Just after lunch on the day of her 39-week prenatal checkup, Christine Fredette sat in her New York office, feeling what she thought were Braxton Hicks contractions (painless contractions that usually start around the fourth month of pregnancy). Later, at her scheduled appointment, Fredette’s obstetrician informed her that she was in labor and was 4 centimeters dilated.
Fredette called her husband at work, they met at home to get ready, and by 4 p.m., Fredette was in the hospital, fully dilated and ready to push. “There was no time for drugs, fetal monitoring or IVs,” she says. At 4:45 p.m., after three or four pushes, Fredette delivered Sean, an 8-pound, 1-ounce baby boy. The entire labor and delivery lasted a little more than four hours.
The suddenness and ease of Sean’s birth caught Fredette off guard. “It was overwhelming,” she says. “One minute I was at work trying to wrap things up for my maternity leave, and the next thing I knew, I was holding a newborn. It was a much different experience from what I expected, but I was delighted.”
Fellow New Yorker Sue O’Brien wasn’t as fortunate. A week and a half past her due date, O’Brien still was waiting for something to happen. On her 10th day post-term, she went into labor, and for 24 hours she felt contractions strong enough to keep her from sleeping but not close enough together to go to the hospital. Later, when she did go to the hospital, O’Brien received Pitocin, a drug that speeds up labor, endured two unsuccessful epidural attempts and weathered 12 more pain-wrought hours of back labor. Still the baby had not “dropped” into the birth canal and O’Brien’s cervix hadn’t budged — it was only 2 centimeters dilated.
O’Brien’s failure to progress ultimately wore her down. “Before labor I thought, ‘No way am I going to have a Cesarean. Most women deliver vaginally, and I’m going to be one of them,’” she says. “I’ve always believed that if you work hard at something, you can get it done.” Exhausted and dispirited — and still having to get through labor — O’Brien agreed to have the C-section. The result? A beautiful, healthy baby girl named Kate.
Two women, two different stories, one singular truth: Neither of their birth experiences went as expected.
Control vs. surrender
“It’s a common theme, especially for first-time mothers,” says Libby Colman, Ph.D., a psychologist and co-author with Elisabeth Bing of Laughter and Tears: The Emotional Life of New Mothers (Henry Holt & Co., 1997). “Women often feel they can direct the course of their labors and deliveries, whether by taking childbirth classes and drawing up birth plans, or by turning themselves over to the care of modern medicine. Each labor and delivery is unique, and like the children they produce, each has its own dynamic path.”
While it’s possible to use certain methods — either natural or medical — to speed labor’s course and lessen the pain and discomfort it causes, ultimately it comes down to what nature hands you. Simply put, giving birth is not painless. Nor, for that matter, is it without risks. It’s an intense experience that you can prepare for, to a point.