For me, one of the worst things about childbirth was not having any idea what it would feel like. How to imagine a whole new sensation, particularly a bad one, its potential lying dormant in my body all this time without my brain knowing? People talked about contractions being like really bad period cramps, but I couldn’t picture it. I absolutely hated this: the lack of control, the not-knowing, the no-one-can-tell-me. And now that I’ve experienced it, I find it hard to describe, too. I remember saying it was like your body being punched and twisted and wrung out from the inside, but I’m not sure that does it justice. The truth of it is trapped in my memory, maddeningly subjective, and fading fast.
In a just world, we would all get to experience one extreme contraction at least once in our lives, before we have to, irrespective of gender and life plans. (Maybe annually, in case we forget.) If we can’t have an annual contraction, though, we can at least have each other, cursing and laughing and coming up with ridiculous similes to try to describe our individual experiences. The further I get into motherhood, the more important I find it is, one, to be witnessed and heard, and, two, to remind each other how hard having a new baby is before your brain tricks you into doing it again.
I asked eighteen women who gave birth recently to try to articulate the mysterious and horrible sensation of contractions while they still remember it. Reading their responses, I am left with gratitude and awe, and the conviction that women are, truly, so much better than men.
Jessica: Throughout my pregnancy I was plagued with UTIs, and when contractions started I was like, "Oh shit, I thought I was in labor, but maybe this is the worst UTI ever? We should go to the hospital and get antibiotics."
Then I was like, "Shit, call an ambulance. My uterus has ruptured."
There was nothing menstrual about it. It was like every organ below my heart was experiencing a catastrophic failure. I felt frozen and shivered in fear before they arrived and in shock while they happened. No change in position helped. Being in the shower helped slightly. I just felt so ANGRY that people made me think they would be like period cramps!
Kelley: When I woke up that day, a week after my due date, I thought I had gas. The pain kind of came and went, but that somehow made no impression on me. I mean, you can have a minor pain that you're only periodically cognizant of, and your body is already so messed up when you're pregnant anyway.
My doctor had told me that "when you have a contraction, you'll know it." That was a lie. It felt like I ate one more piece of pizza than I should have.
Tiff: Like food poisoning x 1,000.
Karen: Like getting pressed in an old-fashioned laundry wringer, with an accompanying overpowering wave of dread and nausea.
Sonja: Like gnomes squeezing my abdomen with a hot vise.
Katie: You know when you are on a long road trip, maybe several days long, and you've been sitting in the car for hours and hours and hours? And your lower back starts to ache because you are buckled in and can't move? It's like a seizing, aching pain deep in your spine and no matter how you move, you can't stretch it and it gets worse and worse until you can walk around and then it starts up again as soon as you sit back down? I think they felt like that.
Anna: Like having a boulder pushed into my stomach.
Lauren: Like someone was stepping on my insides. I felt like I was going to shit the baby out.
Holly: Eventually, like a charley horse in your torso. Then a little worse, a little worse ... then I felt like I was the lemon being crushed over one of those juicers.
Lydia: They begin with the benign tightening stomach band that lulls you into thinking it's not going to hurt that much and you can just watch Broad City and laugh, to the menstrual cramp that makes you ask for Tylenol, which makes the nurses all laugh, then something that feels like it's in the diarrhea family, then ones I'll call the hammer and sickle, then the mortar and pestle, and the ones with teeth.
Briana: A dozen tiny sadists simultaneously tightening my abdomen with winches.
Sarah: A creeping hug from a wraith with electrodes attached to its spindly fingers.
Ester: Felt like a freight train was running through me. Choo choo!
Christina: At first, like tiny, uncomfortable hugs. Then, annoying like a fly you wanted to swat away, but couldn't. And when they got really crazy, it felt like being alone in a completely insufficient inner tube at sea — up and down and up and down and up and down.
Allison: Like the atoms that make up the lower half of your body are being split in a nuclear reactor? But I'm pretty sure atom-splitting doesn't take 44 hours.
Meghan: The early labor contraction was more uncomfortable than painful, and mostly made me squirm and want to move my hips, as if giving the world a lap dance. The active labor contraction, which felt like a tense crushing-squeezing, an implosion of bones and muscle. They hurt so much that they made me take leave of myself. They totally stripped away modesty and embarrassment.
Sophia: Is it weird that they made me feel really happy? I have the best memories of labor.
Lydia, again: To my knowledge I did not have "back labor," but the pain felt like it was somewhere deep inside my back, where ancient grain was being ground to flour on volcanic rock.
Meghan, on pushing: The transition contraction, which I can't describe except to say that I honestly thought I was going to die — these had me silently and frantically chanting prayers from Sunday school I didn't know I remembered the words to. The pushing contraction, which is popularly described as feeling like "throwing up in reverse" — I think the description is pretty apt. For me, these were a totally involuntary heaving-down.
Christina, again: Near the end, I just floated blindly on top of my body. I don't even remember having thoughts. It felt like I wasn't in control anymore. I don't even think I would describe it as pain. Just an alternate reality in which I ceased to be me.
Elizabeth: I used to not really understand it when people said every pregnancy was different. Then I got pregnant and understood why: Pregnancy isn't some vague, generalized medical condition. It's a person. Who's inside you. Who 100 percent has a personality, even before they're able to express it outside of your body.
(As soon as I gave birth to my son, I felt almost silly. All the anticipation, all the wondering what he would be like. Of course I knew what he would be like. We'd been hanging out for nine months already. Of course this was him.)
When I look back on my labor, I see Cooper's mark in every part of it. My son (like my husband) has two speeds: 0 or 100. Labor, for a long time, was 0. Small tightenings. The testing of how strong a thing can be before it breaks. The tapping on a door before you're sure you want to knock. And then, just like that, it was 100: a tunnel that was orange and red and closing fast. A wave that takes you under before you have a chance to take a breath. A wrench around the spine. A tiny body proclaiming itself far louder than it has any right to — a tiny body needing you so much it could wring you dry — a tiny body taking your head in its hands from inside your body and saying, here I am, love me, love me until your heart breaks, love me until there's nothing left, here I am, I'm here now, I'm here, where are you.
And the tunnel narrower and narrower until everything bursts perfectly and gorgeously into yellow-violet flames.
These responses have been edited and condensed.