Why is Childbirth so Freakin’ Painful?

Painful DeliveryAs 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.

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20 Responses to Why is Childbirth so Freakin’ Painful?

  1. Adrienne Keane May 11, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    Jeremy…Well done! Peak-end really worked for me as I truly don’t remember any of the pain – only the joy of holding my babies. I remember going into labor the second time and thinking “oh crap, I remember this now”. I had truly forgotten what is was like. Makes sense that nature would engineer this in this way – otherwise who would have more than one child.

    Congrats on the birth of your son. May you have much joy as you experience the wonder (and pain) of raising a child.

  2. Lisa S. May 11, 2010 at 10:59 pm #

    Congratulations on your new arrival – and this brilliant post! Your questions from an observer status have often crossed my own mind, and not just during my two birth experiences either! And the questions continue after the birth: If evolution were perfect, mothers would never get sick – but they do and so someone else is needed to look after the baby and the mother. If evolution were perfect, babies would sleep through the night from the start – but they don’t and they need parents to look after them, and then someone else to help support the new family when everyone is feeling exhausted except the baby!

    Really, having a baby and starting a family requires social support – from our extended family and from friends and neighbours and sometimes complete strangers. I met one of my very good friends when she handed me her baby (we had met one scant hour earlier) because her oldest child was peeing her pants and needed to get to a bathroom and the mother only had two arms – enough to deal with one child but not two!

    And so, I wish for you many supportive social moments in this new journey of life. All the best to the family!

  3. Colleen Dunn Smith May 12, 2010 at 1:38 am #

    Wonderful post and I am so appreciative of you letting us into this part of your life…a very precious one at that. You are right about most things in life coming as a package deal, another lesson we learn. And really that is what all relationships teach us, whether marriage or parenthood; they give us the opportunity to rise above our human nature to that of the divine where we experience unconditional love or unequivocal loss.

    Life will never be the same…and for that, you will thank you lucky stars.

    My best to you, Catherine and sweet sweet Dylan.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy May 12, 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    Adrienne, well said! I laughed when I read “oh crap I remember this now”. It is amazong how the mind can recall forgotten memories in that way. Also, as your email indicates there is “pain” in raising children, even beyond childbirth, but there is much joy also, and I guess that is why we do it.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy May 12, 2010 at 12:10 pm #

    Thanks Lisa for your wise comments. You are so right about the imperfections of evolution although the question I ask myself, is “what direction are we headed in?” The pain element seems to be going in the wrong direction since theoretically, we have a greater state of evolution, but experience more pain than other mammals in this aspect. It’s all about the tradeoffs (along with all the other “flaws” in the process that you point out.)

    Another aspect of this that concerns me is the growing rate of caesarean sections. Westchester County,l where I live, has a rate of about 40%, one of the highest in the country. There are good reasons for this since c-sections can be a safer way to bring the baby out without complications, but what does this do to us from an evolutionary standpoing? Over time, evolution should adapt by figuring out a way to make women’s pelvises larger or babies’ brains smaller to make childbirth less dangerous. But if we eliminate the need for this by doing surgical interventions that evolutionary adaptation may not occur and so the c-section rate will continue to rise until our species will evolve to no longer give birth vaginally at all. Weird to think of that possibility!

  6. Jeremy McCarthy May 12, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    Colleen, thanks for visiting and leaving your comment. You make a strong and poignant connection between unconditional love and unequivocal loss (I know you have experienced both recently.) Having my son definitely gives me a feeling of extreme vulnerability because my love for him is so great. Great love gives you something to live for but also something to lose. Thanks for your kind words, I hope you get to meet Dylan some day!

  7. Marjie Knudsen May 12, 2010 at 4:16 pm #

    Love your blog!
    After my first child was born, the intense pain left made me not wanting to go through it again… ever. I have four kids (ages 24, 20, 14, 12). Vertosick’s theory of evolution tricks have taken their toll here. The first one was the hardest, thank goodness for the epidurals on the others, although I’m not sure what the procedure will do for evolution.
    How fortunate for your child to have you as a dad! All that really matters is unconditional love, cultivating curiosity, letting them find their own way (own values, strengths), and accepting them for exactly who they are.
    So happy for you Jeremy!

  8. Senia May 12, 2010 at 6:12 pm #


    Great post!

    42 hours!?!?!?! Catherine is a hero! In more ways than one. Wow.

    “Great love gives you something to live for but also something to lose.”
    That’s true and beautiful.


  9. Louis May 13, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    Interesting piece – whilst I have never experienced childbirth except for my own (born an unexpected twin, breech), I can only imagine that the end – being that is just the beginning – brought lots of positive emotion for you both. Congratulations, friend. You’re boy is lucky to have you as his pop.

  10. Kathryn Britton May 17, 2010 at 8:59 am #


    Another thing to remember is that there is great variation among people concerning how much pain. My uncle was known as “Speed” his entire life because he almost arrived while my grandmother was at a bridge party. So I never paid any attention to what anyone said about pain. What do they know about what I’ll experience?

    Also, one thing I’ve read is that there are hormones that make it hard for women to have clear long-term memories of what happened during labor. So one of your jobs is to remember the high points so you can tell the stories about what was happening and what you felt, for example, when the baby first arrived.

    I do remember working a crossword puzzle with my husband with a clue that turned out to be the drink “Tom and Jerry”. But after that, things start to be fuzzy so it’s great when my husband can talk about the baby arriving looking “purple and covered with crisco” and what it felt like to hold her (then him) the first time. That was the first clue that they had completely different personalities. One held herself rigid while she looked around, the other melted into his shoulder.

    What an adventure you are starting on!

  11. Jeremy McCarthy May 17, 2010 at 9:48 pm #

    Kathryn, I’m glad you left that comment. I have heard from a few people who told me after reading this blog that their experience was not so bad. So I hope that expectant mothers reading this are not terrified by what I have written as there are many different kinds of experiences during birth and some go relatively easily and pain free.

    That being said, one of the best pieces of advice we got from our birthing coach was to “be flexible”, which was her way of saying that the birth doesn’t always go as you planned. It is good to be prepared for whatever you might have to endure even while hoping for a smooth, pain-free pregnancy.

    I like your idea of the birthing coach being tasked with helping the mother to remember the best parts of the experience. Our son is still less than two weeks old and I would say Catherine now hardly remembers the pain and just feels an incredible sense of joy and love towards our son. But also so much has happened in the past two weeks, it feels like we have had our son for months. There are so many new memories coming in, and yet we do not want to lose any of them!

    Thanks for your wisdom!

  12. Jamie May 26, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    42 hours is unreal. Even my labor for two kids doesn’t add up to that much!

    I’ve already forgotten the pain and my son is only six months. I can’t recall exactly what labor felt like, I only remember that it hurt like hell. I’m already toying with the idea of having another. Isn’t mother nature amazing? I’m still way too tired to start thinking of having a third child though!

  13. Megan Fontenot May 27, 2010 at 5:00 am #

    Really awesome post. Really..

  14. Molly Fagan May 30, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    If only I had a dollar for every time I came here… Great article!

  15. sarah October 17, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s really helpful and refreshing to get some straightforward thoughts on childbirth!

  16. swifty November 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    None for me thanks. I’ll sit this out until evolution gets it right.


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