Pain with a Purpose?

“The desire to help is so great, even from well-meaning, beautiful midwives, that they use intervention. We want to help. But what’s missing in our culture is that there is pain with a purpose, and that helping is sometimes interfering.” –Augustine Colebrook, CPM (quoted in “Do-it-Yourself Birth” article in Mothering mag)

When I shared this quote on the CfM Facebook page, a reader added: “Dr. Bradley wrote about ‘pain with a purpose’…Problem is, in our society, we don’t value the process of childbirth. Therefore, whatever it is you have to do to get thru it… Hence epidurals & nubain, and on and on. Please know I’m not dismissing your experiences if you went that route. But that phrase alone resonated with me when I was giving birth and helped me. I wish it would do so with more women.”

I’ve written a lot about birth having inherent value in its own right. Process AND “product” (i.e. healthy mom, healthy baby) are both important. A de-emphasis on the birth process and its significance in a woman’s life only serves to disempower, silence, invalidate, and violate women.

That said, I do also value the work of organizations like Hypnobabies that questions the very notion of pain as being an inherent part of birth.

So, what about pain?

I find that couples who come to my classes often have pain and managing pain (or witnessing pain) as their top issue of concern. For this reason, I spend time addressing the subject straight out and yes, I have been known to use the dreaded “pain with a purpose” phrase. Some would say that the word “pain” has no place in birth classes—that it sets women up for just that experience—however, as I noted, my clients come with “pain” on their minds and I find I need to use the p-word and sort of clear the air/get past that hurdle, before we do the rest of our work together. Also, as one of my clients once noted, “it wasn’t you who planted that seed [of pain being possible]. It was planted deeply a long time ago!”

And, what would be the purpose of pain in labor?

It is actually part of a beautiful hormonal symphony of labor—the sensations of labor signal our brains to release more endorphins, more endorphins leads to more oxytocin, and more oxytocin leads to increased intensity, which leads to more endorphins, etc., etc. When the pain to brain feedback loop is interrupted with medications, so too, are the oxytocin and endorphin messages that we need to get our babies born—and more interventions to “augment” labor are then likely to follow. As Preparing For Birth notes: “It is true that naturally occurring labor can feel larger and greater than the woman birthing. This is not so as she creates from within the very hormones that increase the strength, power, and frequency of her work of labor. That is the good news, it is from her, for her, by her.”

But, all these things said, I simply think the word “pain” is woefully inadequate to describe the feelings of labor. I like this description from Stephanie Soderblom better:

“VITA MUTARI – the literal translation from Latin to English is ‘Life Transformation.’ That is the closest thing I could think of the feeling of labor/birth…what you are feeling isn’t pain, it’s life transformation. Is it dramatic? You bet! I think it should be!”

I also love the description from Painless Childbirth:

“When I say painless, please understand, I don’t mean you will not feel anything. What you will feel is a lot of pressure; you will feel the might of creation move through you. Pain, however, is associated with something gone wrong. Childbirth is a lot of hard work, and the sensations that accompany it are very strong, but there is nothing wrong with labor.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about, might of creation moving through you. The word “pain” is way too puny to hold that!

I always explain to my clients that the sensations of labor are more similar to the exertion of intense physical effort more than the pain associated with accident, illness, or injury—both the effort AND the exhilaration are similar to doing good, hard, challenging, limit-testing, but doable work (though even bigger and more important). We need a bigger and broader vocabulary for completely describing the breadth, range, intensity, and beauty of birth experiences! What if we had more choices other than “painful” and “painless” to describe the experiences of birthing our babies? Though I wouldn’t say my births were “painless,” when I describe my own birth experiences, “pain” is simply not the word that rises to the top as the most appropriate descriptor.

“So the question remains. Is childbirth painful? Yes. It can be, along with a thousand amazing sensations for which we have yet to find adequate language. Every Birth is different, and every woman’s experience and telling of her story will be unique.” –Marcie Macari

We end up limited when we use only “pain” based language that fails to embrace the broadness and complexity and enormity of the experience.

Newborn Alaina, January 2011

4 thoughts on “Pain with a Purpose?

  1. Love it! I must say, when I labored, the feelings were so intense and powerful, and it did help me to realize that this was the power of creation. It felt so much stronger than anything I’d ever felt before, but it’s important to feel that! God (or nature, if you want to look at it that way) intends for mothers to know the power of creation in ways that a man never will. It prepares a mother for the challenges of life in a way that no other experience can.

  2. Pingback: Wordweaving | Talk Birth

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