When I was pregnant with my first child, a friend who was already a mother passed along some advice about childbirth that had helped her: transition is the hardest part. The process of labor involves the dilation of the cervix to 10 centimeters, the magic number for pushing out a baby. Transition is the final phase of labor, when the cervix is dilating that last few centimeters. It is, without a doubt, the most difficult phase, but it is also the shortest. Contractions are coming fast and furious, and there is less time to rest in between—you might feel nausea or chills or hot flashes. You must ride the waves of fear and doubt and pain until it is time to give birth.
I was terrified of the very idea.
Birth was rumored to be the most painful thing that women experienced, this mysterious process that you were supposed to debunk by reading, and re-reading, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Learning about pregnancy and birth was like being let in on a secret society—one full of women who regularly talked about cervixes. But we weren’t supposed to learn these things the way we’d learned about, say, the digestive system, or even our periods. Knowing what to expect from birth was supposed to prepare you, arm you for battle. No one ever said that, of course, not directly. It’s just that birth had been surrounded by so much mystery—and fear of pain—that battle seemed an apt metaphor. Of course: battle is the metaphor that comes to mind for any endeavor that involves pain.
You know what surprised me the most about birth? The rest in between contractions.
I’d been so ready for an onslaught of unknowable pain that I hadn’t realized what sweet relief there would be after the wave of a contraction crested. Contractions come closer together during transition, so there is less rest, but it still exists. Birth comes in waves.
Birth is individual—how a woman experiences it, where she experiences it, what she brings to it and what she needs from it. Unexpected things happen, and for that reason you can never really know what to expect when you’re expecting, or even after you have your child. Such is the nature of life—the mess and glory of it.
Birth is also shared—whatever your experience, after you give birth you have a story to tell, a story that entered your life like lightning or a flood, remaking everything you thought you knew. And then some.
I wish these stories were more public, more a part of our everyday language and consciousness. I wish our go-to metaphor for life experience was labor and birth rather than battle and war. These stories have much to give us—men as well as women—on a deeply personal level. Birth as a metaphor can help us navigate failures and successes, push past our perceived limitations, give far more than we ever realize we had, rest with deep abandon, and give us a miraculous perspective on ourselves and each other.
Birth is a process—it requires you to be flexible, respond to the unexpected, find ways to distract and soothe yourself, rely on others when necessary, and trust your instincts. Birth is an experience—it requires you to go with the flow, balance surrender with active presence, and connect on the deepest level with your physical self. There is pain in birth, but there is also respite—and in my own experience, a sense of power and transcendence like no other.
Birth as metaphor for life and work allows us to embrace a process of becoming that requires sleep as well as sweat, and that leaves us breathless with wonder, both because of our own power and because of that which is far beyond our power. Birth as metaphor creates and sustains a sense of self that lifts us up and out of ourselves—not as victor over an enemy or obstacle, but as an active participant in a mystery that we have brought forth.