The short version of it all is that I believe (and have heard quite a few birth stories which vindicate the belief) that most women get the labor they expect. It may not be the labor they planned for, it may not be the labor they wanted, but at least to some degree it was probably the one that they expected. “Expected” may not be the best word…in some cases perhaps it is more accurate to say that they get the labor that they feared…but that is actually precisely what I am getting at: if a woman has negative expectations (or the fear of certain negative things happening) I think that her body will probably get the message, and she is much more likely to have a negative experience.
(As a note, yes I realize that there are various complications which can affect the realities of labor, regardless of the woman’s mindset…chemical induction or augmentation of labor tends to cause more intense contractions, a poorly positioned baby can lead to back labor which by all accounts is much harder than laboring with a better-positioned baby, and if the mother is tired or stressed or inhibited for other reasons those can all affect labor too...So of course I make these comments merely as general observations. Since we’re on the subject of complications though, it is also worth noting that many of them, including things like poor positioning and induction, can be avoided in many cases, so it’s worth being educated enough to avoid those complications if at all possible!)
I can only speculate of course. I cannot get into the inner psyche of another woman and determine what kinds of thoughts and preconceptions were in her head prior to labor. I only know what my experience was, and what other women have told me about theirs. Based on those though, here is what I have concluded:
Women tend to fall into three main groups in their perceptions of labor
- Those who expect pain, and either plan for medication or else take classes to learn coping techniques to deal with that pain. These women may take classes that promise painless birthing or totally relaxed birthing, but if they still expect labor to be painful, then (in my opinion) no amount of practicing techniques is likely to remove the pain from their labors. (One woman I know practiced her birth hypnosis routines faithfully and told me that in labor she was completely relaxed but still in the worst pain of her life. Complicating factors aside, I am left to wonder if the psychological was part of that.)
- Those who expect no pain, in spite of avoiding medication, and may even plan to relax though the whole thing (typically because they have taken a class that told them they could). These women usually use words like “surges” or “rushes” instead of “contractions” because they find them more positive. I confess I’m slightly skeptical of this group because, unless she’s had a painless labor before, I’d be surprised to find any woman who genuinely expects labor to be painless.
- Those who expect work, which will be intense, and may include hurting (like a serious workout), but not ‘pain’ in a negative sense of the word. They don’t mind hearing the “hard labor” stories, nor using words like “contraction” (it IS an accurate description of the uterine motion, after all), but they perceive it all through the lens of ‘work’ rather than the lens of ‘pain.’ They gear up for labor as for a marathon, and they don’t mind getting down and dirty because they know that they will also get the high that comes from completing the race.
Those who know my personality can probably guess which mindset I chose, and guess what: I got precisely what I expected. Labor was a lot of work, it was tiring, and after 12 or 15 hours it got pretty hard. I remember the thing that ended up being the most helpful during contractions was for my husband to repeat to me over and over “you can do anything for one minute,” because you know, I could! At the moment of the “ring of fire” (just as the head squeezed through) it hurt like crazy…but those few seconds passed in, well, seconds, and then I had a baby to hold. I have no hesitation in going into my second labor with the same mindset. I think back to Stephen Gaskin’s quote about labor being heavy, and that if you’ve never done anything heavy (or hard) in your life then labor is going to be thoroughly overwhelming…but if you’re not afraid of some hard work, then what’s to fear about labor?!