Before having experienced natural childbirth (by which I mean, childbirth without any pain medication), I thought that it could be compared, at least in terms of pain, to extreme athletic challenges. In fact, I even wrote a blog post about how, prior to giving birth, I thought that I could draw on my experience as an athlete and train for it.
But was I ever wrong.
As I explained, soon into my own labour I realized that all of my training (or better, “training”) was in vain. It became painfully clear to me that one cannot physically train (as an athlete would) for what one faces during labour.
That is why I was struck, this week, by a comment that Sir Bradley Wiggins – the 2012 Tour de France winner and London 2012 gold medalist – made after breaking the world hour distance record in cycling, a challenge that some consider to be one of the oldest and most difficult. Wiggins stated that his win is “the closest [he] will come to knowing what it’s like to have a baby.”
I do not want to deny the obvious: namely, that in breaking this record, Wiggins experienced a great deal of pain. Nor do I want to deny that this pain was extreme and extremely unpleasant for him. But what I do want to question is the similarity or closeness between what he experienced and what childbirth is like for many women (after all, how many women give birth in an hour?). I also want to question the claim that in having experienced the pain that he did that he came close to knowing what it is like to “have a baby” (by which I take him to be referring to the experience of childbirth).
Here’s where I think the crucial differences lie, and it is not where one might initially think.
The differences I have in mind are not primarily in the degree or even necessarily in the kind of pain at issue in these two types of experiences (although I do think that there are important differences there). Rather, I think that the key differences are psychological in nature and have to do with bodily agency, control, and the ability to prepare oneself (or in the case of childbirth, the inability to do so).
Let me explain.
In training for a cycling challenge (or almost any athletic challenge), one can do precisely that, namely train. In this case, one can get on one’s bike everyday, ride the course (or a similar course), and improve one’s endurance and time. One can train the precise muscles one will be using and one can train as hard and as much as one likes. Crucially, one can for the most part create in advance the very conditions of the challenge.
One knows what to expect and most importantly (although this is not what any athlete wants to consider), even on race day, should something not go according to plan or should one get injured or sick, one can pull out of the race mid-course or not even compete to begin with.
Labour and childbirth are not like that.
Very little is within one’s control, very few things can be done to prepare oneself for the kind and degree of pain, and crucially, if one decides that one wants to stop once things have gotten started, this is not an option. Even if one wants to forego a natural childbirth mid-labour, in many cases, that is not possible (depending on how far along one has progressed). This is because there are certain points past which an epidural cannot be administered, since it would not have time to kick in before the birth.
So in the one case, one has trained the precise muscles, one knows almost exactly what to expect, and one has control over one’s body; in the other case, none of these conditions hold.
The main psychological difference here is tied to the difference in agency, or better, lack thereof. In the case of an athletic challenge, one can set the cadence, push oneself further, or pull back if one has crossed the threshold of pain that’s just too much. Basically, one can turn on, off, or up the energy.
In labour and childbirth, however, this is often not the case.
For many, there is a sense in which there is almost a complete lack of agency, a sense in which one’s body is in control and is calling the shots and one’s will almost entirely vanishes. So whereas one can amp it up or turn it down in biking, one can do no such thing in childbirth.
This psychological difference between the two activities and the lack of control that many women experience in childbirth, makes me question Wiggins’ claim that in breaking the world hour distance record, he has come close to what it is like to have a baby. It is also telling that Wiggins’ wife – the mother of their children – did not respond to his comment. It is my hunch that she was not even asked.