When I was 18, I witnessed my best friend get into a motorcycle accident. She was putting around an abandoned K-Mart parking lot on my boyfriend at the time’s motorcycle, just learning how to ride it, when she lost control and sped into a brick pillar. It was a miracle that she was not killed, but she did break her leg severely. It was a compound fracture, the bone was out of the skin, and it was the most disgusting thing I ever saw.
The second most disgusting thing I ever saw was a couple of years ago when my mother slipped on some ice and broke her ankle. My poor mother was no stranger to broken ankles, having broken her other one nearly twenty times in her life, and I had seen a great deal of them myself. But none of them were anything like this one. When I was admitted into her emergency room after her ambulance arrived at the hospital, her foot was literally turned around backwards. It was terrible. It was terrible watching the staff turn it back around (before her pain meds had fully kicked in, no less), and the only thing I could compare it to was my best friend’s motorcycle injury.
I’m telling you this story because there is apparently a photo going around Facebook that states that the pain of labor is equivalent to breaking twenty bones at one time. I have seen these horrendous injuries, and I have seen many births, and somehow I seriously doubt if that is true. I know that everyone’s perception of pain is not the same, and the pain felt in every labor is different, but I feel pretty confident in promising every woman who reads this blog that no pain you will experience during the birth of your child is going to be worse than the pain my best friend felt when her bone broke in two pieces and the jagged end of one ripped through her muscle and flesh to expose itself to the summer night air. It’s just not going to happen. Okay, okay, maybe if you’ve had a class three female circumcision, maybe then it might be similar on the pain scale. Maybe if you suffer true cephalopelvic disproportion and have to live for days or weeks with your baby stuck in your birth canal until it dies and you end up with a fistula. Maybe in those cases, the pain is as bad as my friend breaking one (that’s one, not twenty) bone, but you will notice that for women in developed countries, even the developed country with the worst birth statistics of them all (The United States) these things NEVER happen. They happen in places where they circumcise girls, where girls marry at 12 or 13, where access to food is limited, and access to healthcare is even worse. So chances are that you will never, ever experience a childbirth that painful.
Even my mother, who’s only labor lasted 41 hours and finished with a uterine rupture and the kind of emergency cesarean that had doctors running around yelling “STAT!” right before they put her completely under, will tell you that her broken ankle was worse. She’ll say it’s a different kind of pain and hard to compare, but she’ll definitely tell you that labor is way less painful than twenty bone breaks at once would be.
My first response to that picture was “I’ve never broken a bone, but if the pain of breaking one bone is equal to 1/20 of labor, I’m pretty sure that everyone I know who’s broken a bone is a total pussy.” I say that not to minimize the pain that either victims of broken bones or women in labor feel, but I’ve witnessed both many times, and I can tell you that in every bad bone break I’ve seen the victims expressed a hell of a lot more pain than any laboring mother I’ve seen has done. If labor really is twenty times worse than a broken bone, then people with broken bones are WAY over expressing their pain. I think if I had ever broken a bone, I’d be a little offended by this picture. Hell, I’ve only ever taken care of people with broken bones, and I’m still a little offended at this picture. The pain my mother felt during her ordeal, through the surgery three days later (that’s right, she sat with that horrendous injury with nothing but a little vicoden for the pain for three days before anyone decided she needed surgery), and through the months of recovery, much of which my mom spent bed bound or crawling, was certainly worse than my measly 12 hours of active labor, one hour of pushing, and maybe a week of soreness afterwards. I certainly wasn’t crawling to get to the bathroom for two months after having Elijah. I didn’t need to be wheeled around in a wheel chair for any walking distance more than ten feet for months. How can anyone make the comparison between labor and a broken bone?
Or how about my best friend? I don’t even know how many surgeries she had in the aftermath of her accident. It was more than ten, I think. She was in a cast or walking boot for TWO YEARS after the accident. She still has a metal rod in her leg ten years later. I would not begin to compare the pain of labor to what she went through, and I certainly would never say to her that what I felt giving birth to my son was 20 times worse. How insulting!
I also wouldn’t compare labor to her injury because my friend has never had a baby, and if I gave her the impression that the pain of labor was even remotely close to the pain of her accident, she would never have babies. No woman would. Certainly no woman would ever have two. Not even with drugs to numb the worst part away, no woman would ever go through that twice. My friend got powerful drugs for the vast majority of the worst part of her pain experience (just as a laboring woman does if she chooses an epidural) and she still would never, ever go through that again. If labor were even half as bad as what she went through, no woman would go through it twice either.
To put it another way, I have delivered a 9 lb 5 oz baby unmedicated, and for the most part I look forward to repeating the process. I live in constant fear of ever breaking a bone. It seems terrible. I’m pretty sure I’d rather be stabbed. I’d rather vaginally deliver 10 lb triplets than to break a bone, for sure. Even a little bone, like a toe or a finger, frightens me much more than child birth does.
Look, I’m not saying that labor is a walk through the roses. For most (but not all) women it hurts. Pretty bad. But I don’t like to see it compared to serious injuries. Birth is not an injury, it’s not something wrong. It hurts, yeah, like running a marathon hurts, but you’re supposed to feel that pain, it’s a good thing. It means birth is working like it should. The pain in a broken bone means something is very, very wrong. Lifethreateningly wrong. And even if you don’t look at the difference in types of pain, it’s not as bad as breaking a bone. It’s just not. I know there are all kinds of different labors, and all different sensations of pain, but it’s just not as bad as a broken bone. Not unless you break a bone during labor, but then the pain is ACTUALLY from a broken bone. Not from the labor. I don’t care about measured pain units (however they measure that, since everyone perceives pain differently, I’m skeptical that it’s very accurate), any sentient person will tell you my friend’s compound fracture and my mom’s backwards foot is worse.
I know it makes us feel like real bad asses to have survived a pain that’s worse than breaking twenty bones all at once, but it’s a lie. We didn’t. So let’s try not to terrify every person who has never had a baby by over exaggerating what labor is like to such an extreme degree that it makes labor sound like a car accident in need of the jaws of life and flight for life. Let’s remember that for most of human history women had babies alone in their homes, and most of them survived it, multiple times. Of those who did die, most of their deaths were due to infectious disease, and not anything that happened in labor it’s self. And through that same majority of human history a broken bone often meant lifelong disability, amputation, and death. A broken bone is worse, in every possible way. Twenty broken bones is WAY worse.
Let’s be honest about birth. Birth is hard work, really hard work, and parts of it hurt. A LOT. But it’s doable. It can even be enjoyable, empowering, fun. No one ever says that about broken bones. And few people feel so good about their broken bones that they want to spread descriptions (accurate or otherwise) of their pain to make an online community think they’re bad ass (although watching a few episodes of Tosh.0 will show you that there are, indeed, a few idiots out there who think embarrassing themselves on national tv makes them look bad ass).
Let’s not increase the culture of fear around birth. Let’s not increase the sexism that surrounds the functions of women’s bodies. Let’s not scare the shit out of every man, woman, and child who’s never had a baby and teach them that women’s bodies are treacherous torture chambers in which we are doomed to live that can neither be fully trusted or loved, least of all by ourselves. Women’s bodies and all their functions are beautiful and amazing, just like every other creature in this universe. Birth is normal.
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