One thing any decent journalist knows how to do is research. So when I was pregnant for the first time, I researched like crazy. I read every book. I grilled my friends who’d been through it. I wrote down questions for my obstetrician so I wouldn’t forget them.
I researched all the childbirth classes and carefully debated the options (Lamaze? Bradley? Home birth?). I interviewed pediatricians. And then my water broke, and I was hit with one surprise after another. Not for one minute did labor and delivery go as I expected. I felt totally unprepared. I felt like an idiot.
But after talking to doulas, doctors, midwives, childbirth educators, and parents, I found out that I was hardly an idiot. It turns out that pretty much everyone faces some sort of surprise in the delivery room.
Here are the most common ones.
What Due Date?
Even though doctors, doulas, and midwives continually stress that a due date is just a best guess, we moms-to-be can’t help but plan our lives around that date. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t check the calendar on our Palm Pilots. “My husband and I had a fish-and-chips lunch before my routine doctor’s appointment,” says Claire Glidden, a California entertainment executive and mother of a toddler son, Ford.
It was three weeks before her due date, and the couple had yet to buy a car seat or stroller, let alone pack a bag for the hospital. “At my appointment, they found that I had preeclampsia, which called for an emergency C-section, with fish and chips still in my stomach,” she says. “From that point on, nothing was in my control.” Now expecting her second child, she feels more ready to accept whatever happens.
“Almost 100 percent of the time, the women I work with are surprised by the pain,” says Susan Moray, CPM, LM, a midwife in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in home births. Something about the self-protective instinct of human nature leads women to think that they’ll be the lucky ones for whom pain is no big deal. “We don’t mince words in our childbirth classes and during prenatal care, but almost everyone thinks it will be different for them—they think it’s mind over matter, and pain won’t happen to them.”
One way to prepare, says Chris Pearson, M.D., a longtime baby-deliverer at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, is to accept it, not fight it. “Many women are used to controlling everything in their lives,” he says, “then they go into labor and are surprised to find that they’ve got about as much control over the process, and the pain, as a rafter has in the whitewater.” Sure, you have some tools, just like a rafter has paddles, but in general you’re going along for the ride—wherever the whitewater takes you.
Can’t We Hurry This Along?
“Both mothers and fathers are surprised about how long delivery takes,” says Jane Hanrahan, ICCE-CD, president of the International Childbirth Education Association. “On TV shows like Maternity Ward, four or five babies are born in a half hour.” And the biggest challenge of a long delivery—which can last many, many hours, especially for first births—is exhaustion. “One thing I hear time and time again is, ‘I wasn’t prepared for how tired I’d be,’” says Hanrahan. When you’re tired, adds Moray, you can’t handle pain as well. Starting labor well rested is the best preparation you can get.
Incredible Shrinking Baby?
An increase in older mothers, as well as the prevalence of technology, means that many women get multiple ultrasounds during their pregnancies. The measurements taken during these scans often leave the parents expecting the baby to be a certain size. “One couple I worked with recently was sure the baby would be nine pounds,” says doula Brenda J. Lane, ICCE, CD (DONA), of Annapolis, Maryland. “It turned out to be six pounds.” Be aware that while ultrasounds are reliable when it comes to knowing the gender, the margin of error in terms of the baby’s size means that you should be ready for anything from a petite gymnast to a beefy linebacker.
When You’ve Gotta Go…
A young girl typically learns to be modest about her body and its functions, but after nine months of spreading her legs for medical professionals, a pregnant woman generally loses her inhibitions—except one. “For many women,” says Pearson, “one of the most shocking surprises is that, in front of your husband and various dignitaries, you sometimes have to have a large bowel movement.” It only hinders the delivery process if you try to stop it from happening, so he tells his patients, “Just relax and let go—nature is nature, after all.”
He Can’t Stop Crying
The typical father, say the experts, is simply not prepared for how much he’s going to love his baby. “They know intellectually that a baby’s coming,” says Hanrahan. “But because they haven’t been carrying it for nine months, it’s just not real to them. Mornay agrees: “We see a lot of dads who are pretty cavalier about the whole thing beforehand—and then they just sob when the baby is born.”
She Sounds Like She’s Possessed!
One of the biggest shocks for men can be the moans, groans, and full-throttle screams that emerge from their oncereserved wives. “The dads can get really anxious,” says Lane, “and think we need to do something about it.” Lane recently told one such husband, “Think about how much noise you’d make if you had to push a piano across a room by yourself.” He got it and calmed down, which helped his wife relax.
Where Is the Love?
We all know the fantasy: a drug-free, minimally painful labor followed by blissful nursing and bonding. But Mother Nature often has another scenario in mind. Sometimes complications in the mother or baby’s condition require that they be cared for separately. And sometimes the mother is just too exhausted to bond. “I tell couples that they will automatically feel like protecting their baby and taking care of it,” says Hanrahan. “But falling in love is not instant—it’s a process.” Lane adds, “That first hour of bonding is just icing on the cake. It’s nice if it happens, but it’s fine if it doesn’t—you’ll be bonding with your child for years to come.”
On the other hand, some women fear that they’ll have trouble bonding; for them the surprise can be how powerful their new love is. Claire Glidden, for instance, had her first child at 37 and worried during pregnancy that she might not cope well with the lifestyle change. “All that was so irrelevant after Fordie was born,” she says. “I was surprised at how truly elated I was.”
The Baby Blues?
The tremendous rush of hormones accompanying labor and delivery can trigger intense sadness that may take a usually upbeat woman by surprise. “It’s called the baby blues, and it’s quite normal,” says Pearson. “Besides the hormones, you suddenly have a squalling tyrant running your life.” The blues typically fade in a few days, when hormones settle down. Persisting sadness can signify postpartum depression, which is much more serious. Sometimes mothers deny they are experiencing it, and “it gets dangerous if it’s not tended to,” says Pearson. “We alert fathers to watch for it, and we watch for it, too.”
Expect a Surprise
Some deliveries are textbook classics—no complications, manageable pain, immediate nursing. But every one is different, and surprises are the norm. “My goal in delivery is not to minimize surprises, but to normalize them,” says Lane. “We can’t prepare for every eventuality, so what’s important is to reassure the mother and father that whatever is happening is normal.”
After 30 years of delivering babies, Pearson feels that the best way you can normalize surprises is to develop a close relationship with your childbirth educator and obstetrician, doula, or midwife. “If you don’t connect with one, get another,” he says. “We’re professionals. We know we can’t be everything to everybody.”
Colleen Dunn Bates is a writer and mother of two in Pasadena, California.