My whole family, including myself, had some sort of stomach bug while we were on vacation — not sure where it came from, but we each got it in succession, and it was a pretty miserable time. Fortunately, three of us were always well, even while one was sick. I’ll spare you the details. But while I was lying in bed, or on the couch, feeling like I was too sick even to sleep, I saw some parallels between what I was going through and labor. In no particular order…
* You don’t choose the time and place for getting sick, nor for going into labor. Otherwise, no one would ever get sick, and only a rare woman would choose to go beyond her due date.
* Labor and sickness can start suddenly, or can gradually build until you finally realize what’s really going on. This last time, it was a “start suddenly” kind of sickness — I was quite hungry for lunch, and then after lunch realized I was uncomfortably full… and getting fuller, rather than emptier… and maybe two hours after eating a normal meal, having a normal day — *BAM* — I realized I was sick. In the space of maybe half an hour, I went from feeling completely normal to raging vomiting, but I didn’t even feel that sick up until maybe five minutes before I began throwing up. It made me think of the many birth stories I’ve read of women who had little or no recognizable labor and then suddenly are pushing out the baby in their homes, in the grocery store, in the hospital elevator, etc., or show up at the hospital barely in time to make it to the room to push. Usually when I get sick, it’s the opposite — a slow build-up of feeling not… quite… well… — maybe even a day or two of advance warning, such as a sore throat, a fever, a headache or body aches, a feeling of malaise. Like most times of labor — plenty of time to prepare that this is it!
* You can’t control how long sickness or labor lasts. Being healthy should have and may have some advantages — may keep you from getting sick, or from getting as sick as you might; or may help you have a shorter or easier labor, or a faster recovery. But sometimes things happen which are beyond control, and the person who is “healthy as a horse” gets the bug the worst; the person who “never gets sick” is the first or worst hit; and the person who “does everything right” prenatally ends up with everything wrong in labor. I wish I could figure it out, but far too often, there are too many factors that play into these things that make it impossible to predict. My husband and I were each sick for the better part of two days; while our younger son was sick overnight, and then was perfectly normal in the morning; and our older son (who got it last), was sick overnight, then had a fever in the morning as well.
* As I was “praying to the porcelain god” (i.e., kneeling at the toilet, retching), I was made aware of how vomiting was uncontrollable, yet I could influence it, in a way. By being in “the ready position,” something happened in my mind and/or body to make it easier for me to release and relax, and empty my stomach of the food it couldn’t handle. I thought of how Ina May Gaskin talks about the sphincters of the body, and that opening the mouth serves to help the cervix open (hence vocalizing during labor, and not holding your breath), as well as that the action of sitting on the toilet during labor prompts the subconscious mind to release and relax the cervix, since that is the position we are so familiar with in releasing the nether regions for a bowel movement, and, well, it’s all connected and in close arrangement.
* Ignoring it does not make it go away — if it’s the real thing. You may sometimes work yourself into feeling sick just because you know something is going around, or you may sit and wait for several days in negative expectation of coming down with something; but when it finally hits, you know it. Much like labor — with expecting labor to commence sometime between 37 and 42 weeks (and everybody I know prefers earlier rather than later), nervously and anxiously watching all the signs of impending labor (which really don’t indicate anything other than that labor may start sometime in the next few weeks… which you already knew anyway), timing what turn out to be Braxton-Hicks contractions or pre-labor “warm-up” contractions that fade away. But then, sometime, the real thing hits, and it consumes your mind and body.
* Labor and a stomach bug both remove some of the idea that you are actually in charge of your own body. Life is a nice illusion, sometimes, that we are actually in control of what we do — and in some ways we are, of course, but in other ways we are not. We don’t determine when our heart beats; nor are we consciously aware most of the time when and how we breathe, digest food, heal a cut, etc. Our bodies just do those things for us. We may think we are in control of our stomach and intestines, but a little intestinal germ has a way of cutting through that fantasy. We may influence it (stress can cause or exacerbate ulcers or constipation, as an example), but “control” may be too strong a word. Similarly, we can’t truly control labor functions like contractions and dilation. How many stories do we read of women who simply “couldn’t help” pushing — how much less can we really control the muscles of the uterus! Influence, yes; control, no. A few stories that may be the exception to prove the rule might spring to mind, but these are few and far between.
* When sick and when in labor, we might not wish to eat anything; and what we do eat should be simple and mild, to limit any stomach or intestinal irritation, as well as keeping in mind that what goes down might come right back up. My first labor, I didn’t willingly take any food or drink until after about 20 minutes of pushing; and what I did drink during the 8-9 hours prior to that came right back up within a contraction or two.
* Intestinal discomfort (cramps, particularly; perhaps also diarrhea and such like) may also come with labor.
* The same illness may cause different symptoms and last different lengths of time, just like labor also has much variety which cannot necessarily be known beforehand. My younger son’s course of illness was different from the rest of us (and part of me wonders if he actually had it, or if he had something completely different — like overeating or eating something that disagreed with him). He seemed to have it first — one night complaining of his tummy hurting, but finally going to sleep after a mommy-kiss to his tummy, and he slept all night without a problem. Then in the morning, he was still obviously not feeling well (I was looking up symptoms of appendicitis and other odd diseases that presented with occasional severe stomach cramps — of course it was Saturday and we were out of town), then he finally threw up a couple of times with just tiny amounts — he hadn’t eaten much for supper and nothing at all since, so it was just that mucus/bile stuff. A couple of hours later, he seemed just fine — even asked for hot dog for lunch! Then several days later, he woke up a few hours after going to sleep and threw up a couple of times. But he had eaten a lot for supper, so I thought maybe it was just due to that, because after getting him all cleaned up, he went right back to sleep, slept all night, and woke up cheerful in the morning. Then a few nights after that, he had a repeat performance, except instead of going right back to sleep, he kept throwing up small amounts every hour or so most of the night. Then he slept until nearly ten and woke up perky again. The rest of us suddenly got sick soon after eating, threw up several times over the course of several hours, just generally felt miserable, had a fever, and slowly got better over the course of the following 24-48 hours or so.
* Most of the time, it’s best to “go with the flow” when sick and during labor, taking steps only if warranted. Some people medicate every sniffle and sneeze; I tend to let nature run its course. Fever is the body’s normal way of getting rid of infections — medicating away a fever might just be prolonging the sickness, and perhaps even letting it become even stronger. Vomiting is the natural way of clearing out food that might be harder to digest when sick, or might just be plain bad for you (food poisoning, etc.) — suppressing that may tax your body even more. Consequently, I don’t rush to give Emetrol or Tylenol or Motrin for every little thing, although I do use them on occasion. Sometimes your body’s natural way of fighting sickness, like its natural defenses against getting sick in the first place, may go wrong, leaving medication beneficial or even necessary: a high fever may need to be brought down before it damages the body, and severe vomiting needs to be stopped lest the person become dehydrated or starved. In a similar way, drugs used in labor may be beneficial or even necessary… but most of the time they are not necessary. And when they are given for little or no medical reason, they only serve to introduce risk without corresponding medical benefit.
* Some mothers should not attend their daughters in labor. Just like the over-anxious moms in the above paragraph who try to medicate away all pain or negative occurrence from normal illnesses, and end up prolonging or worsening things, some moms may make their daughter’s labor longer or worse. This is not all moms of course; and other people may also belong to this category (a husband may press his wife to take some unneeded and unwanted intervention, so he will feel better, as an example). But as I was tending to my older son during this illness, it hurt me to watch him go through it. Because my younger son seemed to just “toss his cookies” and get better while he slept, I didn’t have to watch him go through it, except the night he threw up all night — and even in that, he slept continually between episodes of vomiting, so it wasn’t like he was suffering. But my older son suffered — and I knew what he was going through, because I had gone through it. And I knew his stomach was churning, and that his bowels were cramping, and that he had a fever and a headache and a general feeling of malaise. I wanted to stop his pain, but couldn’t. The only thing I had on hand was Tylenol, but I knew the fever needed to run its course — I certainly didn’t want to prolong his illness. We could have gotten some Emetrol or Pepto-Bismol (but he might not have been able to hold it down), but I wanted the sickness gone, not just ameliorated. For those who don’t care if they have an epidural or not, or for those who want drugs, this is not that important. But if a woman wants to give birth without drugs, then it is helpful for her attendants to know that there is no way around it except through it. There are numerous comfort measures attendants can employ to help a woman through labor without resorting to medication.
* Sometimes judicious use of medication can help. I’ve read numerous stories of women for whom a small amount of Pitocin, or an epidural or some other pain medication kept them from having a C-section. Sometimes a dose of pain medicine can allow the woman to have a few hours of much-needed sleep, which allows her to gather or renew her strength for the remainder of labor, particularly the pushing phase. Sometimes an epidural can allow a woman who is tensing up and fighting her contractions to relax and finish dilating. Likewise, sometimes the body needs a touch of a fever reducer or an anti-emetic to bring symptoms under control so that it can take a step forward in healing.
* Touch can be a wonderful tool to help a woman through labor, but not every woman will want to be touched, not all touch is created equal, and some touch may be welcome at some times and not at others. I love to snuggle with my husband; but when I was sick, it was torture to have his hand or arm touch any part of my abdomen. In labor, sometimes effleurage (a light “flowery” touch) can help women, and sometimes it distracts or annoys them. Sometimes light touch is beneficial; other times women need stronger touch — I recently read one birth story in which a woman demanded such strong counterpressure on her back (her doula and husband used their elbows to dig in deeply enough, and it was still not quite strong enough for her at the time), that the next day she had bruises. When I was sick, my husband would have been welcome to give me a massage on my back, shoulders, or neck; to hug me and wrap his arms around me — just not to touch my belly.
* Do not underestimate the power of “just being there.” One night when my older son was sick, he asked if I could stay with him while he slept. We ended up sleeping in the living room, but he slept almost all night and was actually quiet and rather peaceful. One of the doula studies I read about was one in which a woman was randomly assigned to be with a laboring woman, or not. The thing that made this study different, is that the “doula” was not supposed to interact with the woman at all — she was basically just supposed to sit in the corner and not act like a doula at all. Yet even with this ultra-low intervention, the “doula” group of women had better results than the group of women randomly assigned not to have anyone in their rooms.