We’ve had a cold in our family for about a month now–it started with my husband and hit him hardest, then I got one, and just this past day or two, my kids have both started coughing. My younger son (19 months) woke up last night, and I started to nurse him back to sleep like usual, but he was so congested he couldn’t breathe through his nose. He felt like he had a fever, his throat sounded sore, he was coughing, and I’m sure his mouth was very dry from having to breathe through it. I got him some water, and tried to clear his nasal passages (which didn’t work), but there wasn’t anything else I could do for him, so I just held him. He was quiet and content–even though he must have felt awful. I did very little to relieve his physical symptoms, yet he didn’t complain. My touch, my presence, was enough to comfort him. He must have felt better from just being held, but it clinically didn’t make his symptoms any better: he didn’t suddenly start breathing through his nose, nor did his fever miraculously abate.
What does this have to do with birth? During labor, you will likely have some pain during contractions–although I have heard of women having painless labors and births (most notably using Hypnobabies, but some just naturally have pain-free or low-pain labors). Yet, just as my son felt better for my being there even though his symptoms didn’t go away, so you can feel better during labor even if your contractions or your pain doesn’t go away by the presence of someone to comfort you. In the old days, that would have been your mother (or possibly an aunt, grandmother, sister, or friend); but in our era of clinical birth and hospital settings, your mother may not be able to comfort you with her presence.
Many reasons exist for this–my mother gets extremely nervous around birth, and is more likely to irritate than comfort me. I think this stems primarily from the way she gave birth–against her will, she was completely anesthetized, and woke up with her pubic hair shaved off, and a large episiotomy cut and sewn back together–she has no memory whatsoever of any of her four birth experiences, and consequently is of little help when any of her daughters are in labor. Another reason may simply be that your mother lives too far away to come when you give birth. Or your hospital may have a strict one-person rule (which you may be able to successfully fight). Your mother may not be nervous, as my mother is, but she may be so negative about birth or your wishes, that she actually undermines your desires and your birth experience. (If your mom frequently tells you birth “horror stories” “just so you know what to expect,” then be cautious of how she may intrude her fears and negativity into your labor and birth.)
You may not be able to count on any of your close acquaintance–may even feel uncomfortable having a friend there with you–after all, you’ll be partially naked, and just might feel weird about it. But you can hire a doula. Check out DONA, CAPPA, and ALACE to see if they have a certified doula near you; or do other internet searches to look for doulas in your area–not all doulas are certified, and not all are certified with these organizations. Not all doulas are the same–there may be personality clashes, for instance–so make sure that whoever you choose would be someone you could be friends with. The benefits of using a doula are verified by many studies, and they include shorter labor, less pain, fewer requests for pain medications, less use of interventions (like Pitocin to augment labor, or episiotomies), fewer C-sections, and better maternal birth experience. (One study randomly assigned women admitted to the hospital to having nobody or having a woman just sit in the room without interacting with her, and it still showed superior results to the presence of a woman versus being left alone.) Doulas are knowledgeable about birth–most have given birth themselves, and have attended many births–so can be an important resource for you and your husband. Doulas do not take the place of dads. Rather, they can help support both mom and dad, giving your husband tips, tricks, and tools to help you, letting him take a break if he needs it, or just being a “safety net” so that if you or he run out of ideas, you can ask her.
The comfort of another woman in labor has been documented to have great benefits and no risks. And just as my son felt better just for having me there to be with him, so you will feel better when you are in labor and have someone there just for you.