As any book or guide on pregnancy and childbirth will tell you, “labor is extremely painful.” But this does not sufficiently capture the severity, intensity and duration that expectant mothers often go through. Guidebooks should include a few more clarifying statements such as “No really, we mean it, it is incredibly painful” and “As painful as you are imagining it to be, it is way more painful than that.” And men, don’t even try to comprehend the amount of pain your loving partner goes through because, except possibly in the rare cases of Japanese yakuza gangsters and Hell’s Angels enthusiasts who have had their entire body tattooed in one sitting, no man experiences the kind of pain that women go through in childbirth.
When (just last week) my beloved Catherine was writhing in agony during her contractions (42 hours worth of them), three thoughts ran through my head. First, I wished that I could take some of the pain myself to alleviate hers (I couldn’t.) Second, I realized that all of the emotional support, relaxation and breathing exercises that you learn in birthing classes are great in between contractions. During contractions, they don’t even move the needle. All you can do is hold on tight and hope they pass quickly. And third, I wondered, “why is childbirth so freakin’ painful?”
In theory, genetic evolution would be working in our favor here, helping us to adapt in ways that make propagating our species easier, not harder. So why would we evolve to have such a painful labor process? And now that we have, why do people keep making babies even though to do so requires women to go through so much torture?
To get answers to these questions, I turned to Frank Vertosick’s book “Why We Hurt: The Natural History of Pain”. Vertosick explains some of the tradeoffs that occur in evolution. Basically as our large brains evolved, our heads got too big for our bodies. Because of our biologically oversized skulls we are born early, coming out way before we are mature enough to fend for ourselves (no other animal needs so much parental support to survive to adulthood.) A painful childbirth is the evolutionary tradeoff that allows our offspring to have their giant brains, develop as much as they can in the womb, and then be painfully squeezed out at the last possible minute before their heads become bigger than their mothers’ pelvic canals. Like most things in life, the good and the bad come as a package.
According to Vertosick, evolution uses other tricks to make sure we keep having babies, in spite of the pain:
1. Sex feels as good as labor feels bad. Most people can’t resist things that feel good now even when there are enormous consequences to come at a far distant time in the future. We tend to get lost in the moment.
2. The mother produces hormones that help her to deal with the pain of pregnancy. (This is little consolation to those who are going through it)
3. Humans have “secret” ovulation. Meaning it is darn tricky to know when a woman is fertile and so it is easy to make a “mistake.”
And I would add a couple more to Vertosick’s list:
4. Research on “peak-end theory” shows that people have “duration neglect” when remembering past experiences. In other words, most of the cumulative pain that was experienced will be forgotten. In Catherine’s case, she won’t remember the 42 hours of labor. She will remember the peak moments when the pain was most intense (she still recalls those vividly) and then how the experience ended (in a burst of joy and relief as our healthy son was born.)
5. Finally, purpose and meaning trumps temporary pain. Those hours of pain and suffering during childbirth pale in comparison to the lifelong experience of being a parent. Raising a child gives a sense of perspective, purpose and legacy to a life. For many people this becomes their “raison d’etre” and continues to be for years after the pain of labor has faded from their memory.
Having a child hurts. More than it should, more than you think it could, and more than just about anything else in life. But when a new mother holds her infant child in her arms for the first time, there is no doubt in her mind . . . it’s worth it.
References and recommended reading:
Vertosick, F. T. (2000). Why We Hurt: The Natural History of Pain. New York: Harcourt, Inc.
Wong, P. T. P., Fry, P. S. (Eds.) (1998). The Human Quest for Meaning: A Handbook of Psychological Research and Clinical Applications (Personality and Clinical Psychology). Routledge.