How did you deal with seeing your partner in pain during labor?
November 29, 2018 11:16 AM   Subscribe

My wife is due any day now, and one thing that I'm freaking out about is seeing her in pain during labor. I've heard from a couple of other people that this is something that they/their partner really struggled with. What can I do to not be overwhelmed by this and stay strong for my wife while she's laboring? Thanks!
posted by Fister Roboto to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
We got a doula for this reason. It may be late for that, but do you have anyone else in your life that your wife finds super-supportive and comforting, who might be cool with being semi-on-call if you need a break or a 20 minute nap at 4am?

(My husband found my labor more distressing, emotionally, than I did, because it was my body and I knew what was up, and had a whole vat of fancy birth hormones that knew what to do to my brain. If we did it again, I'd get a doula again, and explicitly tell him beforehand that he should go away regularly and take a breath. Your Wife's Birth Experience May Vary.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:29 AM on November 29, 2018 [6 favorites]

I experienced labor as work far more than as pain. After a long labor, I had a surgical delivery, so I missed the parts that are more intensely painful, but that part should be relatively short. Read about labr and delivery and be an advocate, which will help distract you from your own anxiety.
posted by theora55 at 11:39 AM on November 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Try to keep in mind that the pain of labor is not in any way akin to, say, the pain of a broken bone, or the pain of a toothache, or the throbbing pain of illness or injury. Basically, labor is a periodic flexing and stretching of muscles. It's rather like a gym workout that lasts for like 12 hours. The discomfort that is felt is from the muscles stretching more than they are used to. Fighting against it, or writhing or screaming, will not stop the contractions, but WILL make them more uncomfortable. The best way to keep from being overwhelmed by contractions is to try to stay calm and let them happen. You can encourage your wife with each new contraction by thinking to yourself, and then telling her, "Here comes another one! Soon we will be able to meet Baby!" If you've taken a Lamaze or similar labor prep class, then you can involve yourself in guiding your wife with the breathing sequences. Also, keep in mind that painkillers are an option, though generally the medical staff wants you and your wife to commit to taking the painkillers early in labor. Epidurals in particular take a while to work, and cannot be given in the later stages of labor. If you both feel strongly about having a natural unmedicated delivery, then see if you can get a doula or an experienced friend to be there for encouragement. Sometimes another person's calm demeanor is the best way to spread calm to the other parties. Best of luck to both of you, and congratulations!
posted by RRgal at 11:42 AM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

Definitely get a doula.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:42 AM on November 29, 2018

This is not about me.
I Feel a deep need to try to fix this but I can’t fix it and it’s ok.
It’s not my fault she’s feeling pain.
This is not about me.
It’s ok if I don’t know what to do. I’ll try to read the room and take social cues.
Any anger or frustration from her gets a 1000% pass. Maybe my job is to just absorb the feeling.
If I was her BFF what would she do?
This is not about me.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:50 AM on November 29, 2018 [58 favorites]

I showed my husband this video of what's happening to the cervix during labor before my second birth, and a lightbulb went off over his head. Helped him to conceptualize what that pain he'd witnessed our first time around was, and helped him put in context for the second baby.
posted by sestaaak at 11:52 AM on November 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

have a job. Comfort her. Feed her ice chips. Have something that you are responsible for and do that to 1000% of your ability.
posted by bondcliff at 11:53 AM on November 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

So, I have had two children and hate pain. The most important thing my husband did was nod enthusiastically by my side while I yelled at the midwives and then apologize on my behalf out of my ear shot.
posted by catspajammies at 12:05 PM on November 29, 2018 [9 favorites]

Hold her hand for as long as she wants it, and don't let go.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:14 PM on November 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm not a spouse or a woman who has given birth, but a close family member of mine asked me to be in the delivery room with her as support. I was worried about supporting her and also worried about helping her handle her pain levels.

The most difficult part was helping her parse out if she wanted an epidural, because she had initially planned not to- and felt like she was weak, or giving in, or something else, if she decided to get one after all. Not sure if this is something you may encounter or not. My friend was in lots and lots of pain and it was hard seeing her like that, bu I tried to focus on what would help, and by supporting her choices 100%, and reassuring her that nothing was wrong with either choice.

As far as the actual physical pain, I held her hand when she wanted me to, I encouraged her to do whatever she needed to to deal with the pain, even if she felt silly or weird (bouncing on a ball, standing a certain way in the shower. etc.)

Lots of support re: 'I know you're hurting a lot, but you're doing so well/we're so excited to meet baby/I know you're strong' type statements. Don't deny the pain, just help her through it.

If she's doing a specific breathing pattern, do it with her. It'll help keep you both focused.

Be a center of calm. She may feel panicked, out of control, etc. Be her rock!
posted by rachaelfaith at 12:21 PM on November 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Know that it is temporary - and even though it is hard to look at for you, it is in the service of bringing a new life into the world.

Read up on what happens during childbirth, in multiple cases. You will see how you can be of support and not to dwell on what your own reactions might be. Your spouse is still your spouse.
posted by 41swans at 12:32 PM on November 29, 2018

I think the most important thing you should do with all your „need to fix this“ feelings is to find a job for yourself.
Job number one is to be super sensitive to what your wife needs done without taking it personally or drowning in your own emotions. That‘s the most inportant job you can do, so keep returning to that.

Like, I wanted my husband to go down my mental check list of what else needs to be done (who‘s taking Older Kid to school??) and I was a bit snappish (sorry husband). Because it distracted me from the ARGH down there.
Find something to do, if she reacts badly, do something else. You can ask but she probably won‘t be able to concisely manage your emotional and other labor.

Be your wife‘s advocate with the medical people, if you sense that she can‘t do it herself.

It‘s impossible to say what exactly she will need from you, discuss it beforehand but it may still change.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:36 PM on November 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Be your wife‘s advocate with the medical people, if you sense that she can‘t do it herself.

This. Seeing her in pain was bad, but that is often a necessary part of the process; you just support her as best you can, which is generally just being there. What I really felt horrible about was unusual pain that might have been moderated if I had better communicated with the docs. (I'll skip the details, but this was a consequence of an atypical medical error.) And this might vary, but she reported that after a few days, the memory of the pain dissipated, which was somewhat of a relief after the fact.

You can prepare for this by discussing her preferences in advance, but mostly by your knowing her better than anyone else does, and her trusting you.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:04 PM on November 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yeah, like, if she wants an epidural and they‘re not taking her seriously (because that happens to women in medical situations A LOT) be prepared to amplify her voice and put some pressure on them.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:09 PM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

I am a mother of five - no epidurals. My labours ranged from very painful to unbearably agonising. Please don't try to tell a woman in labour that she isn't in pain!

My husband was very supportive but the thing I really remember with gratitude is the way he distracted the midwife and stopped her bothering me with constant questions when I was in labour with our youngest. I needed to concentrate to deal with the pain and she kept ruining that! He noticed a bird in a tree outside and kept her focused on that for quite a while. It was a huge relief.

Intercepting unhelpful questions could be something you could do that would help your partner and also distract yourself from her pain.
posted by tulipwool at 1:40 PM on November 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

As a positive story: I usually literally get faint in medical situations, and I didn't have that problem when I was with my wife during labor. I was just too fucking proud of her.

So as far as what you can do to stay strong: stay in touch with how amazing your wife is; how strong she is; how proud you are of her; how much you love her; how much you both love your baby; and beam that back to her when she needs it. She'll be in pain, yes, because she'll be kicking ass. Be her biggest fan.

(Off topic, I agree with others that the practical thing you can be ready for is to speak up on her behalf -- in our case, it was just asking for more calm and fewer people when I saw my wife wanted that. Definitely talk through anything your wife is hoping for in particular. At the same time, nothing will go like you expect, and you're not expected to be the expert here, so don't freak yourself out about it.)
posted by john hadron collider at 1:45 PM on November 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

-Don't joke about it to ease the tension (unless you're absolutely positive it will be received well)
-Don't say anything sympathetic along the lines of "knowing" or "understanding" how painful it must be (you don't and can't know)
-Be prepared to advocate on behalf of your partner or communicate her wishes for her to the hospital staff, especially if they are pushy or not explaining things well or making big decisions without taking her rights/wishes/feelings as seriously as they should (I didn't think this would apply to us. But it did, and I had to set aside a nurse and say some pretty important things to her while my wife was under heavy drugs and couldn't say them herself)
-Be the anchor or rock for her, and even if you're feeling overwhelmed/shocked/exhausted/whatever, don't let it show. Radical honesty can come when talking about it after the fact, but right now she needs you to be the immovable support.
-If she or you both decided firmly to avoid epidurals or the like prior to the labor, bear in mind that she might feel strongly in favor of it during the actual time to make the decision. Plan for that possibility, or be flexible and roll with changes in the moment, and keep in mind it's her decision, not yours.
posted by naju at 1:54 PM on November 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

What helped me during labor was being able to text two women who'd been through the process already: an OB/GYN nurse and my mom. I'd be like "this is terrible, it's like watching someone be tortured, is it supposed to be like this?" and they said it was fine.

Looking back on the experience: like a lot of things, it was scary not knowing how it would end. But once you've been through it and know it will end O.K., it would be a lot easier if I did it a second time.

And yeah, as said above, I wish I'd understood more how much it's more like a marathon or a workout than about being injured (which was the incorrect mental model I think i was working from.)
posted by johngoren at 2:01 PM on November 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Due on Monday (!) with my first and have been talking through a lot of this with my husband.

The Birth Partner book (which, bonus, is non-heteronormative AND trans inclusive) has a really nice distinction between "pain" (unpleasant physical sensation) and "suffering" (mental stuff: anguish/feeling of helplessness/fear, etc.). You can be in pain without suffering, and vice versa. The exercise analogy brought up a few times above works here; something like ritual fasting also fits this for me (Yom Kippur is physically unpleasant, but if I've prepared well/am in the right headspace, I'm not suffering.)

The phrase "pain with a purpose" also got thrown around a lot in my birth classes.

So, it might help your mental state to keep both of these things in mind: your wife may be in pain, but it's a pain that is leading to something, and she may not be suffering (and/or the degree of suffering may not be in relation to the pain she's feeling, if that makes sense). But, if she crosses over into suffering, that's when you go into advocate/help get the epidural in/etc. mode.
posted by damayanti at 2:39 PM on November 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

There was a procedure during my wife's delivery where she saw that I was grimacing. Once that part was over, she told me that wasn't helpful. (I didn't notice I was doing it.) After that, I was really mindful of my facial expression, and made sure I was breathing and letting go of tension during quieter moments.

Afterwards she told me that my being calm was really helpful, especially since the birth was somewhat longer than most, and ended up with an unplanned c-section. My purpose was not to impose or force my calmness onto her, but rather to be a nearby source of calmness and encouragement she could pull in whenever she needed some.

I would print out St. Peepsburg's comment above on a little card and keep it in your pocket.

Inside your "go bag" should be a few small things for your own self care: water, some snacks, an extra t-shirt, deodorant, etc. There were times during labour where she was dozing, and I used those times to either rest myself or get hydrated, fed, etc. You're starting a stretch of little sleep and exhaustion, and if you can keep more fuel in the tank, you'll be able to do more.
posted by thenormshow at 3:04 PM on November 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Counterpoint to a lot of the above: my labor went pear-shaped due to what turned out to be a placental issue. It *was* like (or simply was!) an acute injury for a couple of hours, until things got surgical.

Luckily my partner was pretty attuned and it did not take long for the monitors and us to realize something was out of the ordinary course, but had he been telling me not to fight labor pain, not writhe, or use whatever ultimately useless breathing techniques we learned in birth class, etc. in the interim, I think I’d still be holding it over him lo these several years later. I share this not to add anxiety, but because you need to be as prepared as your wife, if not more, to be flexible and not project expectations for what she “should” be feeling or doing during the event itself.
posted by LadyInWaiting at 3:20 PM on November 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

With the caveat that every labor is different:

It's kind of like running a marathon. At first, you're like, okay, I can do this. Then it's like, oh my gawd, why did I ever think I could do this? Then it's like, no, I cannot do this! (Transition). Then it's like oh fuck, I've got to get to the finish line and then I can collapse and have my hot chocolate!

Except you're not in control, and nurses and doctors can say abrupt things that will be magnified, and yes, epidurals are a good thing if she wants it.

Unhelpful comments were:

"Ow! You're hurting my hand!" when I was squeezing. Or:

Reading a car magazine and asking how long this would take, but only being there at the end and calling relatives saying how he had just had a baby. I don't think you're like that, but be aware that when someone is going through pain, off and on, off and on, it's more like say, you had the stomach flu and someone expecting you to be chirpy. So act like she has the flu, more or less and what would you do for someone who had a 24 hour bug?

A lot of it is just weird internalized stuff that's not under a woman's control, the same way you would be if you had stomach cramps for a day or so.

Also, please do not take anything personally she says when she's in labor. People react in different ways, some women are fine, some women lash out, but it's in the moment, and nothing to do with you. Just remember you're going to get a nice little tiny cute baby at the end, and mostly I've forgotten the pain, I mean, why would I have had a 2nd child if I hadn't, LOL, but it's so great that you are concerned.

It's not as bad as you think it's going to be, it's just a long haul, and maybe less than you thought, but just sweat it out, be there for her, and praise her a lot at the end, and you'll be fine.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:12 PM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

Be aware that some women don’t have the ebb and flow of contractions. Your wife might have back labor, which is basically an hours-long contraction that is a tremendous amount of very focused pressure on the sacrum, enough to break the sacrum in some women.

I was punching myself in the face. My husband said “you really shouldn’t hit yourself” and I screamed “then I’ll hit you.” He said “well I guess you’ll have to hit me” and I did, over and over and over until I got my epidural.

If you can do that then you are good.
posted by pintapicasso at 6:16 PM on November 29, 2018 [9 favorites]

YOU need a support person. Does your wife have a good friend - who’s also calm and unruffled - she’d feel comfortable having in the room?

My labor was not “work.” It was not like a “12 hour gym session”. It was many, many more hours (12 would have been a delight) of unrelenting agony and pain. My husband was completely useless - he really could’ve used some support in those moments. My mother was also present, but she was in the same dilemma he was - unable to stand seeing me in pain.

I think it’s wise of you to think about this. Even if there’s no one else you can or want to have present, enlist support people who will commit to being available by phone at the least.
posted by pecanpies at 6:21 PM on November 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you’re up for it, check out some of the videos on (NSFW) @empoweredbirthproject on Instagram. (Click through only if you want to see uncensored full birth footage.) So you’ll know what you’re going into!
posted by amaire at 7:12 PM on November 29, 2018

Nthing a doula. Having her there to support my partner made my labor so much better, and she was a much better advocate with my care team because she actually knew what she was talking about!
posted by Threeve at 9:10 PM on November 29, 2018

nthing "let her squeeze your hand until your bones literally shatter and don't say SHIT about it friend." And then also if she wants a milkshake after, you obtain that milkshake like your life depended on it.
posted by potrzebie at 10:59 PM on November 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Many people are mentioning that you should stay with her. This is very true - even if she gets snippy. I pushed my husband away at some point (my pain was sometimes translated into “don’t fucking touch me don’t even hold my hand or rub my back”) and my lovely husband listened to my wishes AND (almost more importantly) didn’t get all butthurt about it.

I didn’t have the bandwidth to manage his emotions and my own process. So don’t put that on her. Be present and emenate love. You are obviously a caring wonderful man to have asked this question and I wish you both well!
posted by kellygrape at 3:35 AM on November 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Try to keep in mind that the pain of labor is not in any way akin to, say, the pain of a broken bone, or the pain of a toothache, or the throbbing pain of illness or injury. Basically, labor is a periodic flexing and stretching of muscles. It's rather like a gym workout that lasts for like 12 hours. The discomfort that is felt is from the muscles stretching more than they are used to. Fighting against it, or writhing or screaming, will not stop the contractions, but WILL make them more uncomfortable.

My labour was induced, and the pain was nothing like a gym workout, and telling me not to writhe and scream would have made no difference whatsoever, (indeed probably would have traumatised me quite a bit).

My husband didn't like seeing me in pain, obvs, but was a good ally in labour, which ended in a relatively calm "emergency" c-section about 12 hours after it started. We made that decision together, with the help of the obstetricians who explained what was happening and why c-section was the best option at that point.

My having to manage his emotions as well as my own is something we sometimes struggle with in normal life, but during labour he was totally appropriate in managing his own feelings about the situation.
posted by altolinguistic at 5:14 AM on November 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

My pain during my very long labor was agonizing and traumatic (back labor, weird nerve thing with my leg, etc.). I had really wanted to avoid a c-section, but I wish that, hours before I eventually had to have one, my husband or mom or doula had said something like, “You’ve been in a lot of pain for a long time. I know you wanted to avoid a c-section, but would you like to talk to the doctor about when a c-section might be a good option?” Despite my strong wishes for a natural labor and no drugs (that plan went out the window quickly) and the fact that I had written in my birth plan that I didn’t want to have a c-section suggested to me by doctors, I would have welcomed that, and that would have saved me hours of suffering. (My childbirth classes stressed the difference between pain and suffering.) Or I wish that my husband had privately talked to the doctor about it, at least.

I don’t exactly know how to translate into advice for you except to say that if your wife’s labor is long and very difficult, she may really need an advocate even when she doesn’t even know she does. I wasn’t even thinking straight by the end, partially because I hadn’t had any real food/drink in two days. But anyway, best wishes! I’m sure you will rise to the occasion.
posted by trillian at 6:08 PM on November 30, 2018

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