What Does Natural Birth Really Feel Like?

A local midwife shares her birthing experience.
Stephanie and daughter Eliza, moments after giving birth.

As a midwife, I’ve spent my career helping women deliver their babies. Fast forward to Jan. 23, 2016 when I learned that supporting others through birth is not the same as doing it yourself. The reality is that each birth story is unique and each comes with its own set of circumstances. Having the experience as a midwife, and now as a mother too, I am sharing my birth story.

Born in a Storm

Winter Storm Jonas was predicted for the entire east coast on my baby Eliza’s due date, and North Carolina was not left behind. The city of Charlotte was shut down under a sheet of ice when my labor turned on like a light switch. One minute I was eating ice cream watching a show in front of the fire, and the next, Paul was scrambling to get the truck ready for our adventure to the birth center.

At the time we left the house, the precipitation had paused and there was a break in the clouds. An almost full moon lit my way to the car. Snow has a way of making the night feel still and that night was no different (between contractions that is). Roads were empty and the night was peaceful as Paul drove to pick up our midwife, Holly, and our nurse/doula/friend, Rebeca, while I labored on hands and knees over the car seat in the backseat of the truck. Okay, peaceful on the outside of the truck maybe- I was cursing like an angry sailor and trying very hard not to throw up.

We got to the birth center fully dilated, but with plenty of work to do to bring her head down. In the weeks and months leading up to this moment, I had been so busy caring for others that I didn’t really make a birth plan for myself. I found comfort knowing the things done at Baby+Company that fit a typical natural birth plan, including relationships with the birthing team, classes and workshops to prepare for labor and delivery, and familiarity with the environment and comfort measures available during labor and delivery.

Once we were settled in our birth room, music played in the background as a flameless candle lit the room filled with scent from the essential oil diffuser to provide aromatherapy for everyone. However, I ruined the peaceful set up by laboring much more vocally than I would have bet. In between noises that I didn’t think I would ever make, I was coaching myself through labor with a schizophrenic dialogue. “I can’t do this, this is terrible!” “Yes you can, this is normal, and everything is okay,” so much for not being my own midwife. During my labor, I had the opportunity to use all of the birth center's amenities while I pushed for three and a half long hours.  

How I Controlled the Pain

I was open to a water birth, but I didn’t have a preference one way or the other. We call the tub “the midwife’s epidural.” I can now attest that it works.

I did a lot of my pushing in the tub, and that’s where I was able to relax and recharge in between contractions. When Eliza was finally ready to arrive, being in the tub felt right.

I didn’t have any special techniques to manage my labor pain, but the freedom of movement was huge for me. I was in labor for more than three hours, so I took advantage of pretty much all of the pain management tools available, especially the birthing ball and Pilates bars. When it came time to push, I realized how important it was to follow my gut feelings. There was a moment where I just felt like I needed to be on my hands and knees, and that was when she started crowning. It was truly amazing how my body gave me subtle cures along the way. Now I can fully appreciate how our bodies are made for this and I can help guide my clients to be alert to their body cues.  Finally able to push her head out, her shoulders followed smoothly and she swam between my legs and right into my arms. She came up out of the water screaming! We were expecting an ugly, postdates, fat, bald boy, but instead we got a beautiful tiny girl with a head full of hair and an impressive set of pipes right on her due date. Surreal is the only word I have to describe the whole first day with Eliza, I just can’t believe we made something so impossibly perfect.

Although being a patient at Baby+Company came with no surprises since I’m a midwife there, I definitely gained a new perspective on labor. You can’t feel labor for someone else. I went into it with certain expectations, and while it was very similar to what I thought it would be like, in some ways it was totally different.

I recognize there is no one-size-fits-all solution for having a baby. Just like a hospital isn’t right for everyone, a birth center isn’t necessarily the right fit for everyone, either. But the beauty of preparing for delivery with a midwife is that the midwife and mom-to-be get to know each other, and there is a strong focus on learning and engagement throughout pregnancy, so clients enter labor well-prepared no matter the setting. The most important thing with any birth is that families have a safe birth in an environment that offers high clinical standards.

Stephanie, her husband and baby Eliza after delivery at Baby+Company.

Tips for Moms-to-be

There’s a fine line between being prepared and having realistic expectations. Expectant moms should be educated on what they think their preferences will be, while not underestimating their body in the moment.

Labor is work, but women have been doing this for thousands of years. My favorite birth quote by Laura Stavoe Harm speaks to the power and history of labor: “There is a secret in our culture, and it is not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.”

I’m so glad that I can now tell my clients what it felt like for me. The sensations and emotions are unique to each birth, and I feel even more privileged today having had the opportunity to deliver my first child with the help of a midwife. The process can be excruciating, but the reward makes it so worth it. I would definitely do it again.

Stephanie Godfrey, CNM, WHNP has devoted her career to maternal and child health.  She graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in public health, before continuing her education and earning her BSN from the Johns Hopkins school of Nursing. She worked as a labor delivery nurse on the busy, high-risk unit at Johns Hopkins, where she held a variety of leadership roles until joining Baby+Company in Cary, NC, her first stop before making a permanent move to the Queen City.