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Where Did She Go? Does Personality Change During Labor?

“At a certain point in labor she just seemed so different, I wasn’t sure what that meant, or if I should be worried. She was not herself.”

This is from one of my childbirth ed students last week– we were talking about what women are like in active labor. In this case, the student had been with her best friend during her labor. The mom had no pain medication and was feeling some really tough contractions. While one would expect some moaning with the pain it seemed something else had happened: Her personality had changed.

Is this normal?

Definitely. And it can be reassuring to know this in advance so you don’t think something is *wrong.*

In early labor– when contractions are anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes apart and not super intense– a woman is in what’s called her “social self.” This doesn’t mean she wants to socialize, per se. It just means she’s cool with chatting and hanging out and generally dealing with and/or enjoying the company of others. Early labor can last–in a first time birth–an average of 6-18 hours.  So we’re talking about mom who is in labor but also sleeping or watching a movie or going out to dinner or walking or hanging out with people. She could be cracking jokes, status-updating, whatever.

But as she makes the turn towards Active Labor– when contractions are 3-5 minutes apart, longer and more intense — her personality, not surprisingly, does appear to change. It’s temporary of course, and it helps her.

Mom has gone into what’s called her “internal self.” She’s more internally focused, less social, less communicative. What’s happening is that the part of her brain that deals with communication and logistics slows down, while the part of her brain that is more instinctive and, for lack of a better word, “animal,” gears up. She may seem out of it, or weird or ‘gone,’ but her senses are also tweaked and she’s highly aware of what’s going on. She knows what everyone is saying. She knows who is in the room. She knows when someone left the door open. She may have a joke to crack but it’s going to have to wait till labor is over.

I love talking with women after labor because they remember it all vividly (for at least a couple of days). One woman told me she remembered every single contraction as having distinct characters, like people at a cocktail party. (A slightly trying cocktail party.) I had been with her during that labor and she was moaning and rocking back and forth on all fours with her eyes closed. She didn’t seem acutely observant, but she was.

The shift into the “internal self” lasts all the way through transition and then during the pushing phase (the last minutes or hours of labor) mom will get more communicative and outward-focused again.

One thing to think about with regard to the “internal self” is who is with you during labor. A mom in active labor will appreciate being with someone who makes her feel safe.  Someone with whom she’s not afraid to “let go.”

Does anyone have experiences of “going inward” you’d like to share? When I’ve been at labors I’ve noticed the shift and I think it’s amazing to see!

 

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