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When I was younger and saw a childbirth scene on TV or in a movie, my mom often told me that wasn’t what it was really like. First of all, she'd say, you don’t necessarily scream your head off, and you rarely end up with what looks to be a 4-month-old baby. I took these to be true, but I still had a ton of questions about what labor and delivery were really like. Somehow you have to get a human being out of your body, right?

We asked women to share their labor stories in hopes of demystifying childbirth. Some of what you’ve heard is generally true (the intense pain, for example). But there’s more to it than that.

A mother’s first labor and delivery is a gift that we know not all women will experience. Still, it is a powerful milestone in her life if she has the opportunity. We’re grateful to these women for sharing an intimate glimpse of some of the most pivotal days of their lives. Here’s what they had to say.

OK, so it really does hurt. A lot.

“‘What do they feel like?’ ‘How do you know it's a contraction?’ I asked all of my mom friends. ‘They hurt. A lot,’ and ‘Oh, you'll know,’ is all I really got. I describe contractions as the most intense period cramps you've ever had x 100. And yes, once I was having them, I knew. But here's the thing my friends left out: Contractions are like waves. You feel them coming on, they get incredibly intense, and just when you think your body will literally crumble with the amount of pain, they ease up. Those breaks between contractions are where you gather up your strength, regroup, and get ready to do it again."


“. . . Well, there isn't a book, video, or birthing course in the world that can really prepare you 100% for what that first labor and delivery is like. My husband and I tried a few of the ‘recommended’ birthing postures, but none of them felt good to me. I remember moving into transition and being absolutely horrified by the sounds and fluids coming out of my body. Then, as the baby started to crown, I stopped caring. It was like the baby and I were a team and no matter what else happened, we were going to make this thing happen together. And we both made it through—with blood, sweat, and tears. I was initiated into motherhood.”


"I've heard transition described in natural birthing classes as that time when everything gets more intense and you doubt whether you can go any further—but you're just about to cross the finish line. You think, 'I can't do this!' then you find out that, actually, you can. For many moms in labor, it's when, mentally and physically, the sh*t hits the fan. It may feel like an eternity, but in real time it's the shortest part of labor. Knowing this is what to expect can help some moms not feel as overwhelmed."

—Mary Rose

But preparing for it can help!

“[In] my first pregnancy, I was trying to save money and received no birth preparation or education whatsoever. I thought that since I was young (24) and in good shape, that I would cope easily. I was not prepared for the pain. I quickly gave in to an epidural, and because of the chemical paralysis, I could not move my body or feel how hard I needed to push. I ended up having a very traumatic emergency C-section. For my second and third children, I prepared and succeeded in having natural, unmedicated births. They were incredibly empowering.”


Things don’t always go according to the (birth) plan.

"Transition was excruciating, mostly because my daughter's position focused the pain on my spine. I intended to try for a natural birth, so the epidural was a choice I made during labor. It was both glorious and a little disorienting. It lessened that sense of mind-body collaboration, though once I was able to relax, dilation and my daughter's birth happened fairly quickly."


“I gave birth to my first child at thirty weeks. My L&D turned out the opposite of what I'd hoped for (all natural, full term). It was one of the scariest and hardest times. But it taught me what my body needs, how to choose the right doctors, and what to do next time."


“My first birth was going to be the most magical experience of my life, with every minute detail carefully penned in my birth plan (manifesto). Fifteen days before my due date, a crushing headache and dangerously elevated blood pressure set fire to my birth plan, and my son was born via emergency C-section in a cacophonous racket of clanking surgical instruments under blinding lights . . . Then, I heard my son’s first cry, and his mode of entry suddenly became irrelevant. He was finally in my arms, and that was the real miracle."


But C-sections aren’t all bad.

“. . . I developed acute preeclampsia at thirty-four weeks and was told abruptly at my routine appointment to call my husband because they were going to be delivering our [twin] babies in the next available operating room. While the C-section was indeed painful and stressful, I was still filled with incredible joy watching the delivery of my babies in a mirror and seeing them held up for their first screams. My husband and I still reminisce about the feelings of relief and sheer happiness we experienced when we first laid eyes on our tiny sons.”


“I had a planned C-section delivery . . . due to concerns about my son's cardiac health and excess amniotic fluid . . . Thankfully, my maternal-fetal specialist really kept me sane throughout the entire process, and his outrageous sense of humor helped me to hold it together. Everything about the process of delivery and recovery was much easier than people often make it sound. I didn’t find the spinal block to be too painful, and my son’s birth was really easy and fun because I wasn’t exhausted or in pain. I only felt sore and uncomfortable for about a week after.”


“When I was just around thirty-two weeks, I found out that my baby was breech [bottom first instead of head first] . . . and the decision was made for me to have a scheduled C-section. Oddly enough, I was not upset, even though many other family members and friends were. And they were not shy in saying so! My response? ‘Well, baby's coming out one way or another, and if that's the least of my concerns, since baby is healthy, that's great!’ My beautiful daughter was delivered by C-section on a sunny afternoon in mid-September, and we both did beautifully well!”


Childbirth is not all roses and rainbows—but seeing your baby makes up for it.

“My first labor was fast and furious. I felt unprepared for the pain and for coping with it. I was terrified before going into labor, so I continued to be terrified during it. My husband was my rock; I could not have done it without him . . . I ended up with a C-section, which was wonderful at that time and allowed me to be present for the birth of my sweet son.”


“. . . The quick labor, rush to the hospital, and the intense delivery were so stressful, scary, and painful—nothing that I ever expected or imagined. But every time I look at my son, I feel such a relief that we got through it together.”


Our bodies are capable of amazing things.

"After delivering my baby, I felt like superwoman; I could have lifted a car. I'm not a person who is particularly proud of my body on most days, but on that day, I was in awe at what it was capable of.”


“My labor and delivery was not something I was fully prepared for because my daughter was born at 31 weeks. My body knew to send me warning signals (mucous plug and water breaking) that something was wrong and baby had to come out. I went into labor shortly after those signals were sent. Labor, delivery, and recovery were much quicker and less painful than I had imagined, although I imagine having a small baby must help. Overall, I've come away from the experience in awe of the human body and its capacity.”


“Labor was deeply painful, but just five months later my body has largely forgotten the pain. It remembers the hard work, the labor of labor. My husband’s arms tensing as they supported my entire weight during a contraction. The intense worry that the pressure of pushing was going to pop my eyes right out of my head. The way my hands shook as I reached out to hold our daughter for the first time. My labor was hard, painful work. But it was also literally a labor of love, and, most days, that’s the most important part of my birth story.”

—Beth Anne

“. . . While painful, labor also felt powerful. My body and I were collaborators: it was acting, and I reacted to help it along. When I look back on it now, I feel really positive about my birth experience, mainly because it brought me my daughter, but I felt really supported, powerful, and inspired, in a way. I knew I was doing good, good work, and that my body could do it.”


For better or worse, childbirth is not something you can totally prepare for. But there is beauty in the fact that each story is as unique as the baby born in it.

Photo Credit: Cynthia Chung Photography