By Sian Hannagan
We need to stop using birth as a metric for pain.
A few years ago, I had a wisdom tooth out, during the healing process I got dry socket, a complication with healing that can be painful. I couldn’t really speak or eat properly for three days. One of my work colleagues, sympathetically informed me that he had also had dry socket and could reliably confirm that it was more painful than childbirth.
There are so many responses to this, foremost at my mind was “well how would you know, when did you last give birth????” But I restrained myself. I ended up mumbling something along the lines of “pain is such a subjective thing, it’s hard to compare one experience to another” which I thought was pretty good going for on the spot thinking.
What I could have said, was that I’d given birth twice so far and that the pain of a sore tooth socket didn’t even come close to touching the surface of the pain I experienced with one of those births and that my second birth wasn’t even defined by pain and as such, if we were measuring an experience simply by the level of pain experienced, the tooth was far, far worse. It really irked me to have the experience of birth reduced to such a narrow scope, as if women can only experience birth one way. It’s really hard to express that though, in those casual water cooler conversations. It can feel confronting to justify our experiences, and really, we shouldn’t have to. Pain is subjective. Birth is bigger than just pain. There is no comparing.
Also, this is not a competition that I have agreed to. My experience of childbirth does not invalidate the pain you felt, just as your experience, no matter how painful, doesn’t come close to being comparable to childbirth. I have no desire to rate birth experiences on a subjective scale that society has invented.
It’s surprising though, how often it comes up. When I asked this question in an online parenting group, almost everyone had heard this comparison, many more than once. Comparing pain to birth seems to be an acceptable analogy, from tattoos, to period pain or from gall bladder pain to kidney stones. The underlying message seems to be this conflicting dichotomy where not only is birth not all that big a deal, but it is also terribly painful. Anecdotes like this manage to both trivialise birth and sensationalise the pain. This needs to stop. Seriously.
Using the metric of pain to define birth is problematic on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s start with what I consider to be the key issue sitting at the centre of this.
Birth cannot and should not be qualified solely with a subjective measurement of pain. Birth is an experience that encompasses so much more than just pain. Birth is the beginning of motherhood, a transformative journey from one state of being to another. Many women experience birth as something monumental and all encompassing. Yes, there can be pain, but this is not the sum of the birth experience. The process of birthing our babies can take us through sensations that aren’t easily reduced to one word descriptions. But ecstasy, joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, anticipation, intensity, fortitude, determination and power can all be applicable. For many women, birth is defined by digging deep and accessing power we didn’t know we had.
Birth can also be overwhelming or traumatic, and not just because of pain. Defining birth by pain alone trivialises both of these experiences. It minimises the experience of birth and the worth of the women doing it. The ability to birth well is not simply seated in our ability to endure x value of pain.
The other vital element is that pain anecdotes create a culture of fear. Women who haven’t birthed before hear stories about the pain of birth and start to associate birth with intolerable pain. They see birth defined only by the level of pain experienced. It’s really important to understand that pain in birth is part of a journey it is a functional pain resulting from a process that will eventually bring our babies into the world. Not only is it functional, but our bodies are designed to manage this. During a physiological birth (a birth without intervention), our bodies create hormones that facilitate birthing, as well as providing powerful pain relief. Anxiety and fear can inhibit these hormones, meaning women who have been scared by pain anecdotes are ultimately more likely to feel pain. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Women who fear birth are far more likely to seek interventions that can inhibit the hormone cascade which is so essential to birthing functionally. All this does is simply reinforce the stories we are told. Birth is painful, women’s bodies aren’t functional. It’s not so long ago that women were told the suffering of childbirth was punishment for Eve’s sins, and that we deserve to suffer in birth. These water cooler stories are just another way of revisiting old narratives.
Pain anecdotes also silence and belittle women who have given birth. It’s important to consider that comparing birth to a kick in the testes or gall bladder pain when you’re talking to a woman who has experienced birth trauma can be horribly triggering. Trivialising her experiences and reducing them to a subjective moment of pain is damaging on many levels. Women can feel that their experiences of trauma aren’t important, or that they have somehow failed at something essential. Feelings like these, when internalised can delay healing and prolong the trauma. This has knock on effects, both to the relationship with their baby, but also how they experience future births.
Ultimately, we need to remember that pain is subjective. How someone experiences pain, manages pain or remembers pain is individual to them. There is simply no comparing. And using childbirth as a standard by which we measure pain, trivialises birth. It trivialises women.
Home Birth Matters
Volume 2 Issue 2
Published continuously since 2013
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