Realistic expectations of labor

* A big thank you to Pam England and her book Ancient Maps for Modern Book for the
activities and ideas suggested here.

Most people have a picture in mind of how they think labor will go, and how they themselves will
cope with labor. Picturing yourself coping in labor while you are pregnant is a helpful way to
prepare for the intensity of childbirth. When we talk about coping, we are not only talking about
coping with the pain of contractions, but also potentially the exhaustion that comes from a long
birth because of lack of sleep and hard work, and the fears that can come from your labor path
taking unexpected turns, not to mention dealing with a variety of other sensations.

“Women who worry about the ‘right amount’ of pain are often those best prepared for the
intensity of labor’” says Pam England. When we worry, we activate the part of ourselves that
looks for solutions, that looks for both inner and outer resources, the part of us that in fact does
know what to do, even in times of uncertainty.

On the other hand, she says “women who are overconfident, or have a casual wait and see
attitude, or are planning for an epidural often do not prepare well for labor pain”, and are often
caught off guard by just how intense labor can be.

To help picture yourself coping in labor, think of a number between 1 and 100: 1 being not
intense at all and 100 being the most intense you can imagine. What number would you give to
represent the intensity of labor? Now, think of something that you might do at that number.
Maybe it’s focusing on your breathing? Or swaying your hips? If you’re not sure what you might
do, what have you heard others do? How might that be helpful to you? Once you’ve named one
thing, name one other thing.


When one is dealing with an intense contraction there are many ways to cope. Some may include: asking for a hand to hold, being vocal, focussing on a labyrinth, swaying your hips, or moving around.

Are any of those things you could see yourself doing to cope with labor?

I’d like to introduce to you someone that tends to show up at every birth:

Sometimes she only appears for a moment, and sometimes she likes to hang around for a while (she seems to like to hang around if you have had very rigid expectations of
what your birth should look like).

This is the birth fairy.

birthing from within
Thank you to Birthing from Within for this image.

She’s a little mischievous, and she likes to wave her wand and bop people on the head with something that they didn’t expect. Sometimes it might be something wonderful, and other times it might challenging. Regardless of how much you’ve planned, there will be at least one moment in your labor that will surprise you.

So now let’s go back to that number you chose. Let’s say the birth fairy shows up, and she
sprinkles on your contraction a bit of fairy dust, and now the intensity of your contraction is
maybe five or ten points higher than what it was. What do you need to do at this new number
that you didn’t need to do at the old number? Maybe it’s to make some sounds? Or Ask for
more help? Or swear?

Now that you’ve imagined yourself coping in labor, it can be helpful to anchor this image by
drawing or painting it out.

I will leave you with this:

Coping in labor is subjective — what works for one might not work for
someone else. We don’t know what birth will ask of us, but we do know that the childbearing
journey, to quote Joseph Campbell, will require you to do at least one “Forbidden Thing”: one
thing that you were hoping to not have to do. Giving yourself permission to do what it takes and
not judge yourself later is the biggest gift you can give to yourself.