When my husband and I decided to try to have a kid, we figured it wouldn't take long. In my family, you get pregnant by trying NOT to. :)=) (I was conceived while my mom had an IUD in place.) Sure enough, first try and off we went.
Pregnancy was not much fun for me, though I saw the whole thing as a wonderful ride - I enjoyed the process of pregnancy, the shifts and changes of growth, the changes in my body, the amazing presence of a little person-to-be inside me. I threw up for 4 and a half months, and I had sciatica, and I got so many stretch marks I hate to think what I'll look like after the NEXT pregnancy... Plus many other major annoyances and minor troubles. Still, I loved it, and I kept the "symptoms" separate from the "being pregnant" -- I never blamed my husband, I never blamed my baby, and I didn't even blame myself (I think those who blame the husband for their discomfort are silly - unless the whole thing was his idea, you participated somehow! So get over it. Sometimes things are no fun, but they are still absolutely AMAZING.)
Anyway, I hoped for a good labor to make up for some of the discomfort of pregnancy, but my son had other plans. I ended up with 80 (yes, 80) hours of back labor. He was trying to come out on a diagonal, and that doesn't make the cervix dilate. I did have an epidural after 66 hours, so I could sleep, and then my son turned, and I progressed normally from there. I didn't need a C-section, I had no episiotomy, I had no stitches at all. Fortunately for me, I was in my own personal time warp, and I really had no idea it had been that long. 66 hours felt like less than a day, and the time in the hospital (epidural and all that) felt like no more than 4 hours, though it was more like three times that. Even the pushing flew by (2 hours with too much epidural, so I got nowhere; 30 minutes of feeling and effective pushing) - all that time barely felt like 15 minutes.
So, did it hurt? Yes, but it didn't feel like "pain" most of the time. My eyelids sweated on the contractions, and I described it as having my ovaries crushed in a padded vice with each contraction, but it still didn't usually feel like pain. It usually just FELT. My contractions were steady, close, and strong; I just didn't dilate. I managed through this whole thing very well, because of a few key things - 1: my general attitude is that labor is cool, and interesting, and is a process, not "the bad thing before you have the wonderful baby" and 2: I had help. Lots of help.
Now, I'm not a passive person, though I'm very even-tempered. But BOY, when I was in labor, I'd have done ANY stupid thing someone told me, if I trusted them in the slightest. If they said "wouldn't you like drugs now?" I'd have thought, "GOSH, I must be in pain, I probably need drugs!" If they looked thoughtful, I felt like I was disappointing them. If they looked happy, I felt like I was doing better than anyone could possibly hope. No wonder laboring women have traditionally been treated like mind-addled sheep - I couldn't have stuck up for myself if they had come in and said that they were going to have to amputate my feet! So - help in the form of someone who knows what you like, what you want, and what you hope is really great. At least it was for me.
I had two dulahs, my husband as "coach," my mom, and my midwife, plus the assorted medical staff at the hospital (L&D nurses, the OB, the anesthesiologist, and a poor intern seeing her first birth--she nearly passed out, poor dear).
My husband was the first layer of interaction - he was the one I trust absolutely, the one who can always get through to me, the one who could make the final call on the treatments I might not be able to approve or reject. He knew about every part of my ideal labor, and how I felt about each intervention that could happen. His priorities matched mine - natural until it no longer made sense to go natural. Medical emergencies are no time to be stubborn about wanting your perfect labor. Pain-relief was also part of the options to be considered. I actually didn't need the epidural to stop the pain. I was managing that well enough, with his help. I needed it so I could sleep, because I hadn't had any sleep the day I went into labor (labor started right after I got into bed), and I'd labored 60-some hours after that with no real sleep. I was so exhausted, I couldn't have pushed to save my life, and that would have been the situation a hundred years ago - life or death. With drugs, I got to sleep, and that got things going properly. I wouldn't recommend an epidural to anyone who doesn't really need one-- for intense pain or other reasons-- since the recovery was difficult, and I still get nasty back pain 8 months later. But if you need one, it is there. Anyway, my husband was essential. He kept me relaxed, counted me through the pushing, and gave me comfort just by his presence. And the tears of joy behind his voice as he counted for my pushing told me when my son was crowning, so I knew, before they told me, that I was almost done.
In addition to my husband, I had the two dulahs. Dulahs are people there to emotionally support the laboring couple, but they don't practice medicine. Mine were my two best friends, both experienced moms, one of them having attended the birth of the other's daughter, and both knowledgeable about birth and labor. This was GREAT. They showed up at my house while I labored early on. They cooked, they chatted with me, they timed contractions, they walked with me, they ran to the store for last-minute items, they gave me foot-rubs, they put on music and switched tapes for me. They fed me ice and popsicle bits while I was in the hospital. They ran errands for my husband, and they took over for him at my side so he could sleep, or go to the bathroom, or eat, without either of us feeling like he was abandoning me. They fetched, and carried, and got me wet cloths for my head when I got a headache. They were a great comfort, and I would have suffered without them.
Next on the list of helpers was my Mom. She was there as a gift to her - she got to see her daughter give birth to her grandchild. She helped much as the dulahs did, but at an additional remove. She was an observer, but a more positive presence than some outsider would have been. She loaned me the socks she had worn for my little brother's birth, so my feet wouldn't get cold in the chilly hospital room. She grinned like an idiot while I pushed my son -- her first grandson -- forth into the world. (I had to get her to move - the last thing you want to see just then is a grinning face! Still, it told me I was doing fine.)
My midwife, the last "helper", was essential to my progress. She let me try everything reasonable to get labor to move along, and then was clear and direct in telling my husband and myself that my options were narrowing, and I could chose a course now or have no options at all later. That is when we went for the epidural. She was joyful when I finally dilated, and was speedy in reaction to trouble, without going beyond the necessary interventions. She gave me as much leeway as she could without endangering anyone, and encouraged me repeatedly. When she wasn't needed, she faded to the background, letting my other supporters take over. The greatest gift I got from her was her admiration of my strength, after it was all over and I said I would do it all again, right then, just after delivering the placenta. And I would have. I felt GREAT afterward (though I was more tired than I had ever been).
So, I had a long labor, and technically a hard labor. But it wasn't a BAD labor at all. And when I saw my son looking up at me from where he lay on my belly, all new and wet and messy, and I felt that overwhelming joy and triumph and pride and awe - I wouldn't trade it for the world. Giving birth is powerful, amazing, beautiful, and the hardest work you will ever feel grateful to be able to do. You made a new person, and you placed it in the world with the work of your own body. No matter how hard the trip, what moment could be more perfect, more moving, more profound than that?
*** p.s. I have friends who had C-sections and felt cheated of this moment... and others who did not feel cheated in the slightest. If you end up having to have a C-section, be prepared for that and don't let the necessity of medicine crush your joy. I hope that you too feel that awe of creation, for you, too, created and nurtured this being, and it doesn't matter that you had a different method of birth -- out of need, you sacrificed your wholeness to keep that life whole and safe. That too is a great and joyful moment, and a greater sacrifice than any I have had to make.
Heather, mom to Gabriel