For those of us who’ve never experienced it, labor is one of life’s great mysteries. On one hand, there are tales of the magic and even orgasmic joy women experience giving birth. On the other hand are the horror stories of the moments when it’s exhausting, excruciating, and outright disgusting. Everyone who hasn’t been through labor wants to know what it’s like, but most people are too polite to ask the moms who have gone through it. Except me. I asked. And I got the lowdown on the good, the bad, and the poop (yes, there’s poop). You’re welcome.
1. How much does it really hurt?
We all know labor is painful, but how painful is it, exactly? Painful like a scratched cornea, or painful like an allergic reaction to yeast infection medicine (don’t ask)? I asked two moms to put it in terms that us civilians might understand. One said, “Labor feels like a very large and wicked boa constrictor coiled around your abdomen, squeezing at increasing frequency and intensity.”
Another mother (who promised she wasn’t offended by any of the other questions) simply said that the pain is in a class by itself and trying to compare it to anything else is an insult. In her words: “Tell me about your broken leg and let me laugh at you because it’s nothing compared to labor.” Ouch.
2. Super-long labors: myth or horrifying reality?
A quick internet search of “average labor time for first child” will give you numbers between 8 and 12 hours. But the anecdotal evidence (by which I mean the testimony of any mother after a glass of Chardonnay) tells a different story. One woman I interviewed struggled for two solid days before the doctors gave up and gave her a C-section. Another clocked in at 32 hours, though she said only 16 (!) of those were painful.
And labor isn’t the only thing that can drag on. One mother got seriously ill after her third child overstayed her due date by three weeks. (Full disclosure: The mother was mine, and the child was me. And I am so, so sorry, Mom.)
3. Does your vagina really tear during labor?
I’ll let you recover from picturing (and feeling) the horror of that question before I break the bad news. The answer is, “yes.” Studies say that 53–79 percent of all women suffer damage to the perineum during delivery (the area between the anus and vulva). Damage happens from tearing or from a surgical cut called an episiotomy that’s made by your doctor if they think it’s necessary. The trauma can require long recovery times and can even permanently change the sensation of intercourse and at times lead to urinary or anal incontinence.
Those facts are enough to make me want to keep my legs crossed forever, and the moms I spoke to backed them up with experience. One mom experienced tearing during her first delivery — which she blamed on pushing even when she was told not to — but avoided tearing on her subsequent births by lubricating the area with olive oil.
Another mom I spoke with had an episiotomy, but suffered third-degree tearing anyway. As she put it, “My kid’s head was over 13 inches around. Something had to give, and it was my skin.”
So, yeah: Legs. Crossed. Forever.
4. To drug or not to drug?
The question of whether or not to accept an epidural for delivery is one of the most heated topics of debate on mommy blogs. Of the moms I asked, their answers ran the gamut. One said she got the epidural, but it wasn’t very effective, and she still felt every single stitch when they sewed up her episiotomy. She still defended the decision, adding, “I would take meds if I broke a bone, so why wouldn’t I for this, which is a thousand times worse?”
Another mom I asked said she went drug-free for all four (FOUR) deliveries, saying that the experience itself was a natural high. Either way, there doesn’t seem to be a “right” answer so much as there’s an “answer that’s right for you.” And in real life, moms aren’t nearly as into epidural-shaming as the ones on message boards. What’s up with that, anyway?
5. Do you poop in front of everyone?
I only know about labor pooping from watching “edgy” romantic comedies, and I was kind of hoping it was a myth. No such luck, as it turns out. Medical professionals report that it’s extremely common, and one mom (who happens to be a doctor herself) explains, “If there's poop in your sigmoid colon and/or rectum, it will be squeezed out when the baby’s head comes down through that narrow space.”
Your best bet is to try and relieve yourself ahead of time. But if that doesn’t work out so well, you’ll just have to focus on one of the 100 other sensations you’re experiencing. And remember that life will go on.
6. Does any of the deep breathing stuff work?
The general consensus on the effectiveness of breathing techniques seems to be “not really.” But some moms say they do serve as a helpful distraction for at least a few hours.
7. Do you yell mean things at the doctors and nurses, and, if so, do you feel bad about it in retrospect?
This is another topic where my understanding mostly comes from movies, but childbirth does seem like one of the few times in life when it’s considered acceptable to vent your rage at everyone around you. Of course, not every mom takes advantage of the opportunity. One woman said she wanted to make a good impression as one of the hospital’s first same-sex parents, so she tried to be on her best behavior, in spite of the pain. But another copped to raising some hell in the delivery room, screaming the midwife’s name “so loud the windows shook.” She says she did feel bad about it, though. She felt so bad that she named her daughter after that midwife.
8. Can your partner ever look at you the same way again?
Honestly, this is the part of the whole business that I find most worrisome. After all, we’ve established that you scream, tear, and poop during labor, which is not the way most of us want our partners to picture us. But while there may be some people out there who are forever scarred by the sight of a woman turning into the girl from “The Exorcist,” none of the moms I’ve spoken to said anything of the sort. One reported that she was afraid her wife wouldn’t find her attractive anymore, which she now realizes was ridiculous.
But she acknowledges, “I didn’t like her seeing me fall apart like that. And I cried. I cried because it hurt and I was tired — being up for two days will do that — and I didn't want to be a burden, so I cried about that. But she was so sweet and gentle with me and she didn’t care if I s--- the bed or cried. She was worried about me being OK and our baby being OK.”
Despite all the not-so-pretty details, most labor stories have very happy endings with families that become closer than ever before. After all, labor and delivery is one of nature’s most beautiful and magical experiences. Still, it bears mentioning that when it was time for that mom’s wife to carry their next kid, they went with a planned C-section. No muss, no fuss.
Elaine Atwell is an author, critic, and founder of The Dart. Her work has been featured on Vice, The Toast, and numerous other outlets. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.