I gave birth to my son five months ago, but I remember it as if it were five minutes ago. I spent my entire pregnancy searching for the answer to one question: "What does childbirth really feel like?" But my search was to no avail.
Giving birth was the only thing I’d ever feared, probably both because it is the most mystical act a human can experience and because pop culture has done a very lazy job of illustrating it — always with sweaty women on hospital beds screaming while covered in blue tissue paper, yet somehow with clavicles visible and pores invisible.
No matter how much I searched for what the whole process actually feels like, I couldn’t find it. Not in Ina May Gaskin’s entire catalog, not on the internet, not from my mother (“Hell," she said unhelpfully) and not in What to Expect When You’re Expecting (you’d think those writers would understand preggos want to know What This Thing I’m Expecting Will Feel Like, or that The Biggest Expectation of All is what it will feel like When the Expected Finally Fucking Arrives).
I begged my birth class teacher, who is a mother five times over, to explain what it really felt like — for her at least. She got a blissed-out, faraway look on her face as she explained that every mother feels it differently, that there is no single childbirth feeling. But I kept pressing for an answer, and she finally deigned to describe it as “period cramps, but worse.” Then, she assigned us to watch Orgasmic Birth: The Best-Kept Secret.
Oh, so that’s what it was supposed to feel like? The highest conceivable plane of physical ecstasy? I laughed watching the couples in the documentary use vibrators and neck their way through contractions, and as a dewy sprite in braids had multiple orgasms on screen while giving birth to her baby in a tub in a forest (?!?!). None of this was going to be me, of course. Orgasms had eluded me until college, and I knew they would be just as elusive in childbirth.
But now, I know the answer that pregnant me so desperately sought. And I want you to know what I know now. You deserve as much. So, without further ado, here’s what childbirth really, actually feels like.
Stage 1: A rock formation with cramps
Thirty-secondslong bouts of period cramps (LOL, sorry but it’s true), rising in intensity and slowly vanishing, like a time-lapse sunrise and sunset behind a mountain. And yes, you are the mountain here. Because you are literally, laughably colossal.
Stage 2: The towel-wringing from hell
OK, wait. Now these are actually horrific period cramps. These aren’t anything like those ones for which you used to cancel plans in favor of taking a single Midol and spooning a hot water bottle. No. Now, the contents of your entire torso are wringing themselves out like a burning-hot towel, each terry cloth fiber stinging and vibrating out its vitriolic hate barbs. Additionally, you are unbelievably nauseated. Fun! TBT, first trimester.
Stage 3: Snake venom plus strangle hold
OK, so you have probably been attacked by an actual snake now? There is an actual boa constrictor inside you, slowly leaking venom while wrapping itself around all your organs from your neck down to your thighs. There are organs in your thighs, right? Surely there are some in pregnant thighs?? No? Who cares. Boa constrictors don’t have venom either. This isn’t the time for semantics. You are dying??
Stage 4: Kitchen-appliance torture device from the future
You thought you were having a son, but you are actually giving birth to a futuristic meat pulverizer, which is inconvenient because you really would have rather had a son and also, you are a vegetarian, so you have absolutely no use for a meat pulverizer. Why can’t you hear your bones cracking? They are cracking, aren’t they? Well, your baby’s bones certainly must be! That’s right; because your baby’s skull is not fully formed yet and contains moveable plates, which allow the head to fit through the birth canal. Many babies (like mine) are born with cone heads for this very reason — but no worries. Your sadistic little snake will have a normal round head in a matter of hours.
Stage 5: Panic attack of parental failure (yes, already)
Your baby is clearly very, very angry with you. You have done something enormously upsetting to your baby, such as patently refusing to give it lox bagel sandwiches every day despite its obvious lox cravings because you were “scared” of listeria and other various pathogens that apparently run rampant in raw fish if we are to believe the haters.*
Stage 6: I Know What You Did Last Summer meets the "Kill the Beast" song from Beauty and the Beast
Weird how your baby managed to get his hands on a torch and a meat hook in there. You know, the kinds of torches that old-timey angry people in the olden days used to kill a beast, burn down a village or tear a supposed witch out of her bed in the middle of the night to throw her into the lake to see if she would drown, thereby proving she wasn’t a witch, but too late because she’s dead now. That kind of torch.
And you know the kind of meat hook butchers use to hang cows? You are the cow. Have I mentioned how huge you are? Of course you can fit a torch and a meat hook inside you. What else can you fit in there? More waffles, surely. Yes. Keep eating those waffles.
Stage 7: Epidural & it's all fine
If you do choose to get an epidural at some point, here is what childbirth then feels like: an orgasm’s afterglow plus uncontrollable leg shaking plus a weirdly cold upper shoulder plus feeling like you’ve had two-and-a-half glasses of red wine. Oh, wine. You get to have that again soon. Right after this tiny fascist makes its way out of your body.
The nurses may threaten to remove the epidural so you can push since your whole lower half is numb, but you will then look at them with Kim Jong Un eyes and say there is no way they are taking away that epidural, that you will call on every iota of muscle memory in your body, and you will push that baby out despite not being able to feel literally anything.
And you will, and you will push so hard, and you will be out of breath pushing and counting to 10 over and over and over again, but you will cry out in joy when you feel the distant sensation of something large and slippery being removed from your inner thighs, from the distant memory of your vagina, and you will be confused at the glimpse of your doctor down there with his scissors, suturing up your tears, because you feel none of it, just the warmth of this crying, bloody baby on your chest and your partner’s grinning relief and your disbelief that you got through all that, that both tiny you and large you made it to the other side, together.
Well, that’s how it felt for me, anyway. Every childbirth is different.
A version of this article was originally published in November 2017.