As I lay here awake at 3:00 a.m. as has become routine for me at 39 weeks pregnant, I'm trying to figure out whether the contractions I'm timing are the real thing or just Braxton-Hicks (the "training" contractions that happen throughout pregnancy). I've been driving myself and everyone around me crazy paying too much attention to every little cramp and contraction. It's all very different from last time I gave birth, when I was basically in labor all day and had no idea until my water broke -- unexpectedly, at 35 weeks.
My husband pointed out that so far, this time has been nothing at all like the movies -- we're still waiting for that singular "aha" moment when I just know it's happening and say, "Honey, this is it. Let's pack the bags and go." In fact, except for my water breaking, last time wasn't much like the movies either. That led me to think about all the other ways that labor and traditional (non C-section, non-"natural," non home-birthing) deliveries are nothing like the dramatic picture we get from Hollywood.
Below are some common myths about labor and delivery:
1. You know when labor is happening. So many factors determine whether or not it's time to go to the hospital -- both the timing and the intensity of contractions have to be just right. This typically happens anywhere between 37-40 weeks, but varies for everyone, and for each pregnancy. Even if you've been through it before, it can be hard to discern between real contractions and Braxton-Hicks, or even between real labor cramping and gas pains. I was expecting contractions to be some kind of major convulsion that would send my body into shockwaves, like Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. Really, the difference between cramps and contractions is quite subtle, and I'm still not sure I've really figured it out.
2. Labor is a singular event. Labor is a long process, and has many stages. The contractions get stronger and closer together, and you may or may not be dilated or effaced (changes to the cervix that indicate your body is preparing for labor) -- only your doctor can determine that. The movies and TV would have you believe that things progress immediately -- you have contractions, you go to the hospital, you push, and out the baby comes. In reality, there are all sorts of scenarios that can cause pushing to be delayed as much as 24 hours or more after contractions start.
3. Your water always breaks. In a way it would be nice of this were true, because it's a sure sign that you're ready to go to the hospital. I definitely knew when my water broke -- there was no question that's what had happened. Contrast that with my contractions, which until that point went completely unnoticed. Apparently, however, the occurrence of water breaking before arriving at the hospital is fairly uncommon, and only happens 10 percent or so of the time.
4. Labor is always painful. What struck me about the entire labor and delivery process was the hard work of pushing -- hence the name, labor. Thanks to epidurals -- which may not be for everyone but I gladly accepted -- the pain never got too intense for me (unless my selective memory just doesn't want me to remember how painful it was, so I can go through it a second time). It wasn't in any way a pleasant process, but not necessarily because of pain as much as the hard work which my delivery nurse likened to running a marathon.
5. The doctor is with you for all the pushing. In reality, a nurse is with you through all the pushing: coaching you, helping you find the best position, telling you when and how to push. The doctor doesn't come in until the crowning, when the head begins to show, to capture all the glory. He or she is there for a couple pushes, and may need to perform a procedure like an episiotomy, or use forceps, or stitch a tear if necessary. But it's really the nurses who are there with you through the whole journey.
I'm so glad I got to experience labor -- really. It may not be anywhere near as dramatic or clear-cut as in the movies, but because it's so different for everyone we each get our own unique story to share. I've noticed that other moms love telling their labor and delivery stories; in fact it seems a point of pride -- the more arduous the better. An intensive labor makes us feel that much tougher, and the bonds with our babies that much stronger. We may complain it's unfair that men don't have to go through all of the trials and tribulations of pregnancy, labor and delivery, but sometimes I wonder if they might be a little envious of the journey we get to experience.
I pray this time around is as quick and easy as they come. But if not, I can take it, and I'd love having another great story to share.