American pop culture– sitcoms, TV talk shows, and Hollywood movies, in particular—all tend to portray labor as the single most painful experience a woman can ever have. The pain is depicted as both inevitable and total, best dealt with by taking a generous dose of a drug that will dull the pain and make it bearable.
It’s all rather anxiety-producing, especially for a woman who will be giving birth for the first time.
In the months leading up to the birth of our daughter, Mariel, my husband and I watched one documentary after another about labor and delivery. I wanted to try to understand exactly what I was in for, and whether any alternative experiences of the birthing process were available. The goal wasn’t to deny that giving birth was painful; rather, it was to learn how the pain could be managed in a way that wouldn’t overshadow the singular moment of being present to bringing our child into the world.
It was helpful to watch “The Business of Being Born,” “Orgasmic Birth,” “Gentle Birth Choices,” and “Birth Without Violence,” all of which portrayed women responding to pain without drugs– and seemingly enjoying the process. I spent an hour thinking about how one particular woman in “Orgasmic Birth” could have seemed so…well, orgasmic. Her ecstasy in labor was utterly contrary to everything I’d ever seen about the pain of giving birth.
And yet, I was under no illusions that the head of a child squeezing out of a comparably small birth canal would not be painful. “It’s called the ring of fire for a reason,” said the woman who taught the birthing classes we attended a few months before Mariel was born. “But,” she continued, “there are natural ways to decrease the pain, and they’re really effective—maybe even more so for some women than an epidural.”
You could almost hear the “sure they are” retorts echoing in the room where women in various stages of pregnancy sat on pillows and leaned back on their partners’ legs. But all of us were in the class because we intended to give birth in a birthing center rather than a traditional labor and delivery ward, and this meant that we were voluntarily foregoing any interventions like an epidural. In other words, we had to give these natural pain management techniques a try.
The teacher walked around the room with a cup of ice, and placed a cool square cube in each woman’s hand. She asked us to be present to the feeling of the ice cube in our hand, and over the course of a minute, I experienced a searing pain that seemed to dig deeper into my palm with every passing second.
“Stop,” the teacher called after a minute. The collective clatter of cubes hitting the wood floor could be heard, followed by sighs of relief and several of us wondering aloud how an ice cube in our palm could be so painful.
The teacher smiled, didn’t say anything, and circled the room with another round of ice cubes. “This time,” she said, directing her instructions to our partners, “I want you to be present to this pain with her. Rub her shoulders, run your fingers through her hair, talk with her, encourage her.” She looked at her watch again. Each couple retreated into itself, the intimacy of encouragement between couples making a low buzz. “Time,” the teacher called. “That wasn’t even 10 seconds!” I said, almost protesting. She laughed. “It was a full minute, just like the first time.”
Again, the cubes dropped, but the remarks this time reflected a similar perception shared by all the women– the full minute had seemed like only a few seconds, and those seconds were totally bearable.
“Labor,” the teacher explained, can be just like the ice cube in the hand. If you’re totally focused on the pain the ice cube is causing, then you’re going to be attuned to the pain. But if you have someone with you to provide active support, then the pain becomes manageable and the entire experience is usually more pleasant.”
As I labored and pushed our daughter into the world, my husband on one side of the bed and my mother on the other, I thought about the ice cube melting in my hand. Yes, I went through the ring of fire. Yes, the birth was painful. But this single coping strategy for managing that pain was extraordinarily effective. It just doesn’t make for nearly as dramatic a story as a Hollywood movie.