By Britta Bushnell, PhD ~

It is difficult to talk about childbirth without a conversation about pain. No one definition, singular description, nor individual approach can encompass the totality of an experience of pain.

I tell the parents I work with that the sensations of labor are too big, varied, and multidimensional to capture in a single word. Labor sensations are often painful and intense, fatiguing, hard, challenging, gripping, tightening, opening, fluid, strong, and occasionally even pleasurable.

And, labor is a larger and more all-encompassing experience than can be reduced to the sensations of the body alone. Labor is far more than any single four-letter word can convey. Let’s not cloak it in euphemisms. Labor can be physically painful, and emotionally intense, and challenging on relationships, and traumatic, and mentally demanding, and exhausting, and joyful beyond comprehension, and a hold-on-by-your-fingernails-roller-coaster ride, and an ecstatic, heart-bursting, love-filled experience. It can be all of those and more! And, perhaps surprisingly, it can be all of those at the same time!

Our bodies, culture, and experience have taught us that pain usually means something is wrong, something needs to be changed or avoided. Pain, we have learned, needs to be conquered and defeated. As part of a culture that is ever focused on advancement, domination, and control, pain is seen as yet another obstacle to surmount. Don’t get me wrong. I’m human and I don’t like pain and suffering just as much as the next person. I try hard to avoid unnecessary suffering. And yet, as I’ve worked with hundreds of parents preparing to give birth and attended lots of births, I’ve seen that our cultural abhorrence of pain often causes even more suffering than if we were more prepared for and open to the painful aspects of birth.

With the invention of medical anesthesia around the turn of the twentieth-century, pain moved from the domain of religion to the realm of medicine. In so doing, pain became something that was experienced by the body rather than the whole being and something to treat rather than a vehicle for potential transformation. Pain lost all spiritual value.[i]

There are many reasons our birth culture runs away from pain. It is so deeply imbedded in our unconscious to do something about pain and to resist becoming an animal in the face of it, that almost all births in the U.S. today are supported by pharmaceutical pain-relieving measures—most often the epidural. Medical science is miraculous, and its ability to prevent unnecessary suffering is an incredible gift to humankind. However, in birth, interventions that reduce or eliminate intense pain can sometimes send a message to the birthing brain to shut off the release of oxytocin thus slowing or stopping labor progress. In addition, because pain and loss are such an integral part of so many human rites of passage, pain can actually support the birthing parent’s successful psychological transformation from individual to parent.

Let’s remember that the medical model is not the only place where pain is seen as bad. This judgment is evident in the natural birth model as well. One common belief is, ‘If you believe there will be no pain strongly enough and truly enough, you will not experience it.’

This relationship to and vilification of pain puts the responsibility squarely in the mother’s hands. It is as if to say, if the laboring person does it “right” she will be free from the big bad wolf of pain. She just needs to trust enough. One of the unintended side effects of having this much responsibility is the guilt that can come from failing to achieve a pain-free or orgasmic birth—even when dearly desired and worked toward. Here, mother-guilt starts early.

Birth in our culture most often views the pain experienced in childbirth as obstructive and unnecessary, as the enemy through which a woman must battle and win in order to meet her baby. The tools prescribed to win that battle against the evil of pain vary; for the medical model the right way is the use of analgesics, while for the natural birth model the right way is through breathing, hypnosis, and other distraction techniques. Regardless of the approach chosen, most parents are looking for a way out of the pain. Both medical and natural models attempt to meet this desire with symptomatic suppression.

For birth to be remembered as an initiatory process into parenthood, we must re-imagine the functional power of ordeal and stress to stimulate transformation. In today’s birth culture, our willingness to view ordeals of any sort as capable of provoking meaningful change has all but vanished. Moving further into the landscape of ritual space, pain (as well as other forms of challenge) has a role as alchemical fire—it is the fire upon which the metal of identity is forged, making transformation possible.

It is highly controversial today to state that pain in labor may be functional physiologically, let alone assert that pain might be spiritually significant. I believe that facing pain, surrendering to the force of pain, or allowing oneself to dissolve within it, is to use the initiatory power of pain for transformation. It is important here to state again that pain is not the only form of initiatory ordeal in childbirth capable of leading to transformation—plans that shift, unexpected need for medical support, and health concerns are also frequent ordeals faced in the journey to parenthood. Pain is just the most conspicuous ordeal and therefore deserves to be addressed directly and independently.

Pain can be evil needing to be banished, a vehicle for profound change, or something to open and work through, and often all of these simultaneously! Labor pain can be both purposeful in bringing about the birth of a baby and also productive in facilitating the birth of the parent. Pain in service of sacred transformation is sacred pain, although that does not necessarily make it any less painful!

Rather than attempting to escape it or run from it, pain in labor gives parents the opportunity to explore painful sensations, to ride the waves, soften around the intensity, sit deeper into discomfort, and open to the heat of transformation pain provides.


[i] Ariel Glucklich, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, p. 179

power of pain Dr. Britta Bushnell is an award-winning childbirth educator, celebrated speaker, author, mother, and specialist in teaching audiences revolutionary new approaches to childbirth, relationship, and parenting. Britta blends her two decades of experience guiding new families with her doctoral study in mythology and psychology, bringing a fresh approach to an age-old human experience. Using her skill as a teacher, writer, storyteller, and guide, Britta challenges hidden preconceptions to help clients and audiences cultivate new ways to approach life’s most important transitions.

Britta’s presentations at conferences such as DONA International, MANA, and ICEA, as well as her interviews on popular podcasts including Birthful, Informed Pregnancy, Atomic Moms, and Under the Hood have received rave reviews. In 2016 Britta was awarded “Educator of the Year” by the Southern California Doula Association (DASC). She is finishing her forthcoming book, Transformed by Birth: Cultivating Openness, Resilience, and Strength for the Life-Changing Journey from Pregnancy to Parenthood to be published by Sounds True in early 2020. For more on Britta, visit her website, or follow her on Instagram and Facebook @brittabushnellphd.