What Birth Looks Like
Before I became immersed in the world of birth and really knowing, seeing, and experiencing for myself what actual birth was like, I had trouble picturing how labor would look. Actually, I had a beautiful image of myself giving birth, but I didn't know if that could be real or if I was experiencing the illusive daydreams of a Pisces. The message we receive and the stories we hear tend to have a theme- birth is crazy dramatic and painful. So when it comes time to picture how your birth story will play out, it can be hard to visualize. You may not trust your ideal birth image, or you may be too scared to even think of it at all. It's not possible for me to give a play by play of childbirth, there is no script, and no two births are alike. However, I'm confident that what I am going to map out here is going to give you a good sense of what to expect no matter the type of birth you choose.
Total honesty, I have never run a marathon, but from what I hear, marathons are fucking hard- and so is birth. I like the idea of comparing it to labor, which is also hard work, they have many similarities. Running a marathon takes training as having a child takes education to prepare. For both, the preparation put in outweighs the time and effort (months) of the actual event (hours/days). Educating yourself on what is happening in your body can help you to understand why you are experiencing certain sensations. You have control over a pretty huge portion of your time as a pregnant and laboring person. A great way to discover your birth options is through childbirth education and creating a birth plan. Birth plans are a great way to address "what if" fears. Like, "what if I need a c-section?", "what if I change my mind and I want to use pain medication?", "what if I tear?". Finding out more about each fear and making a plan for it reduces anxiety around the subject and gives you an idea of what to expect.
I'm making another assumption here, but one would not want to approach a marathon run as they would a sprint. In a short distance race, you can give it everything you've got from the start. If you approach birth like you would a sprint, you are going to be tired, fast. In birth-athons (see what I did there? I like it, I'm sticking with it) understand this is a long process and it requires you to pace yourself. There is no way for your birth team to predict how long you will be in labor, therefore, take advantage of the restful period between surges to close your eyes, relax your body, and breathe. I will go over the stages of birth later in this post, but how and when your body decides to proceed through each phase is a unique experience to every family. Going into labor, knowing that it slowly unfolds can prepare you for the long game.
From my google search of marathons, there is a phenomenon that runners call "hitting a wall," in birth I like to use the phrase "crisis of confidence" as I have read from Rhea Dempsey, Birth With Confidence. The terms basically express that moment (or moments) when you are out of energy, you've had enough of the process, and those negative thoughts start creeping in. It happens, it is probably going to happen, and it certainly doesn't mean you are weak or unable to do what you set out to do. Let's look at three strategies in which you can re-balance and cope in this moment of crisis.
1. Affirmations: Whatever you label what you are going through is what you will experience. Repeating a word or phrase refocuses your mind from the negative thoughts and onto a positive experience.
2. Focus: The rhythm and repetition of breathing, affirming, moving- however, you express relaxation, helps you to create a focus on the ritual and not the process itself of what you are doing. Focus or visualizing your birth can train your mind to think of your upcoming experience in a positive light.
3. Birth Team: Imagine your friends and family on the sidelines of your marathon telling you "You can't do this," "It's ok to give up," "Poor baby, you can't make this." How frustrating, and during a crisis of confidence moment, you are apt to believe everything, thereby
throwing a wrench in the flow of hormones and pain relief. It can be tempting to invite people into your birth space out of obligation. However, really focus on energies that are going to support, encourage, and believe in you, especially during the tough times.
Doubt, regret, and (what seems like) lack of progress are part of the process. Learning how to get out of these lows is essential to giving birth and great tools to have in your parental toolbox.
Birth follows three (or four, depends on how you look at it) stages. We aren't robots, so the experience of these phases can go the whole time quickly, quick then slow down, slow the entire time, slow at first and then rapidly. It's still a great idea to have some understanding of the "outline" of the birth process.
Three Stages of Labor
First Stage labor: The whole uterus is a muscle, and it rearranges itself during birth. It becomes thin (effacement) and wide open (dilation) at the cervix and thick at the other end. This stage is typically the longest stage and has three parts: early, active, and transition.
Second Stage of Labor: The second stage of birth begins when the cervix is completely dilated (open) and ends with a baby born earth-side. Contractions may feel different as they push the baby down the birth canal.
Third Stage of Labor: In the third stage of labor, you push out the afterbirth- placenta, umbilical cord, and amnion). You will feel the uterus contract a few more times as it pushes out the afterbirth. The placenta usually delivers about 5 to 15 minutes after the baby arrives.
Fourth Stage of Labor: I like to include a fourth stage because the rest and recovery of labor should not be an afterthought. Rest can seem like a passive or lazy task, but it is necessary. Allow your body to recover from the work of birth. Recovery at a minimum is 3 to 6 weeks. If you are planning to breastfeed, nursing starts as soon as possible after your baby is born and on demand after that. Nursing right after birth also helps your uterus to contract and will decrease the amount of bleeding. Focusing your energies on rest and feeding your baby is enough to keep you "busy" during your recovery period.
Everyone has a story to tell about their birth or someone that they know. Between that and images we see on TV and movies aren't always helpful or kind but remember that everyone's labor is different and that this does not have to be your experience. In reality, birth is a long, slow process. Even in the case of quick labor, our bodies are preparing for the passage of our babies while we go to work and go about our daily life. Also, birth builds in intensity, you are not hit with contractions all at once and immediately. The birth process allows for rest between surges (contractions) giving space to affirm and focus on the task ahead. Even with all the preparation, there will be times in your birth that you don't feel your best self and negative thoughts begin to creep in. Your birth team can help get you through that crisis and create a new ritual to help you focus on your birth.