The pain of labor

Brought to you courtesy of My Bright Idea

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.

About Rockingthehomestead

Badass feminist environmentalist.
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7 Responses to The pain of labor

  1. Love. At first I was worried when I saw the picture and my gut reaction to reading it was, “What a load of crap!” Then I read your post and felt relieved. I’m not terrified of a broken bone (been there, done that), but I agree, it’s not the same thing at all as birthing a baby. It’s like comparing putting your hand on a hot stove to eating Thai curry: both things are hot, but it’s a completely different kind of thing.

  2. Nikki says:

    I believe the pain is just different but I wouldn’t say there’s much that’s worse. Pain is pain. I kind of this this whole post was offensive I’m not even sure how I came across it..

    • jessimonster says:

      When I hear people say “pain is pain”, my first reaction is that that person clearly hasn’t experienced much in the way of pain in their lifetime, because its such a ridiculous notion. If pain is pain, and it’s all equal, then it would follow that it doesn’t hurt any more to be stabbed 50 times than it does to be pinched once. Some things hurt more than others, that’s reality. Also, things hurt in different ways. This blog post addresses each of those issues.
      I’m sorry that you felt offended by me saying that the pain you felt during a normal, biological function was less bad than the pain someone injured so brutally as to have broken several bones at once and is now likely at death’s door feels. But my point remains. When you think about how offended you are, perhaps take the time to think about how offended people who have had serious injuries feel when you compare the feeling of your normal biologic function to their ordeal. It’s simply not the same. Please stop terrifying new moms.

  3. Aimee says:

    Sorry but I read all of this crap about how labour is amazing and wonderful and not painful at all (mostly by people like you who didn’t want to scare new Mums). Hence I was a bit surprised when I gave birth to my son without any pain relief and found that to be very far from the truth. Telling Mums-to-be that it won’t hurt that much and it’s all going to be fine is ridiculous and means that a lot of women are going into it thinking “I can do this without any pain relief whatsoever” and ending up with a very negative birth experience.
    I had a difficult birth which resulted in a suction (thankfully not forceps due to my diligent partner) and a third degree tear. I have had fractured bones from car accidents before – the pain of this was beyond compare.
    Some women have amazing and wonderful births, some women don’t. I agree that we shouldn’t terrify Mum’s-to-be before they have the chance to do things themselves, as added stress may result in a “bad” birth. BUT, to generalise all births as “not as bad” as the fractured and broken bones you have seen is deceitful. To tell pregnant women that it’s all roses and happiness is to take from them the power that comes with honest knowledge.
    Personally, I’d take the horrifically broken bone any day.

    • jessimonster says:

      I don’t think I ever said that birth was pain free, or “all roses and happiness”, as you put it. In fact, I specifically said that labor was really hard and for most women hurts a lot. Did you even read this whole post?
      Furthermore, before you make any judgements about “people like me”, you might want to look at a few of my other posts. I am an advocate for using pain medication during labor if you feel you need it. I am known in the doula community here in Denver for telling my clients that an epidural can be a useful tool for some labors. I believe strongly in women making informed choices about how they want to manage pain during labor based on trust in their own bodies and not fear, pressure, or modesty, and I support clients through all kinds of births based on that, from home births to planned cesareans. Please don’t jump to conclusions about me.
      I’m sorry you had a difficult birth. I’m sorry you would rather be injured than to go through the process again. Thank you for sharing your story with us. But I hope you understand that your experience is pretty rare, about as rare as a pain free birth, and future births will likely be totally different for you, should you ever decide to try it again.

  4. marlysteck says:

    I broke my leg in a motorcycle accident, and I agree – it was insulting to see this claim floating around. Women getting all excited about their 2nd, 3rd births, and/or proud of themselves for just giving birth with no meds and claiming it was harder than my broken leg is ridiculous. Were they on Dilaudid for a week and still not able to sleep for the pain? When they got home with fistfuls of Oxycodone and Oxycotin, were they still crying in desperation for a moment of sleep, only to find it, and be woken up a few moments later by the pain? Did they have to cling desperately to consciousness every time they had to drop their legs over the side of the bed? Did they wake up from their surgeries, wondering what was so loud before realizing it was their own hoarse screaming? Was their first memory of family visiting the ashen faces and free-flowing tears?

    What was their reaction when they were told they would probably have pain for the rest of their lives?

    Do you know what I took home from the hospital? 40 stitches, 2 plates, 14 screws and the above mentioned Oxies. Along with instructions to scrub my incisions, 7 months of physical therapy, the promise I would never run another marathon, and year-long recovery to be “almost better”.

    I would submit that they didn’t experience 1/20th of that. If they want to compare, they just need to be hit by a car and then wedged under another oncoming vehicle to wait 30 minutes in 28 degree weather to be dragged out by some firemen. Then they can scream as their boot is cut off – trust me, they won’t even notice that the rest of their clothes are being scissored off at the same time.

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