensive about how the hell I’m going to cope with those early weeks of no sleep, raging hormones etc while already having another child to look after.

    • Reply Nicky December 16, 2014 at 9:06 pm

      Do you know, in terms of pain, I can hardly remember the birth – but I do remember a feeling that my body was going to be ripped apart, rather like how earthquakes are represented in Hollywood films. You’re right though, the birth is NOTHING compared to the aftermath! x

    Reply Lizzie Woodman June 8, 2015 at 9:05 am

    Before giving birth I was more worried about the indignity of it all, rather than the pain. But, actually, the indiginities don’t matter at all once it’s happening – whereas the memory of the pain really does stay with me! You’re right – it is really hard to explain what it feels like as it’s so personal. I remember the pain of the contractions, more than the pain of the actual giving birth bit. For me, it was the worst pain I’d ever experienced – but it was so different to anything else. Also, one thing no one every told me about was how awful the after-pains of birth can be – especially with second (and subsequent babies). I was still having terrible contraction-like waves of pain for about six hours after my second son was born. All in all, I’m not in much of a hurry to do it again! I’ve written about my birth story here, if you’re interested:

    Lizzie x

    • Reply Nicky June 10, 2015 at 8:03 pm

      Oh gosh, I never experienced those, but now have something else to worry about if I have another baby! Thanks for your comment and glad you liked my post x

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