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Labor Expectations and Experiences

Getting past unrealistic expectations

"I remember the episode of Friends when Rachel gave birth in a normal-looking room with perfect makeup and not a hair out of place," says M. Kelly Shanahan, M.D., chair of ob-gyn at Barton Memorial Hospital in South Lake Tahoe, California. Even if you're a devotee of documentary-style shows like A Baby Story, chances are you're still not thinking your own birth could be so long or painful or downright gross. But as Dr. Shanahan puts it, "Real delivery is hot, sweaty, and bloody."

The shock of that reality may be why only 16 percent of women said their delivery was the way they'd dreamed it would be. The numbers of dream-come-true births among second- and third-time moms were higher but hardly through the roof: Just 23 percent of veteran mothers said they experienced perfection. Regardless of how many babies you've had, you never expect to be the one who dilates only three centimeters despite ten hours of rock-solid contractions. You never expect to hear that the baby's heart rate is dropping, and you need surgery now.

And yet, complications like those happen all the time. In fact, 84 percent of moms said that they had a surprise during the process of giving birth -- and that rate was the same whether the women had a doctor, a midwife, and/or a doula. Tiffany Polley had two surprises during her labor: "I expected to push my daughter out by myself," says Polley, 30, who lives in Hebron, Kentucky. "But after three hours, they broke out the forceps and pulled her out. I also thought the birth would be an intimate family moment. Instead, there were 15 people in the room standing by in case I needed a c-section."

Given the disconnect between the dream and the delivery, it's no wonder that a quarter of women experienced at least some disappointment with their birth. First-time moms were significantly more likely to feel some dissatisfaction compared with second-timers, but it was the women who had cesarean sections who were the most apt to say they felt disappointed. "I didn't get to experience one ounce of labor," says Rebecca Cahill, 32, of Alpharetta, Georgia. "I felt like I missed out on an important rite of passage to motherhood."