The Purpose of Pain

I gave birth to a beautiful 7 lb girl two weeks ago. I wanted a natural delivery, and my midwife suggested the “hypnobirthing” method of dealing with pain. The method is all about breathing. One is supposed to be able to put oneself into a state of deep relaxation though breathing exercises. My hypnobirthing book said that, with practice, many hypnobirthing mothers can put themselves quickly into such a state of relaxation that contractions feel like nothing more than “tightening” and that the final stages of labor and pushing feel like nothing more than “pressure.” The book states that women feel pain in labor because we’re told it’s painful, so we get anxious about it and feel more pain because of our anxiety. It says animals give birth without any painful yelping because they trust their bodies to complete the natural process of birthing.

I found some value in the hypnobirthing method, but during labor I definitely felt more than “tightening” and “pressure.” There was pain. While I didn’t practice the self-hypnosis techniques as much as the book directed, I seriously doubt that any mind-over-matter practice could completely mitigate the pain of labor. And do animals really feel no pain in birthing their babies? I don’t know. Most animals aren’t fitting a 13 inch head through a 10 cm (~4 in) cervix, so maybe it doesn’t hurt them as much. But I bet they still feel some pain.

Pain has an obvious function in life – it saves us from injury because we instinctively recoil from harmful things that cause pain. Pain makes us slow down and rest when we’re sick and teaches us to avoid our fingers when driving in a nail. Pain is also a problem, as C.S. Lewis observed. The existence of pain in a world created by a good and almighty God is a perennial dilemma. The existence of pain is just perennial. Even Jesus, we’re told, was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. So no one can avoid pain, but at least it sometimes has a purpose.

I once heard a woman say that if she ever gets to create a world, there won’t be any pain in childbirth on it. It may be possible for the body to function well without pain receptors in the places affected by birthing, but I’d bet those pain receptors have some useful function, or else they’d be lost through natural selection. So it’s probably not possible to give birth without pain. I see labor as a very purposeful kind of pain. How would I know when it’s time to summon help and find a safe place to give birth without feeling contractions? How would I know when to push without intense (i.e. painful) pressure? As it turned out, my contractions weren’t all that intense until after my water broke, and if I hadn’t taken my water breaking as a signal to get to the hospital ASAP, I probably would have had my baby at home (my daughter was born just an hour and a half after my water broke). I didn’t fear pain in labor because I knew it was purposeful, that it would end, and that generations of my foremothers had gotten through it before. I can’t imagine a world in which birth is pain-free, or where growing and creating new things doesn’t come at the cost of some discomfort.

Not all pain is clearly purposeful, however. Some physical pain, and grief, it’s close cousin, may have no meaning except what we give them. I don’t embrace those kinds of pain, but I do expect them. I think the purpose of life is to learn to respond well to them. Regarding the pain of labor and delivery, I hardly reveled in it, but I am grateful to be acquainted with it. My sweet baby couldn’t have come without it.

(As a postscript, I want to say that while natural delivery worked for me, I know all mothers go through pains in bringing new life into the world. It’s no cakewalk even with an epidural. From what my sister tells me about recovering from a C-section, that sounds a lot worse than labor.)

  • Erin

    Emily, great post, and congratulations on your new arrival! I have long appreciated what I call “useful pain”. This is, for me, the muscle pain that follows a good workout. It’s the pain that signals that I used muscles that weren’t used to it, and I love it because even though it hurts, it means that I am getting stronger. I think our emotional/spiritual pain can be something that comes before increased emotional strength, though, as you say, not all pain is purposeful.

  • http://rainscamedown.blogspot.com SilverRain

    Herd animals don’t make noise when they’re in pain, but I can absolutely guarantee that cattle, especially dairy cattle, have FAR worse births than we do.

    Don’t ask for the details.

    But I always find it interesting that those who are to “tarry” were promised they wouldn’t feel pain/sorrow EXCEPT for the sins of the world.

  • Name

    Nice work on your hypnobirthing. I respect when women choose to really experience birth in its totality instead of running away and giving the power to anonymous doctors and nurses.


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