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This Is Not How You Manage Pain in a Home Birth

I like rules, black-and-white scenarios. In recent years, I’ve become better at seeing gray areas, but when I was 25 and pregnant with my only child, I believed there was only one “best” way to do just about anything. In addition to this outlook rendering me an insufferable dinner companion, it also spelled disaster for my pregnancy and home birth when it came to coping with pain.

I believed that I could train myself, like a runner gearing up for a marathon, to prepare for the pain in advance. I read about other women’s experiences, trying to feel the pain along with them, in order to know exactly what to expect. You know, to knock out that whole fear of the unknown thing.

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I interrogated my midwife. “You have to find your locus of control,” Judith said, drilling into me with her steely eyes. Everything about her spelled guru, from her knowing tone to her wizened demeanor, that her phrase—“locus of control”—stuck in my head like a mantra for weeks.

I’d never heard it before. I later learned that this is a popular concept in psychology and spiritual communities. She asked me to explore what I might use to help me stay calm and focused during labor. She asked me to write something about it, calling it my homework. I mulled over the idea for days, considering different talismans I could use to help me through labor. I went literal with the homework assignment and created a painting of sunburst-colored flowers that I would decidedly focus on during childbirth. I also wrote a few paragraphs about my introspection and delivered them to Judith at our next meeting. This is it, I thought. I’ve done it. I’ll use this, and I’ll be just fine with the pain. Hell, I won’t even feel the pain at all if I can do it right.

She looked down at my typewritten page. “Wow,” she said. “You really did your homework!” She said she’d never worked with anyone who put in that much effort—and she’d delivered something like 500 babies in her lifetime. I felt like a star student.

Weeks later, I was in labor. My world was permanently rocked.

The only black-and-white aspect of this was that it was going to hurt like a motherfucker.

When Judith arrived for my contractions, she was exhausted, having delivered another baby that previous night. She expected me to spend a good few hours having contractions before go-time, so she borrowed a blanket and plopped down on our couch to nap.

While my husband at the time filled the kiddie pool in the dining room, I lied alone on the bed, feeling my first strong contraction. It came on slowly and crashed up and throughout my body, like a wave. My entire midsection was completely tense, like it was about to collapse on itself. It took my breath away. I writhed and writhed. After a few moments of rest, the next one came on, mercilessly. It culminated in a zig-zagging lightning bolt of pain that made me squeal aloud.

I cried out for help. Judith checked on me. During my next contraction, she noticed I was bicycling my legs while lying on the bed. “Don’t do that,” she said. “Don’t run from the pain.”

I remember thinking how awful it was that she would say that—if she were the one feeling it, she would want to run, too. I thought moving my body would help, but ultimately she was right. It didn’t. Like a freefall off a cliff, there was absolutely nothing I could do with my body or mind to make it go away. I had completely misunderstood the locus of control: there was no magic formula. The only black-and-white aspect of this was that it was going to hurt like a motherfucker.

I couldn’t believe Judith kept disappearing during these contractions. If she was right, and we were hours away from the pushing part, I wasn’t sure I could survive it.

As long as I did this, I felt like I was in control, like I was the one easing my own pain. Not some external locus-pocus or bathtub or midwife. Me.

When the pool was finally full and I stepped in, the relief I’d expected wasn’t there. I felt awkward getting naked, and I couldn’t sit comfortably in any position. The water helped ease some of the tension in my abdomen, but it was negated by the fact that I couldn’t get cozy.

Judith kept telling me, from the couch, to make a drawn-out “ohhhh” sound in my lower register. I didn’t want to, because I was afraid of sounding like an idiot, but I finally gave it a try.

It was the most relief I’d felt all night. I had to make sure to take a deep breath, so I could sustain my low moan through the full contraction. As long as I did this, I felt like I was in control, like I was the one easing my own pain. Not some external locus-pocus or bathtub or midwife. Me.

The trick was holding it through the whole contraction, which required taking a deep breath as it was coming on. If I didn’t take a second to breathe in deeply, I’d run out of steam and my voice would almost instinctively slip into a high-pitched squeal. The relief would go up in smoke, and my abdomen would burn and rage. There would be no catching back up to it until the next contraction.

I kept up the moaning until one exceptionally painful contraction. I felt an overwhelming need to push, to counteract it. For the first time in my life, perhaps, my body and mind felt like the same thing—I knew, instinctively, what I needed to do. I yelped, “I want to push!”

Judith sprang up from the couch, “no, sweetie, not yet … let me check you.”

She checked. My body confirmed what I knew: I was fully dilated and ready to go.

The next two hours were spent pushing and pushing. When baby started to crown, Judith had to cut me to get her out. It turned out that the cord was wrapped around baby’s neck, and that’s why the pushing had taken so long—something that might have required a C-section in the hospital.

But rather than mystifying it, like finding some silly locus of control or mantra or song that you think might get you through it, just embrace the pain.

The cord snapped when baby came out, and she and I both wound up losing a lot of blood. I was enamored, though, and completely overwhelmed by the realness of her tiny body on my chest that I couldn’t process the gravity of what was happening. Baby was blue, apparently, and my midwife and husband saved her life with warm towels, while I held her close to my skin.

The pain of home birth might have been my first real lesson about magic formulas, how they aren’t real. This may be something other people learn early in life, but it took the most all-encompassing mental and physical feat of my life to learn it.

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My advice to the women preparing for an un-medicated childbirth is simply that you be aware you’re about to know your own pain, deeply. It is gut-wrenching on a literal level. You may, like me, feel completely taken over by it—taken by surprise at the force within your own body that makes you feel this way.

But rather than mystifying it, like finding some silly locus of control or mantra or song that you think might get you through it, just embrace the pain. Work with your body and mind, not against it. Judith was right in telling me not to run. The moment I started making noise, animalistic as it was, I felt the closest thing to relief I could have felt. It’s a ridiculous sound that comes out when you moan lowly, but like breathing, it’s a gesture that forces your abdomen to relax and open up. Take a deep breath, moan slowly and deliberately, and you may get some relief, too.

And if that doesn’t work, keep in mind that you won’t feel this way forever. That is the fantastic beauty of impermanence and the—pardon the cliché—very wondrousness of life itself.

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Photographs by: Instagram/Empowerd Birth Project

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