Not so long ago, women attended the births of sisters, cousins, and friends, so that when the big day came they had an idea of what to expect. These days, the only births many of us see are in movies and on TV, where the agenda is drama rather than realism. But the process of giving birth is multifaceted—it can be traumatic, enjoyable, meaningful, gross, and/or confusing.
Here are the parts no one talks about:
Labor might not be the worst pain of your life
Labor certainly can hurt like hell, but it doesn’t uniformly hurt like hell for every woman every time. That’s because your bff oxytocin has your back. As midwife Jo Hunter puts it, “Mother Nature does not leave us bereft in labor. Oxytocin is known as the hormone of love, and directs us towards optimal and ecstatic experiences, such as bonding, orgasm, and birth. During labor and birth, huge quantities of oxytocin are released.” Some lucky women even orgasm during labor.
You’ll be left on your own a lot
Many who give birth in the hospital imagine they’ll be surrounded by a crowd of doctors and nurses while they labor. The reality for most is that, so long as things are progressing smoothly, you’ll largely be left to your own devices until the grand finale.
Some enjoy this privacy, while others find it unsettling. “For some women, showing vulnerability and asking for assistance can be very difficult,” says postpartum psychologist Sally McDougall. And partners can find themselves out of their depth; if they need to go to the bathroom or get a snack, they may feel they can’t leave the person in labor alone.
This is where enlisting a doula can be a gamechanger. A doula is trained to provide constant physical and emotional support to the mother throughout the birthing process. The doula usually starts meeting with the mother and/or partner several months in advance of the birth so that they’re super comfortable with each other by the time the big day comes around. While hiring a doula is an added expense in a notoriously expensive process, many offer sliding scale rates.
The baby might feel like a poop… or it could actually be poop
As the baby makes its way out, it pushes on your bowels and can feel exactly like you need to poop. Confusingly, you may also actually poop, as the body expels everything necessary to make way for the baby. “As the baby descends deeply into the pelvis, women can experience intense rectal pressure and sometimes open their bowels. On a positive note, midwives love seeing poo, as it means the baby is very close!” Hunter says.
Many women are mortified by the idea of pooping in front of anyone, let alone their partner. But part of motherhood is making peace with bodily fluids. Perhaps this is nature’s thoughtful way of preparing us?
Don’t push through the “ring of fire”
Conventionally known as crowning, the “ring of fire” occurs when the baby’s head appears and stretches your vaginal skin to the point it creates an intense burning or stinging sensation, hence the nickname. Every fiber in your vagina may be screaming “NOPE!” Just hold tight to the knowledge that millions of babies have passed healthily through this hellish fire ring and millions of women have recovered from the pain.
According to the American Pregnancy Association—and contrary to every movie where a bunch of people are yelling “PUSH”—it’s important not to push when you feel the “ring of fire” activated. Doing so can tear the skin around your vagina. Try to breathe slowly or use short, shallow breaths to slow the baby down on its way out.
Your newborn baby can crawl to your boobs all by itself
Although they may seem all squished-up and helpless, newborns actually have an innate ability to seek out nourishment from the moment they pop out. It’s common practice in many hospitals now for a newborn to be placed straight on its mother’s stomach, so that it can crawl all by itself up to your boobs for some milk magic. The reason “the breast crawl,” as it’s commonly referred to, is encouraged is because studies have shown that breastfeeding is often easier following this initial DIY effort on the baby’s behalf.
You’ll likely bleed for several weeks afterward
This unwelcome surprise also has its own special name: “lochia.” Bleeding for 4-6 weeks may understandably bum you out, but remember you missed your period for like 9 months, so you’re still ahead, if looking at it like that offers any solace. Also if you choose to breastfeed, you may not get your period for up to a year or more after the lochia passes.