Updated: Oct 1, 2021
Childbirth has a reputation that precedes itself as one of the most painful experiences a woman can ever have. Horror stories about birth abound creating a culture of fear around the birth experience. Birthing persons who benefited from epidural pain relief may exclaim how much they loved their epidural – why on earth would anyone give birth without one?
On the other end of the spectrum are women who confidently proclaim that they experienced absolutely no pain during childbirth. Some childbirth preparation methods exclusively market themselves on the idea that you can have a birth with absolutely no pain. While I think that “experiencing no pain” could be a possibility for a lucky few (hard to know since I didn't witness the births of those who claim this and I happen to not be one them, so I kind of have to take their word for it), friends that I know who tried these methods have been pretty frank in admitting that they did actually feel pain.
The intention to help women appreciate the beauty and power of birth is a noble one. However, as a very practical person myself, I don’t think we need to sugar coat or give unrealistic expectations of what ends up being a pretty intense experience. I think promoting the concept of experiencing a “pain-free birth” seems a completely unrealistic goal for the majority of women and places a unnecessary burden of expectation on how a women “should’ birth.
I believe the truth is somewhere in between. Labor is called “labor “ after all – it’s hard work. It comes with sensations and feeling – some of this might be painful. That doesn’t mean it has to be scary or unbearable. Modern society and institutionalized birth has devalued the intensity and pain of labor – deeming it essentially meaningless and not necessary of experiencing. But let’s consider this experience on a deeper level. Females have been birthing for eons. Why would pain have evolved as part of the birth experience? Might it possibly have a purpose? I think so.
Pain as a Signal to the Community
Birth evolved long before societies, culture and childbirth classes. The incredible processes that happen in birth stem from our earliest mammalian ancestors, intricately linked to our nervous systems. We are a part of nature, evolved from nature and share many traits with other mammals. Our earliest ancestors didn’t take classes to learn about the changes of pregnancy, labor and birth, and breastfeeding. They lived in small tribes where these changes just took place.
What would help the tribe understand that a new, very dependent little human creature was being born? What would help them know this was a momentous occasion where everyone really needed to stop and pay attention? When the laboring mother experiences pain, she acts differently. The people around her will change their behavior to look out for her. She is not going to stray far from home or the tribe. All eyes will be focused on her.
What if there was no pain? She might go out for a long hunt or gathering expedition. The baby might slip out from her body without her realizing it, trailing behind her attached by the umbilicus for whoever knows how long before she or anyone realized. Can you imagine being at the grocery store or at a business meeting at work when suddenly – boom! – this little creature - your baby – was suddenly expelled from your body without any warning? Pretty inconvenient. Not very special. We’d probably be expected to just move on, barely acknowledging what just happened. We’d take it for granted like many things in our everyday lives.
Pain signals everyone to pay attention. Ideally, it informs us to treat the new mother and new baby with care. We are primed to change our behavior. The investment of time, effort and emotions into this event makes us value it all the more. A little part of nature’s wisdom.
Pain as a Messenger to the Mother
Labor and birth are facilitated by the active efforts of both the mother and baby. Baby must have flexion (legs and arms tucked in, with chin on chest), be able to rotate and use their legs to move down. Baby uses the mother’s pelvic floor, bodily structures and tissues to negotiate this passage. The laboring mother receives messages from the movement of her baby and the sensations that are registered in her body. The location, type and intensity of pain give the laboring mother (and those around her) messages about what might be helpful to bring this child into the world.
When the pain receptors are on, they act as clues. Without them, valuable messages may be lost. I am recalling the situation of a laboring mother who felt pain so intense in the front of her body that it brought her to her knees and she understandably asked for an epidural upon arrival at the hospital. Turns out the baby was lodged against her pelvic bone (which was not noted by the staff at the time). An epidural took away the immediate pain, but it also took away the signal and the ability to make a change to help baby move off of the bone. Baby kept being pressed against the bone, but without the pain signals, no one knew or acted to remedy the situation. Hours of pushing baby straight into the bone resulted in a prolonged pushing phase, a bruised head for baby and pelvic nerve damage for mama resulting in a horrendous postpartum experience.
It’s important to understand that often pain is a messenger – when the messenger is silenced, there may be unintended consequences that could have been helped or avoided. When a laboring mother has discomfort and areas of pain in her body, they are important signals that help her move into different positions with her body and take different actions to help bring her child safely into the world.
Pain as a Road to an Altered State of Consciousness
Birth is a place between realms – between our physical earthly realm and the spirit world, or pure consciousness. Labor takes the mother to an altered state of consciousness – from the beta brain waves of ordinary alert conscious to the deep and slow delta waves. Those are the brain waves of new babies - deep and slow. Important changes are happening in the new mother as she labors and births – changes in her brain and her person which will prime her to understand her baby in a way that no one else can. Trust and safety are essential so a laboring mother can go this deep, meditative place to call her baby’s soul to Earth. This is the part I think many women in labor feel afraid of and resist. It feels so very, very different from everyday life. It is the temporary dissolution of self – completely in the moment without past or future. It literally feels out of this world – beyond time and space. But here’s the thing – it’s okay to go there. You need to go there. You can trust this space, knowing that you are safe. Your partner, your birth attendant – everyone is there to ground you in waves of support.
Pain as Charging a Super Power
Labor sets off an intricate hormonal cascade that transforms a woman into a mother. A person with Super Powers like giving life through birth and sustaining life through breastfeeding. This is miraculous. These hormones have incredible power and are very important. I have a whole new appreciation for hormones after going through menopause (when women lose estrogen and progesterone and cease their cycling). Hormones control EVERYTHING in our bodies. They are also our friends and helpers. When birth is unmedicated, all these hormones and endorphins are being generated within from our own bodies – this impressive cocktail talks to our baby’s hormones. This is an intricate dance and our hormones imprint upon our offspring, likely having epigenetic effects.
Labor and birth initiate a full body and mind system’s upgrade and the conference of Super Powers. That’s going to come with feeling. This is a huge change in your life that comes with radical responsibility. It has very real consequences for you, your child and future generations. Labor and birth are designed to help you with those changes and responsibilities. Labor and birth also offer the opportunity to step into a new version of self. Women who have intentionally given birth without pain medication often share their feelings of accomplishment, agency and transcendence. It’s hard work. Yes, it can be painful. It can be intense. Yet, it’s doable. Really. And transformational. You are becoming Wonder Woman – truly. You got this, Mama!