“But what is it like? I mean, what can you compare it to?” I asked my best friend, a doctor who had given birth to a girl five years previously. I was three months pregnant and already knew from her original account that by the time she had asked for an epidural, it was too late — she was fully dilated — but I wanted the whole story all over again.
“Um. I don’t know. It’s definitely painful,” said my friend, looking down.
“Is it like cramps from a period?” I asked. Or was it so painful she couldn’t make eye contact, five years after the fact?
When my husband and I found out we were pregnant, I knew I wanted to try a natural birth. I’d read a book and somewhat-controversial research that talked about how going the drug-free route could be slightly better for a baby’s brain development. I had seen The Business of Being Born and agreed with what was so often expressed by the mothers in the movie: Birth doesn’t have to be treated as a medical emergency.
The only roadblock I foresaw was the pain. As a 10-year-old, I was already all too familiar with the discomfort that could come with debilitating cramps. This happens every month for another half-century!? I would think, while crying in bed with a hot water bottle, Aleve and later, Vicodin. While I knew natural remedies like exercise and diet were supposed to help, for the most part no matter what I tried, the pain was not manageable without drugs.
Jump to 25 years later: I was certain I wanted to have a natural birth, but my storied history with menstrual cramps made me fearful of the pain that lay ahead. I was stuck between a strong desire to go natural and a body that had frequently let me down in the past.
My dilemma led me to seek out an alternative option. None of my friends had found a pain-management method that they wholeheartedly recommended, so I spent hours lurking on message boards for a definitive solution. In the end, I gravitated naturally toward self-hypnosis — specifically the emphasis on optimism and inner strength.
The two hypnosis techniques I found, Hypnobabies and Hypnobirthing, assumed the negative feelings some of us associate with labor were all in our heads — that you could control pain if only you tried just a little harder. Although my experience with cramps seemed to prove otherwise, I believed in the power of language and suggestion, so I hoped that they were right and I was wrong.
I picked Hypnobabies, a self-study course by Kerry Tuschoff that comes with six CDs. The method doesn’t promise a pain-free delivery but offers techniques to corral labor sensations.
I followed the course’s instructions to a T: I breathed deeply. I visualized my eyelids and muscles relaxing to the point of not working. I visualized an internal safe space, similar to a blanket fortress I’d played in as a child, where I could meet my gestating baby. I created an internal “electrical switch” that I could turn on and off to render every muscle in my body dormant. When I waited for doctors’ appointments, I practiced turning the switch on and off. It was actually fun.
I studied to prevent pain like I studied for the bar exam. I couldn’t afford to fail; remembering how bad my cramps had been as a preteen, I was scared of who I might become during labor if I was overwhelmed by pain. I also set myself up to fear failure by wrongly thinking that it was better to give birth without an epidural than with one.
My CDs taught me to relax and feel good about giving birth with guided visualization, several affirmations and a mantra: What you dwell on the most will come true. I focused most often on labor as a positive, transformative experience, but I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that all the focus on avoiding pain made me invariably think about the pain I was trying to avoid.
Before labor, the techniques worked: I got a full night’s sleep until the last few days of my pregnancy.
But in spite of my best expectations, some of my fears came true anyway: The baby was late, and we had to schedule an induction.
As Hypnobabies instructed, I listened to the labor track over and over in my hospital room. I breathed through the cramp-like contractions, focusing on positive thoughts.
In spite of intense contractions, I was barely dilated. When we started thinking about how to make the contractions more productive, I got thrown out of hypnosis. A new nurse advised me to try sitting in the shower to ease my pain and get things going, so I did just that. I wasn’t listening to the tracks, but I could still hear the voice in my head and continued to breathe and visualize myself opening, like they suggested.
It would be great to be able to say that because I was really, really prepared, I avoided pain. That I just felt pressure, like I had read about from other women on the Internet. Or even that after labor, I forgot what the whole thing was like. But that’s not really what Hypnobabies or any other pain management method promises; all they can offer is an alternative way to get through whatever labor throws at you. For me, the pressure got so uncomfortable, it felt inauthentic and dishonest to call it anything but what it was: pain. While the shower was at first a relief, the hot steam mixed with pain became so intense, I thought I would pass out.
But here’s the kicker: I never want to forget this experience.
In spite of the pressure, or pain, or whatever else you want to call it, labor was incredible. I found that I wasn’t as afraid to give birth once it was actually happening. My body wasn’t something to fear, but also not something I could entirely control with my mind. Accepting this reality was more rewarding than getting the pain-free labor I thought I wanted.
I had been in the shower for more than an hour when I realized I wouldn’t make it without an epidural. Even if I would have called it a “failure” weeks earlier, I no longer judged myself for failing. It became more important to do what needed to be done to help the baby out of my body. Ironically, my ability to embrace the pain and the failure was probably the result of the relaxation techniques I learned through Hypnobabies (even though calling the feeling “pain” is not what they prescribe).
Once the anesthesiologist gave me the epidural, labor moved along at a faster clip than it had while the CDs were playing. While I failed at natural childbirth, the preparation and focus on staying positive allowed me to experience the intensity from start to finish as transformative rather than traumatic.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell said, “Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” During labor the intensity of what your body is — blood, mucus, skin, fat, and muscle all pushing towards release — is overwhelming.
“Hypnotizing” myself during labor allowed me to find that place inside my mind, big enough to let in the unforgettable, unmediated joy of welcoming the revolutionary infant who changed my life.