A scan of just about any thirty year old's Facebook page will reveal post-labor photos of new mothers clutching their little bundles of joy in a hospital bed or pool (for those opting for a home birth). Everyone's all smiles and the world seems like one big rainbow.
But look a little closer. Most of the time, the moms have tussled hair, black under the eyes, sweat on the brow, and exhaustion written across their forehead. They're still swollen and red and anguished, even if they brushed their hair and put on make-up for the photo op.
Sure, there's relief and the adrenaline rush of having birthed a tiny human being, who is cute as a button and full of love from the start. But make no mistake. Delivering a baby is hard work. As the saying goes, however, "No pain, no gain."
Moms, perhaps, know this better than anyone regardless of whether they have delivered their babies vaginally or via C-section. Mothers carry the burden of bringing children into this chaotic world and helping them make sense of it. The journey begins with a whole lot of agony.
The point of mentioning this is not to discourage people from having babies, nor is it to shock or horrify the already pregnant. To the contrary, sharing the pain is meant to help prepare women for what lies ahead, support them as they go through it, and show them that they will survive. It is also a way to honor the stories, beauty, and grace of motherhood.
Mothers are the first ones to sacrifice for their children, and it all starts with those first moments when babies enter the world. Without further ado, in their own words, moms confess about the pain of childbirth:
15 "Sitting On A Fire"
That is how Brittany Arnold, CEO of Catchie Concepts, describes the pains she experienced during childbirth. Her birthing story began when she kept feeling like she had to urinate. It turned out that her sack had sprung a leak and it wasn't urine, but amniotic fluid. This was not painful, she says, but it was uncomfortable.
This is also not the norm for most women going into labor. What was common, however, was how things progressed. After 13 hours of labor, Arnold, who had been adamantly against having an epidural before labor, demanded one. She got it and says it instantly helped.
"I felt the pressure of the contractions, and the [epidural] actually let me nap for a small amount of time," says Arnold. "The pain came back when we were up to the 16th hour, and I felt it in my back, butt, legs, everywhere below the [chest]."
14 "Being Smashed With A Sledge Hammer"
Leigh Anne O'Connor, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), says labor and delivery is a unique experience and can't be compared to anything else. That is, except for back labor, which she says feels like "being smashed with a sledge hammer."
Like many women, O'Connor describes the contractions as cramps that brought on a hardening of the belly. Pushing brings on the most suffering, she says. "The pain is worst just before you need to push the baby out, but it is brief," says O'Connor. "Just when you think you cannot go on any longer, then you know the baby is nearly arrived."
O'Connor has delivered babies both with and without an epidural. Her take on that decision is simple. "If you give birth without pain meds the recovery is better, swifter, and ultimately more comfortable," she adds. "You also get the high of the endorphins that medications can mask. And I highly recommend a labor support doula."
13 "Intense Period Cramps"
Pain isn't the right word to describe labor and delivery, says Miranda Jones, a birth and postpartum doula with Sooner State Doula in Norman, Okla. "When people say you will know when labor starts, it really is true," says Jones. "It feels like a strong period cramp, and the pain is in a wave kind of pattern.
It starts just as an uncomfortable feeling then gets more intense until it reaches a head and then the pain fades off. I knew active labor had started because I was no longer able to talk or walk through contractions. I had to stop what I was doing to totally focus my energy on getting through the contraction."
For her, the pain was the worst when she was sitting or lying down and found that moving around helped her work through the contractions. That's why she calls for women to learn pain management techniques ahead of labor and delivery, even if they plan on having an epidural. She stresses that labor and delivery isn't a horror flick.
"The minute you see your baby you will have forgotten about all of the aches and pains of pregnancy and birth," says Jones. "All you will be able to think about is how amazing your baby is and how proud of yourself you are!"
12 "There Is Simply No Comparison To Describe The Pain"
That said, Cathy S. Tooley, author of The Education System Is Broken (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, reprint edition 2016) and the Tools for Success, says childbirth isn't as bad as she imagined.
"I had the delusion that labor would be like what you see on TV, this doubled over, screaming, stomach holding, I cannot live pain that I would instantly know," she says. "That was not the case. I experienced some back discomfort, tightness around the stomach area, and what felt like strong menstrual cramps. Those feelings intensified over time."
Still, those moments before the epidural were gripping for Tooley, and she vividly describes them.
"If you are a woman, imagine the worst menstrual cramps you have ever had. You know, the ones that have you doubled over, grabbing a heating pad, heading for Midol, and praying for them to stop," she says. "The ones that may have you staying home from work/school because you are 'in just too much pain.' Now multiple that by a 100 and you have labor. It is strong cramping in the belly and uterus area. If you are a man...well let's just say it hurts."
11 "It's Like A Watermelon Going Through A Lemon On Fire"
Amie Durocher, a mother of three in Denver, children's book author, and creative director at Safe Ride 4 Kids, describes pregnancy as a build up of pain that starts out mild and ends with that fiery lemon shooting through the watermelon. She had her first child in a hospital, but the other two were home births.
"During my third birth I was just done with it and told them to take me to the hospital, so I could get pain meds," says Durocher. "Of course, I knew I was in transition, and it wouldn’t be much longer but I was just tired, which is weird because it was my shortest labor and pretty easy up to that point.
But crowning is the worst pain. I almost wanted the contraction to keep going just to get his head out because between contractions it felt like he got sucked back in a bit. I was tired, my back hurt, my belly hurt, my crotch was on fire, and I could not find decently a comfortable way to sit, squat, or lay."
Still, she says that childbirth is easier when you listen to your own body and work through the contractions. She suggests ignoring advice from well-meaning nurses and considering having a doula or midwife with you, whether in the hospital or at home.
10 "Like Trying To Put My Lower Lip Over My Entire Head"
Well, that's one way to describe childbirth. While that was a striking depiction of delivery to Lainie Gutterman, a mom and blogger at memyselfandbabyi.com in New York City, she admits that childbirth is nothing like it has been portrayed on television.
"My water broke while seated on a chair in admitting, and I thought I had peed in my pants. It wasn't a big gush of water hitting the floor," says Gutterman. "You also forget the intensity of the pain. Otherwise the population would be a lot smaller. The anticipation of pregnancy, labor, and delivery was much worse than the actual process."
That's a relief to mothers-to-be everywhere. What might not be as comforting is the fact that Gutterman didn't even realize she was in labor the first time around.
"It initially felt like I had to make a bowel movement," she adds. "I made myself a cup of tea and tried to get comfortable on the couch. At 7 a.m., I called my mom who encouraged me to call my ob/gyn." In the cab ride to the hospital, Gutterman said she felt every pothole and bump as her contractions grew stronger. "It felt like," she says, "the longest drive of my entire life."
9 "I Got On The Pain Train And Couldn't Get Off Fast Enough"
One mom in New Jersey experienced cluster contractions without a pause between them despite not being fully dilated. The pain, she says, would not stop. And she began having many bowel movements and a bloody show that kept her in the bathroom for at least 30 minutes. After a quick shower, she tried to work through the pain and refrain from getting an epidural.
But after about 15 minutes of the contractions, she gave into the nurse's suggestion to get the epidural and take a nap ahead of pushing. That's just what she did, and she was able to doze off for a bit before having to push for three hours. At the very end, the pushing seemed impossible. She turned to her mother, who was in the room, and said, "I can't go on. Leave him in there. Enough."
And her mom said, "You have to push. Just a few more big pushes. You can do it." Then, the nurse grabbed her hand and forced her to touch the crowning head of her baby. It felt like Jello. But it did motivate her to keep going.
"Hearing that first cry and getting to put my son on my sweaty chest for our first hug was the greatest reward for all that work," she says. "In an instant, I had forgotten about any pain or that moment of insecurity when I was ready to give up. And I was in awe of what a miracle childbirth really is."
8 "What Pain? It Was Just An Intense Pressure"
Regina, a mother of three, who is originally from Long Island, N.Y., says childbirth doesn't really hurt at all. "I felt a pressure on my belly and uterus, that's all," she adds. Her pregnancies and deliveries went off without a hitch, really. Her biggest difficulty was with her second child and only boy.
During that time, Regina had colitis on top of pregnancy, so she spent much time in the bathroom and was rather uncomfortable. She feared taking the necessary medication would harm her child. It was a stressful time. Her Italian mother-in-law, who had been a midwife in southern Italy, was trying to convince her to have a home birth.
She calmly rejected the idea but not before her MIL forced her to eat a pound of pasta ahead of pushing. That turned out to be a great idea because the nurses at the hospital, of course, would not let her eat once she arrived. That pasta gave her the energy she needed to get through labor and delivery.
7 "The Pain Was Nothing Compared To Belief Of Birthing A Turkey"
Back in the Old Country, Regina's mother-in-law Francesca Mattera, had nine children. Two of them died as infants. And two of the three boys, who survived, brought on scary birthing experiences. There was no hospital. She gave birth at home every time.
While she learned how to tolerate the pain of contractions and even went on to help many other women in the neighborhood do the same (she even helped deliver triplets once), she was floored by medical complications that doctors are used to seeing or at least are trained to handle. One of her sons was born with the placenta intact, and she believed she had given birth to a turkey.
For some reason, she decided to poke and prod, which caused it to pop open and saved her son's life. He went on to live well into his 80s. Her other son, who was her youngest child, was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. All on her own she was able to free him and get him to breath. She thought of it as a miracle. He is 70 years old today.
Mattera always said the pain was easy to overcome when compared to the challenge of having to think on your feet all at the same time.
6 "Heavily Medicated"
Many women end up getting Pitocin, a medication that induces labor. A mom who calls herself breakthenap on Reddit shared her birth story, which did not go at all as she planned. She envisioned having a midwife and a home birth. Instead, at 42 weeks of pregnancy, she finally agreed to an induction with a doctor at a hospital.
Someone who wanted as natural a birth as possible ended up being "heavily drugged" 40 hours into labor, she explains. Yes, 40 hours.
"[It was] the WORST most intense and horrible trip I've ever had, poked, prodded, stretched - they used this balloon thing at one point to try and dilate me more and it was the worst," she writes. "Finally they broke my water. Until then we'd kind of been able to take our time with things. Both baby and I looked good on the monitors, but when they broke my water, they gave me about 10 hours before a C-section. At about hour 45, I kicked my doctor out and got a new one, someone who listened to me and who I liked. I was PETRIFIED of a C-section."
Still, she ended up having a C-section and despite feeling numb and shaky, she survived. And she adds that surgery did not hurt but was "intensely uncomfortable."
5 "I Can't Do This Anymore"
HannahMuch, on Reddit, shared that she and her partner wanted a natural birth for fear of pain meds, to which they had once been addicted. The two of them created a birth plan to insure she would not end up getting any kind of drugs to protect her from a relapse. Of course, there were some touch-and-go moments.
"The contractions were very intense and getting worse, and I felt like I had little rest between them," she writes. "I started to break down. DH thought I was going to break his hand squeezing it. I was saying I didn't like anything, and I couldn't do it anymore and wondering if I should take the pain meds or not. I became almost hysterical, and my blood pressure skyrocketed and baby's heart rate was dropping. They put an internal monitor on her as they checked to see that the cord wasn't around her neck or anything. Thankfully it wasn't. They had to put an oxygen mask on me."
This was the worst of it, however. She did not go for the drugs despite the temptation. She credits her partner for supporting her through the most challenging parts of delivery. Just before pushing, she says she changed her mindset, became more positive, and started believing she could do this.
It wasn't until later that she had learned she had lost a large amount of blood from hemorrhaging, which caused some shaking and shivering. But HannahMuch was too busy "falling in love" with her daughter to be bothered by any of it, she writes.
4 "The Baby Was Going To 'Rip Me Open'"
That is how a mom, who calls herself SuckingDiesel on Reddit, describes the initial pushing during the home birth of her daughter. She was also rather uncomfortable when the midwife positioned her on her side with her top leg elevated by pillows to get the cervix in the right position and move along the labor.
Still, she credits the midwife with knowing her stuff and writes that the discomfort in those hours was worth it. Other things she liked about a home birth were the ability to eat throughout labor (which she writes "built up her strength") and getting in the shower with her husband to work through contractions.
Besides those two instances of more extreme pain, SuckingDiesel saw rainbows and lollipops with this birth.
"For the next 3.5 hours or so, labor was pretty awesome. That sounds so strange to say, but there was so much laughter and general good vibes as we worked to meet our sweet little girl," she writes. "My husband made breakfast for everybody, and I swayed around to old school tunes on the Bing Crosby Christmas radio station. This day was also the first bright, sunny day after two-plus weeks of constant rain, so I spent a lot of time laboring in front of windows in the living room, so I could look outside. It was lovely."
Sounds more like a house party than a birth, actually. Not too shabby.
3 "That Ring Of Fire Wasn't So Bad"
Another woman, who had a home birth and who calls herself MarleyBear333 on Reddit, was actually making love to her husband and cleaning toilets while experiencing some intense contractions. She vomited after many of the contractions as they began to come closer together.
Yet, she says the worst pain were the contractions that came after the birth, when she was trying to nurse her baby. She remembers thinking that the "ring of fire" people describe as the most difficult part of pushing "wasn't so bad."
Still, she does vividly describe the pressure of one contraction. "Another contraction was coming on so I waddled quickly upstairs to my yoga ball. I could no longer stare out the window and had to direct all my attention inward, focusing on sending the energy down and out," she writes. "At the end of the contraction I burst into tears...It felt like a purge of emotion before things got real. I could feel a rush of hormones go over me, and we decided it was time to call the midwives."
2 "Feeling Lots Of Pressure"
One mom, who calls herself saphiresgirl on Reddit, had a natural birth in a hospital that created a home birth like environment, replete with lavender patch, birthing tub, and the ability to move around while experiencing contractions. Mom considered getting an IV of fentanyl, and the nurses were going to make good on the promise, but the baby had other ideas.
He arrived before they could administer the drugs. She describes the contractions as bringing on "lots of pressure." And at the height of labor, she describes the following:
"I was in the tub for about 30 minutes on hands and knees rocking back and forth listening to some music. It was pretty painful, and I was feeling lots of pressure like I had a really powerful fart about to break loose," writes saphiresgirl. "My husband sat next to the tub pouring cups of water on my back. I kept up with the low moaning and adding in 'I need to poooooooop.' at the end of each wave of pain."
What was interesting about this mom is that she recalls how much work her baby was doing, too, while experiencing labor. That, she says, helped her get through it.
1 "The Pains Of Childbirth Were Altogether Different..."
Margaret Mead, the cultural anthropologist who was a popular figure in the 1960s and 1970s, famously described the pains of childbirth. Her description has stuck with society. "The pains of childbirth were altogether different from the enveloping effects of other kinds of pain," she says, according to BrainyQuote. "These were pains one could follow with one's mind."
Indeed, many mothers describe waves of pain that required their full attention. Surprisingly, many of them say that it was not the excruciating pain they imagined, nor was it anything like what they had seen on TV or in the movies. As long as mom and baby were healthy and safe, the stories were actually full of wonder and love.
Most of the time, the pain was an afterthought as soon as mom held baby in her arms. Still, as Mead suggests, childbirth is a unique experience that one can only understand after she has gone through it for herself.