In Part 1 of this series, we talked all about the physical aspects of vaginal birth, from contractions to coping and pushing to perineums. But in describing the physical experience of vaginal birth, we left out a huge component: emotions. Emotions are so important in the process of birth that they deserve their own post. How you feel emotionally during birth can impact your experience in profound ways, both in the moment and for years to come. Of course, as with describing the physical attributes, there's no one "right" way to feel or no universal emotion that everyone always experiences. What's emotionally exhilirating for one person can be defeating for another. In this post, we will talk about a range of emotions, including what's common and less common, but possible.
Vaginal Birth - What's It Like, Emotionally?
As in Part 1 of this series, we will again describe emotions according to the stages of labor, as emotions tend to shift depending where you are with labor and how long you have been in labor.
Early labor can be a tricky time emotionally. Many expectant moms overwhelmingly report "excitement" as the top emotion during early labor. Of course, this can be be followed quickly by confusion and doubt, as many question whether or not it's the real deal -- the true beginning of labor. In general, it's common to feel excitement, nervousness (as in, "This is it! Am I ready?!"), and anxiousness. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, early labor can also bring about feelings of fear (if there is a big, unaddressed fear of labor and birth), denial, and upset or sadness. Regardless of the kinds of emotions you experience, it's important to have good support, whether to revel in your joy, to help distract you from getting to anxious and impatient, or to comfort, connect with, and reassure you.
During active labor, when the work becomes more physically intense, emotions can sometimes take a back seat to your focus on the physical. That said, it's very common to feel focused and calm, as well as fearful, anxious, or exasperated. How well you are supported, how well you cope with your pain, and how long your labor has lasted all will have an influence on how you are doing emotionally. It will be even more important to have continuous, strong and prepared support by your side during active labor and throughout the rest of labor and birth. Communication and interaction with medical staff also can impact your emotions. This is where support from your partner or a doula can really help, as they can possibly mitigate any negative interaction, and help you get the answers and care that supports you in the best way. Encouragement, comfort, and listening are some of the best ways to support your emotions during this phase of labor.
Transition is the last final push before the push, so to speak. As such, it's often one of the most intense physical points of labor (aside from pushing, which is intense but in a different way). Emotionally, it's not uncommon for moms to experience panic, defeat ("I just can't do this anymore"), fear, and utter exhaustion. On the other end, if coping continues to go well, a laboring person in transition can also feel more focused and energized. Continuous, hands-on, and in-your-face (in a nice way) support is often crucial during transition.
Pushing can cause a range of emotions. Generally near the beginning, it's common to feel re-energized ("I made it to 10cm and can finally push! My baby's almost here and I'm almost done!"). It's also common for that burst of energy to wane, especially if pushing lasts longer than expected. If pushing takes a while (which is common), moms can feel defeated, like they're not making any progress, as well as exhausted. Near the end of pushing, when baby's head crowns, it's also common for a surge of pain as perineal tissues stretch, which can increase feelings of fear and anxiety. For those who experience a fast pushing phase, there's often very little time to express or process emotions. Pushing also can be a time during birth where lots of things are happening at once, and in the presence of several people. It's common to make louder noises (which can actually help!) and pass small amounts of stool (yes, poop, which is also helpful). Usually, women are so focused on the job of pushing that there isn't space to feel concerned about how they appear to others, but for some, shame and embarrassment can creep in. Understanding that these are normal and expected parts of birth, as well as encouragement for your labor support team, can help.
Joy! Relief! Elation! Tenderness! Tears of happiness! All of these emotions are common and generally expected. However, there are other emotions that are less expected but just as normal, including feeling stunned, apathetic, emotion-less or "blank," and disconnected. Just because the expectation is that you should feel joyful doesn't mean something is wrong if you don't. For some, attachment and excitement comes later (sometimes much later), and that's ok.
The postpartum period is long, winding and hard to sum up in a neat little description of emotions. There are ups, downs, and all-arounds. And then, of course, there is the postpartum sleeplessness lens that puts a foggy filter on nearly everything you experience. Fleeting periods of sadness, stress, and anxiety are to be expected, but if those periods go on or develop into more intense feelings of hopelessness or wanting to do harm to yourself or your baby, it's critical you get professional help. Postpartum mood and anxiety disorders, like postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and postpartum psychosis are real disorders and require treatment.