Why is PAIN a Four-Letter Word?

Pain

I taught a class recently that was a little different. It only meets once and focuses on the brain-body connection, the practice of comfort measures, and how to stay in a coping mindset throughout birth. There’s no discussion about the stages of labor or when to go to the hospital. This class is like “extra” practice for the uninitiated, or in the case of one of the Mommas in this particular class, a “refresher.”

Karen* introduced herself as a “veteran.” She went on to say that she’d chosen to have an unmedicated birth with her first, but it had been “really painful!” She needed more tools to help her cope with labor this time around.

She added quickly, “Don’t worry, ladies. You’ll forget all about the pain.”

Although I appreciated her attempts to not frighten the group of newbies assembled, I’m not sure if I completely agree with her statement. Some women don’t forget the pain of their labors – at least not entirely. And I’m not sure that encouraging women that they’ll forget their pain is necessarily helpful as a preparation technique.

However, her statement did end up being the perfect segue to talking about the “P-word.”

In our culture, pain has become a nasty, four-letter word that we want to avoid at all costs. There’s a thriving multi-billion dollar industry counting on the fact that people want only to take a pill to make their pain, physical or emotional, go away.

When we talk about labor, women don’t want to even think about the pain, let alone focus on it. I’ve found that most women fall into one of three approaches when it comes to labor pain and how to cope with it:

1) “The At-Home, DIY Epidural Kit Approach,” which of course, doesn’t exist. These are women who believe that there is no way they’ll ever be able to get through labor without drugs.

2) “The Grin and Bear It Approach,” which translates to women saying no to drugs, even if it becomes truly unbearable.

3) “The Just Breathe the Right Way Approach” which some women believe will not only allow you to experience birth without the use of pain medications, but also without any pain at all!

None of these approaches sound right to me. All of them have unrealistic expectations built in. And you know, I’m not a fan of unrealistic expectations. So, I’ve come up with my own approach to labor pain and how to cope with it. I’m calling it, “The Why Don’t You Wait and See Approach.”

There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is a physical sensation that occurs in the body, most often associated with illness or injury. (In the case of labor, it’s important to note, there is no illness or injury – barring any complications, you are healthy, and labor and birth are normal, biological events.) Suffering represents the emotional reaction to that pain.

In, “The At-Home, DIY Epidural Kit Approach,” too many women decide long before birth ever begins, that they will never be able to handle their contractions without pain medication. Why? Because they’ve bought into Hollywood Birth. Think of the last birth you saw on TV or in a movie. What about that scene would ever make you feel like you could give birth without drugs? Actually, what about that scene would ever make you want to get pregnant?

When women only see this dramatic and intensified Hollywood version of birth, it’s hard to imagine they could ever find labor to be tolerable, let alone something to look forward to. In this mindset, women often start their labors in fear – which actually increases their sensations of pain with each and every contraction. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Making assumptions about your pain tolerance and ability to cope with contractions before labor ever begins is the surest way to undermine your real ability to remain in a coping mindset from start to finish.

But what about “The Grin and Bear It Approach?” Women adopting this approach have equated that they can only have an empowered birth experience if they don’t have any drugs – no matter what. No matter that their labor is extremely long and their baby is in a unfavorable position. No matter that there was a death in the family the same week they’re giving birth. No matter that this labor is kicking their behind and they stopped coping with contractions hours ago. They’re no longer just feeling pain with their contractions, they’ve crossed the line into suffering. These women believe that they’ll feel accomplishment after their births – and are completely shocked when instead they feel overwhelmed and like they were barely hanging on.

Many of the proponents of natural, unmedicated birth talk about enjoying contractions, finding bliss or even having orgasms while giving birth. In “The Just Breathe the Right Way Approach,” women might think they’re doing something wrong when they discover that their birth actually hurts. Maybe it hurts a lot. Talk about disappointment! They thought they’d be blissed out, having orgasms left and right, but that’s not what they’re experiencing at all

(Don’t get me wrong! I’ve actually met two women who did, in fact, have the most massive orgasm of their lives while giving birth! So, it can happen. But when I asked them how they did it, both of them essentially said, “I don’t know. It just sorta happened.” Have you ever gone in search of an orgasm while having sex? It goes into hiding – like witness protection program hiding! This might be one reason why orgasms during birth are not super common.)

We seem hell-bent on trying to avoid pain in labor and I’m not exactly sure why. 

To me, pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin. We can’t really understand pleasure, if we don’t have something to compare it to. And while I would never classify my contractions as pleasurable, I definitely would describe the breaks in between as pure bliss. I would work hard through each contraction, pushing myself to my own personal limits, and then blessedly, there would be sweet relief on the other side of every single one of them.

It’s true that each contraction grew longer, stronger and closer together. And the breaks in between definitely got shorter. But if I was able to maintain that coping mindset, I knew this meant I was getting closer to holding my baby in my arms.

“The Why Don’t You Wait and See Approach,” allows women to stop preemptively deciding what they’ll be feeling when they go into labor. No one knows what their pain tolerance is for labor, because the pain you feel with contractions is so very different than any other kind of pain you’ve experienced before.

If you’re able to stay in a coping mindset, it’s completely possible that you can get through your entire labor experience without any need for pain medications.

Most likely, you’ll experience at least some level of discomfort in the middle of a contraction. You might describe your contractions as really painful, but tolerable. You might feel like your contractions are too intense for you to continue to handle them on your own. Who knows? You might win the labor lottery and have a big ol’ orgasm!

The point is – you have no idea what to expect. So, stop trying to predict how your labor will unfold and how you’ll respond before you’re ever in labor. Be open. Remain flexible. Wait and see. Then, make your best decision about how to cope with your contractions as they are actually happening, so you can look back on this experience and feel strong, empowered and confident that you participated fully in your birth.

What was your personal approach to your birth experience? Was it spot on from before birth, or did you have to switch gears in the middle of your labor? How does “The Why Don’t You Wait and See Approach” resonate with you? Please leave me a comment. I love to hear from you!

*Not her real name.

Hopelessly Devoted to You…

Devoted

de·vot·ed
/dəˈvōdəd/

adjective
adjective: devoted
1. very loving or loyal.
“he was a devoted husband”
synonyms: loyal, faithful, true, staunch, steadfast, constant, committed, dedicated, devout; fond, loving, affectionate, caring, admiring
“a devoted follower of the writer”
2. given over to the display, study, or discussion of.
“there is a museum devoted to her work”

I love this dictionary entry for “devoted.” I would consider myself a very devoted Momma, partner, friend, daughter, sister, employee and Childbirth Educator. When I’ve found someone or something that I believe in, then it’s deserving of my full devotion. I resonate with both of these definitions, because I don’t think it’s enough to say that you’re “very loving and loyal” to a person or an idea. I think you need to show that devotion through action, which is where, “given over to the display, study or discussion of” comes in.

But being devoted to someone or something might mean saying or taking action that’s not very popular. Sometimes, being devoted means standing up for your own truth – even when others, maybe especially when others, try to tell you your truth is wrong or has no merit. Being devoted doesn’t mean that you always agree. Being devoted to a person or an idea, means you have to be the mirror at times. In wanting this person or idea to reach full potential, you have to be willing to shine a light in the darkness. Being devoted is both thrilling and frightening at the same time. But it’s not usually easy to be on the giving or receiving end of real devotion.

I can remember a few times in my marriage, where my incredibly devoted husband told me what I needed to hear. Let’s be very clear: it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. And I’m sure he can tell you some stories about my job as his personal mirror: “This is what I see. This is not who I know your best self to be.” Not easy discussions to have, but they can be game-changers, in my opinion.

When it comes to my work with expectant families I am devoted to the overall well-being of new Mommas, partners and their babies on their transformative journey of becoming a family.

But sometimes, that devotion can look a little bit more like “tough-love.”

I’m very devoted to the idea that women have positive and empowering birth experiences because I feel like this moment in a woman’s life can truly be transformative. It can set the stage for how well she moves into her role of Momma. It can either positively or negatively affect the couple’s relationship right from the very start. She can end up parenting from a place of inner strength, wisdom and confidence – or spend her entire parenting journey second-guessing every move. Her birth experience might only be a day in her life, but it can affect the rest of her life.

Wow – that’s big stuff.

And now for the tough-love talk. (Please remember that this is coming from a very loving and loyal place.)

Women need to start taking more personal responsibility for their births.

There are some providers, nurses and hospital policies that can get in the way of a woman’s positive and empowering birth experience. And there are plenty of other birth advocates decrying this very issue. But that’s not the whole issue. Women need to recognize their role in all of this. They need to take more personal responsibility for their birth experiences because if they don’t, birthing women, their partners and the families they’re trying to create together end up paying the price.

Women giving birth today, are doing so in a climate where information is everywhere and available all the time. Even though “Dr. Google” is not a great resource, it’s who they most often turn to for information – much of it biased, out-dated, and not evidence based.

Our maternity care system has become “us against them” when it comes to birth. I’m not sure it’s even possible to have a positive and empowering birth experience if you believe that having a hospital birth is going to suck. But if you really do feel this way, than take some personal responsibility for yourself and make different choices about where and with whom you’ll be giving birth. Your reaction might be, “It’s not that easy.” I know it’s not easy. I’m not saying that it is. What I’m saying is that it’s vital to own your role in the birth experience – even when it’s not easy.

When I was pregnant with my second baby, I had to make some big decisions. My beloved provider had moved out of town and our insurance had changed. So, I was going to have a choose a new provider and place to give birth.

Instead of doing my own research, I listened to a colleague and chose a midwife at a hospital that didn’t have the best reputation in town: too big and impersonal. Red flag #1 The clinic was pretty far away from where we lived, which meant my toddler and I had to deal with 40 minutes of driving for an appointment that lasted only 10 minutes. I hated it. Red flag #2 The hospital tour guide focused more on the big-screen TV than answering my questions about birth balls and squatting bars. Red flag #3 My midwife was part of a group practice, so it was not guaranteed that I would have her for my birth. Red flag #4 Now, none of these might pop up on your list as red flags – but they were on mine and I chose to ignore all of them. I knew, at several points along my pregnancy journey, that this was not the right choice for me, but I refused to take personal responsibility for this. And although my birth was quick and easy, my overall birth experience was very negative.

I hadn’t done my due diligence to make the best decisions for myself when and where I could. And it was this piece that I struggled with most in my early postpartum days with my newborn. I look back and realize my negative feelings around that birth experience had nothing to do with the birth outcome. It had everything to do with how I had dishonored myself and failed to make the best (although not easy) decisions I could to set myself up for the best experience possible.

Writing a Birth Plan is not enough. Having good intentions is not enough. Hiring a doula is not enough. You need to understand just how much work is involved in making this birth experience positive and empowering for yourself. No one will be making that happen for you. You need to make it happen. And that means getting real with yourself before you ever put pen to paper to capture your birth preferences.

Are you making choices that resonate with you? Don’t concern yourself with what your sister, BFF or members of your book club would choose. What do you want? Make some decisions for yourself. But don’t stop there! Get some quality, unbiased, evidence-based information that supports these decisions as being right for you. And then own those decisions – at least until you go into labor.

Once labor begins, you have to be prepared to make some decisions in real-time, as birth unfolds. Birth is too big to be planned out on an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper! And that scale you used to weigh benefits and risks in the classroom doesn’t get to come into labor and delivery with you. You get a brand new scale that you’ll have to use to weigh the benefits and risks all over again to make the most informed decision you can – while you’re in labor.

You must be a full participant in this birth from the very beginning all the way through to the end in order to feel that transformative strength and empowerment. My own personal experience, coupled with 20 years of working with thousands of couples, allows me to make this statement from a place of confidence: Feeling empowered and positive about your birth experience is less connected to how your baby is born, and more directly linked to how you feel as your baby is being born.

When you give birth from a place of confidence that you did everything you could in the moment to honor yourself and your process, it’s hard to feel anything but empowered. There are moments throughout your pregnancy and birth where you’re called to stand up and make a decision that might not be easy, that might not be popular, that might not even be what you wanted. But in honoring yourself in this way, you can claim full participation and own your birth experience.

When you do this, you show devotion to yourself, your partner, your baby, your family – and this is where it all begins.

What are you devoted to? Does this resonate with you? Are you still able to feel my deep devotion to you (despite my tough love)? I really do only want the best possible experience for you. And I can’t use this title for the post without giving you this link to the ever wonderful ONJ singing her heart out – enjoy, you’ll be singing it all weekend.

This was part of an exercise from The Writing Den, where we were asked to define what we are devoted to. Bringing more personal responsibility into the birthing experience is one of those things I’m devoted to. If you’d like to find out what your true devotion is, come join this group of committed individuals answering the call. It’s an inspiring place to be!

Almost: Very Nearly, Not Quite

Almost

I’m almost done. October 31st – the last day of this year’s 31 Day Project. Last year at this time, more than anything else I felt a huge sense of relief that it was finally over. This year I feel different. I feel a sense of accomplishment. I hit the “publish” button pretty early in the day most of the time (I think there was only one evening that didn’t happen until 10 pm. Last year this was a regular occurrence. In fact, I posted once at 11:59!)

I’m the kind of person who makes rash decisions every once in awhile. Not big and bad decisions that end with regret, but ones where I’m not completely aware of what I’m saying “yes” to. Which, for me, is good. It allows me to be audacious and just do it. Then, my tenacity and unwillingness to ever quit something once I’ve started, keeps me going – even after I realize how much harder this thing is that I’ve gotten myself into. (I did the same thing when I signed up to walk my first marathon. “How hard can it be to walk a marathon?” Pretty hard, it turns out.)

That was last year’s experience: “I want to start a blog. I haven’t written one before. So, maybe the best way to do it is to commit to writing a post every day for an entire month.” What was I thinking? Well, this year I knew exactly what I was getting myself into and I think that might explain why it went so much more smoothly. I’d also like to think that the writing I’ve put into my book and the essays that have been published or are in the works, means that writing is easier for me now than it was a year ago.

But the best part of this whole process has been the process. There’s a lot to be gained by having a daily practice of writing (thank you, Saundra Goldman). And I think I’ll continue to try and write daily (that doesn’t sound like a firm commitment, does it?) But whether or not I’ll be hitting the “publish” button every single day is another matter altogether. My blog posts won’t be a daily occurrence and maybe that will be welcome relief for my FB friends who haven’t been able to keep up. (Do I have another 31 Days in me? I just might… But we’ll talk about that next year!)

I just came back from a weeklong writing workshop focused on the new direction of my book project and this will take center stage for me in the months to come. But I’m still committed to writing blogposts about bellies, birth and babies for the foreseeable future. These are the subjects that I’m most passionate about and I can’t imagine that I’m all done having something to say or learn about these topics.

Today, on the very last day of my 31 Day Project, it’s tempting to think that I’ve run out of things to write about. And this morning it almost feels that way. But the definition of almost is: “very nearly, not quite.” I love the wiggle room this provides. I’m going to take a few days break and see what comes up that needs to be written about the pregnancy year – from conception to the end of that 4th Trimester.

Thank you for reading my words and providing me support, encouragement, and comments along the way. And to all the other 31 Dayers out there – Congratulations! We did it!

Have you enjoyed this series of posts about the 4th Trimester? Was there anything that you wished I had written about that I didn’t? Please leave me some suggestions. Right now, I’m almost out of ideas. :O)

Mmmmm… Bacon

Bacon

Just four days ago the mighty Internet screamed at us “BACON CAUSES CANCER.” Actually, the report was about red and processed meat, but every news story written about this subject had a big picture of bacon attached to it. (What can I say? I’m so on trend.)

Was it sheer coincidence, my rebel without a cause tendencies, or both that contributed to our family eating red meat not once, but twice in the past four days? Beef Stew on Tuesday and Butter Noodles with Beef on Wednesday – both were dee-licious! The fact that we hadn’t cooked red meat in our house for the past six months, was a little ironic.

Initially, my kids were worked up about the dinner offerings this past week – which allowed us to have a great discussion about hype, and media coverage, and ratings grabbing behavior, and how to read studies with a critical eye that looks beyond the headlines.

These are also great things to remember as new parents. There will almost always be something that you should or should not be doing at any time for fear of really screwing up your children. Sometimes these things flip flop and end up in direct opposition to one another. So it behooves you to read headlines not as gospel truth but as an article to read yourself and determine if a) it’s sound scientific and evidence-based information b) it builds on the studies that have come before and is adding to mounting evidence for or against something c) it’s statistically significant and the risk of doing this behavior or avoiding that behavior will make a real difference in your quality of health or life.

I’m not going to list out specific parenting decisions here. Why? Because, I’ve got my own way of parenting. And the parenting decisions I make are likely influenced by a lot of different things: my family of origin, my friend circle, the books I’ve chosen to read, or the pediatrician that my children see.

If I were to state my opinion about “Parenting Issue A” one of two things might result: 1) someone reads it but they parent exactly the opposite of me and feel the need to argue about it or 2) someone reads it and feels like I’ve just endorsed something as the “right” way to parent their child. That’s a little too much responsibility, for me. And quite frankly, it doesn’t place enough responsibility on you as new parents. That sounds harsh and I’m sorry if you’re picking up on that tone, but it needs to be said.

I want you to parent your child the way you feel is right for your family. It doesn’t have to look at all like how I did it, or your siblings did it, or how your own parents did it. And while it makes sense to pay attention to what studies say about “best practices” and parenting, those best practices might not work for you and your family.

An example that comes to mind is how we chose to let our babies stay up with us until we went to bed (after the craziness of that initial 4th trimester had settled down, mind you). My husband wanted to be able to see and hold his baby after he got home from work. My first ate every two hours around the clock until she was eight months old. It didn’t make sense to us that we’d put her down in a crib upstairs while we hung out together watching TV in the basement, only to have to get up with her every couple of hours. So, we just kept her with us the whole time. I would feed her, then my husband would snuggle her until she fell asleep on his chest or in his arms and he’d keep her there until she wanted to eat again. When we were all ready to go to sleep (we’re night owls in this house!) we’d go up to bed together.

I can assure you that this will never be listed in any book or study about being a “best practice” on how to get your baby to sleep at night. I can also tell you that there are lots of people who will read this and think that we were completely crazy! But, still, it was a practice that we repeated with each of our four children and it worked beautifully for us as a family.

I’m not looking for validation or vilification for making this choice in how we parented our babies around the issue of sleep. I’m just sharing with you how we came up with a solution that was right and worked for our family. I want you to consider what’s working for your family along with all the scientific evidence and best practices out there and remember that almost everything extreme is not good for you. There is such a thing as drinking too much red wine, or eating too much dark chocolate, or – yes, it’s true – scarfing down too much bacon. But there’s also such a thing as using your common sense and realizing that moderation is key. Try to keep this in mind even as headlines are using extreme tactics to gain your attention.

Finding out what works for your family, those unique parenting decisions that you make that are “just right” for you, boosts your new parent confidence level in a way nothing else can. Not even bacon.

Have you come up with any parenting decisions that sit outside the “norm” or hide in the shadows of the headline grabbing new trend? How confident do you feel about making some of your own decisions about the best way to parent you child?