Surprise 1: Your water doesn’t always break at home.
Most pregnant women fear the water-breaking-in-the-middle-of-Target scenario, but it rarely ever happens that way. In fact, only in 10 to 15 percent of pregnancies does a woman’s water break before labor begins. As part of that small percentage, I can tell you that it doesn’t always just suddenly explode—mine started as more of a trickle. Embarrassingly enough, when it happened to me I thought I just kept wetting my pants. After three changes in about 5 minutes, it hit me that maybe this leakage had nothing to do with bladder control (although to give myself some credit, it was six weeks before my due date, so I wasn’t really expecting it yet). As a word of warning, once you realize this trickle is for real, head straight for the hospital—there does come a point where the bottom falls out, so to speak.
If your doctor breaks your water for you, it is completely painless. It was one of the things I feared the most during my second pregnancy after watching a woman cry and writhe around in pain on TV while her doctor tried to rupture her membranes. But other than the expected discomfort of a foreign object being inserted into your vagina and a tiny pop, I didn’t feel a thing. (Lesson learned: don’t believe everything you see on TV.)
Surprise 2: Labor isn’t all about the belly.
Some women experience back labor, in which the majority of the pressure from the baby is focused on the back rather than the belly. If this happens, the nurses and your doctor or midwife should be able to offer some tips on easing the pain. Most moms swear that back labor is more painful than regular labor, so don’t be a martyr—if you need some pain relief, get some.
Surprise 3: You might not be yourself.
Even the calmest, kindest person in the universe can turn into a monster in the delivery room. I said things in front of my mother while in labor that probably have her ears ringing to this day. But honestly, nobody’s going to hold it against you. If it makes you feel better to apologize for the screaming, cursing and fingernail marks afterwards, go ahead—but don’t spend a single second feeling bad about it. It really is normal.
Of course, you also might surprise yourself with how well you handle things. When the obstetrician who delivered my second child (my incredibly handsome little boy, Aaron) popped by my room to check my progress, he was obviously in a great mood, which he attributed to the early morning prayer meeting he had just attended. I can think of no one better than God himself to have on my side when I’m in labor, but I spent a great deal of energy trying not to say anything offensive in front of my ob now that I was aware he might not appreciate my somewhat colorful language. And believe me, it was hard. Every time he left the room I let loose a burst of expletives that left my husband’s mouth hanging open.
Surprise 4: All that pressure pushes out … well, everything.
When I announced to all nine people witnessing my first baby’s birth that I felt like I was about to have a bowel movement on the table (only I didn’t say it anywhere near that politely), my midwife reassuringly patted my leg from her birds-eye-view between my legs and said, “That’s good! It means that your body’s doing what it’s supposed to do!”
So you’re supposed to poop on the delivery table? Well, not exactly, but it does happen—rather frequently in fact. Thirty-eight percent of moms polled at babycenter.com said that they did in fact have an accident on the delivery table. (And 15 percent said that they didn’t even know.) With all that pressure and pushing, if anything’s in there it’s going to come out. The nurses and doctors see it all the time, so the only person who will care is you. (And actually, you might not care at all, seeing as there are much more important things going on.)
Surprise 5: It comes from all ends.
Many women experience nausea during labor, and you might throw up, especially when it’s nearing delivery time. If you feel like you might be sick, just let the nurse know and she’ll have a little plastic basin under your chin in no time. They’re ready for this.
Surprise 6: You can’t really plan for labor and delivery.
Go ahead and make that birth plan—it might come in handy. But you absolutely must leave room for some flexibility. Labor is different for every woman every time, and you never know what’s going to happen. Don’t be so bent on sticking to “the plan” that you make things harder for you and your baby. It’s OK to change your mind and take your labor in another direction. Hopefully you have a doctor or midwife that you’re confident in, so if they advise something that goes against your plans, find out why they’re suggesting it before immediately shooting it down.
It’s OK to ask for other options (can you rest for a few minutes and try to push just one more time before committing to a C-section?), but these people are professionals for a reason—there’s a good chance they know what they’re talking about. Parenting is all about rolling with the punches, so this is good practice for what’s to come.
Surprise 7: Babies are tricky to get out.
If someone announces “I see the head!”, don’t assume that means your time is almost done. The head slides down when you push—and then pops right back in there again when you stop. Eventually you will push the baby into a position where he’s no longer able to go back—and believe me, you’ll know when he’s there—but don’t be surprised if it takes a bit to get to that point.
Surprise 8: You don’t have to lie flat on your back.
Of course, a lot of your movement is restricted by your pain-control choice (obviously you won’t be doing a lot of moving after an epidural) and some doctors are more open to swapping positions than others (midwives are usually pretty good about allowing you to do whatever eases your pain). Also, if there are complications you might not be able to move around so nurses can closely monitor the baby. Some positions that are known to offer a little relief: moving the bed to a semi-sitting position, sitting up on the side of the bed and even squatting or getting on all fours (some people even deliver from these positions). Birthing balls are also good at helping you bounce away the pain, and many moms swear by birthing in a tub of warm water.
Surprise 9: Labor really feels amazing.
Everybody talks about how much it’s going to hurt, but they don’t tell you how absolutely incredible it also feels. The sensation that you feel when your baby emerges from your body in a slippery mess of blood, sweat and amniotic fluid is probably the strangest yet most beautiful thing that you will experience in your entire life.
Surprise 11: Labor really is a natural process.
Long before there were epidurals, pitocin or fetal monitors, there were women giving birth to healthy babies. Granted, that wasn’t always the case—the advances made in obstetric care have saved thousands of lives and made giving birth a whole heck of a lot easier. But the female body knows what to do when the time comes. Never will you feel stronger, more beautiful or more capable than the moment your baby slides from your body and is placed into your waiting arms. You will know when to pant, when to wait and when to push. Your body was made for this. Quite simply, you will be surprised with how amazing you and your body truly are.
Surprise 12: Birth is a battlefield.
The first time I limped to the bathroom after giving birth to my son, I left a trail of blood from the hospital bed to the bathroom that resembled a grisly murder scene. It was pretty nasty. You might also find some pretty impressive blood clots—I was sure that I had one that was record-breaking and possibly even fatal, but a nurse calmly informed me that it was actually quite tiny compared to some she had seen. My friend Jamie’s husband was convinced that she was going into shock and was near death when she started shaking uncontrollably after giving birth to their daughter, but many women do get a pretty severe case of the chills after having a baby. Considering what your body’s just been through, it understandably needs a few minutes to get adjusted.
I expected to be sore down below (even an unprepared idiot knows that her vagina is going to hurt after a baby comes through it), but I was shocked at how much everything else hurt as well—my arms, my legs, even my neck was sore. I really felt like I had just done a few rounds in the boxing ring. Some women also find that all that pushing can burst blood vessels in the eyes, leaving you looking a little bloodshot. And finally, the hemorrhoids—if you escaped them during pregnancy, there’s a good chance that they’ll catch up with you in the delivery room. Ah, the joys of giving birth. You might be surprised by a lot that happens on your big day, but one thing is for certain—you’ll definitely be amazed by every step.