Fear of Birthing: Am I Going to Die?

One Fit Pregnancy Facebook user's mom told her giving birth was like breaking 20 bones at the same time and "the closest thing to dying." But how true is that?

Fear of Birthing: Am I Going to Die? PathDoc/Shutterstock

Karen posted on Fit Pregnancy's Facebook wall: "I'm afraid to die while giving birth. I heard that the pain is like having 20 breaking bones at the same time. What if my heart can't deal with that? My mom always told me that giving birth is the closest thing to dying."

Karen, honey, you're not going to die. Labor isn't like having your bones broken and it's not the closest thing to dying. Yes, for most women labor hurts a lot, but not only can your heart take it, so can your bones and life force. You're going to be fine.

I'm guessing your mom hasn't died and come back to say, "Yep! That's what I thought ... just like childbirth." I'm also assuming your mom had the best of intentions when she chose those words to describe birth. She missed the mark though and scared the bejeezus out of you, which is not cool. I don't want to disparage your mother's opinion of her own birth experience. No doubt she had a tough time, but seriously, who does it benefit to tell you that birth is like dying and having 20 bones broken? I'll tell you who—your mother. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words like your mother used will just freak you out.

Why do women mess with each other like that? Why tell a vulnerable, pregnant woman that birth is the worst thing they'll ever go through and they're going to want to die? Maybe some women do it to draw attention to themselves and prove how tough and special they are because they've suffered. Maybe it's their way of processing their birth experience. Maybe in some warped way they think they're helping prepare their pregnant friend or daughter for what's in her future. More likely, it's a way for them to cement their own story.

I hear these kinds of "let me tell you how bad it was" stories a lot from women who've been through a traumatic health struggle, whether it's birth, cancer or something else. Healing is a physical, emotional and spiritual process. While some women heal, accept their scars and move on, others bond with their trauma and keep it alive as part of what makes them special and unique. Not everyone wants to heal because remaining injured or a victim provides something they need. Victim mentality (and for some people, survivor mentality) is a popular way to think about one's self in our culture, though I'd argue it really doesn't do anyone much good. When it comes to scary birth stories, it doesn't prepare your friend, daughter, or sister for her own delivery. It frightens her and that's not kind.

Let's set the record straight about pain, broken bones, heart failure and dying during birth:

About pain: Karen, you have loads of options for managing labor pain. Sign up for a good prenatal education course that covers all your pain management options ranging from natural techniques to epidural. Then, study and practice the natural techniques that sound best to you. You'll use them during early labor and for some women (not most, but some) that's all they need to sail through labor. If breathing, relaxation, water birth or hypnosis techniques aren't enough to keep your labor pain manageable though, and you're delivering in a hospital, get an epidural. There's no shame in that. Millions of women get epidurals every year (especially first time mothers) and they work beautifully to reduce and even eliminate labor pain.

About that broken bones metaphor: Muscle and nerve pain (which is what contractions cause) feel different than bone pain. Contractions come and go. Pain starts out mild and becomes stronger through the course of labor, but pain subsides between contractions. Once baby is born, the pain goes away and most mothers are up and around (though tired and a little sore) the same day they deliver.

Broken bones, on the other hand, usually occur suddenly as a result of violence, accident or trauma and elicit severe constant pain. Once the bone is set, pain starts going away, but healing takes at least a month or two.

About dying in labor: It doesn't happen very often here in the US. In fact, about 99% of mothers who die in labor live in undeveloped countries like Africa, India or Southeast Asia. True, that means one percent of American women die too, but not because of pain. It's because of serious childbirth complications like infection, hemorrhage, or high blood pressure.

If you're getting good prenatal care, the odds you'll die during labor are extremely small. The odds you'll get through labor and birth just fine? Almost guaranteed.

About heart failure: Unless you have a serious heart condition, you don't have to worry. Your heart can stand the rigors of childbirth. If you do have a heart condition, your doctor needs to know about that and precautions will be made to insure your health and safety during birth.

If you've been traumatized by your birth, telling your story is certainly part of the healing process, but be careful whom you tell it too. A therapist, doctor, your partner or mother, a good friend ... all good audiences. First-time pregnant mothers who are already worried about labor? Not so much.

What should you say to women who offload their scary birth stories to pregnant women? Try saying something like this: "Excuse me, with all due respect, knock it off."