Every one of us knows that labor is no walk in the park. Let’s be real: it’s usually downright painful and despite what some people claim, there’s no such thing as orgasmic birth. However, the pain you experience in labor does not always mean you are suffering. Allow me to explain!
A well known doula and childbirth educator, Penny Simkin, sums it up in this way, “...the pain of labor might be defined as an unpleasant bodily sensation that one wishes to avoid or relieve. Suffering, however, is a distressing, psychological state that includes feelings of helplessness, fear, panic, loss of control, and aloneness. Suffering may or may not be associated with pain, and pain may or may not be associated with suffering."
I’ll say it again: pain does not always equal suffering. I learned this lesson firsthand during my labor.
My contractions were intense, crazy, super powerful. When they overtook me, all I could do was sway and moan through them. I tuned everything else out and retreated inward - going into what many people call “labor land.” During this time, I moved, assumed positions I found comfortable and vocalized. Looking back, this was great coping on my part.
I was in pain, yes! But I was not suffering. I know this because even though I was experiencing physical discomfort, I was in a good place mentally and emotionally.
I hit 8 centimeters and, quite honestly, thought I was taking it like a champ!
And that’s where the catch - the “but” of my story comes in.
Out of the blue, back labor set in. We’re talking, excruciating, can’t-stand-it, out of this world pain through each and every contraction. I couldn’t feel the contractions in my uterus once back labor set in - it was all focused at my spine. That pain made those first 8 centimeters look like a walk in the park. A piece of cake. Whatever you want to call it.
Before I knew what was happening, I was screaming my head off through each contraction - bloody, shrieking noises I didn’t know I could make. My husband tried to help however he could. My doula, nurse and midwife? I don’t know where they were. What I do know was that they were not helping me cope when I so obviously need it.
It was then, when I felt alone, hopeless and abandoned, that I began to suffer. I didn’t know how to cope with the back labor. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what was happening. No one was helping me, supporting me or attempting to offer options.
And that’s when the pain took over. It utterly and completely ruled me. And that - having the pain control - was the one thing I had not wanted to happen.
I suffered for hours before I demanded an epidural. To this day I still remember the unsupportive look the attending midwife gave me when I insisted on it and it makes me hurt every time I think about it.
But to this day, I feel that asking for an epidural was the best decision I made during my birth, because it was the only thing that assuaged my suffering. The story might have been different if my doula or midwife had supported and helped me through the process, but they didn’t. I had nowhere else to turn.
My point is that I hadn’t truly understood the real difference between pain and suffering until I compared these two very different parts of my labor. A woman can experience pain during labor and not suffer. I did up until the back labor hit. Suffering is when you cross over to a dark emotional place. It is when you feel scared, alone, panicked, psychologically distressed and unable to cope.
And suffering during labor is always unacceptable. I relieved my suffering with medication. For some, this is the way to go. For others, the remedy may be for someone to step in and ground you, guide you back to a better emotional state. Just remember, suffering during labor is never acceptable Whatever it takes, never let pain become suffering. Never.