Pain and Birth and 2000 Meters

My freshman year in college, a former rower stopped by our boathouse following the birth of her first child. At that point in my life, and in the lives of all the women I rowed with, a 2000 meter race was the most intense pain any of us had experienced. We were quite certain nothing could top it, though some workouts and erg tests came close. So of course our first question as we huddled around her: “Was it as painful as a 2000 meter sprint?” I’ll admit I was pretty sure she was going to say no.

She replied it was much worse.

Worse?! You could just see the fear on everyone’s face, the quick dashing of plans for children in that very moment.

In the years that followed I carried that information with me, along with memories of rowing pain. There were times in some races where I was quite certain I would die, right there, on the spot, and fall out of the boat. I remember thinking, “I guess I’ll keep rowing because everyone else is still going, and I don’t want to let them down and if I die, I’ll just die. And then I’ll be done rowing.” And that thought seemed pleasant.

Tufts Crew

Over the ensuing years I’ve done physically grueling things: hikes, weight training, intense spin classes, swims in a rough ocean, even a marathon. Nothing comes close to the pain of rowing. Nothing.

So when I got pregnant with Ollie I knew I wanted a natural childbirth with no epidural. After all these years, I’d be able to see how something could possibly be more painful that rowing! Because Ollie was overdue, I was induced and I managed 13 hours on Pitocin, all through the night, in agony, before I succumbed (in tears) to an epidural. Ollie was born two hours later.

With Minna I was determined to avoid that situation, and worked with a midwife throughout my pregnancy and planned for a home birth. I labored in my living room, watching the Giants vs Cowboys, then paced, breathing and counting. The counting’s a holdover from rowing, when we’d do “10s” for power, or technique, and you’d just do ten strokes to focus on pulling ahead of another boat. I do 10s when I run, or whenever I face a physical challenge. I count through the pain.

Jason filled the birthing tub and after a few hours I decided to get in. Instantly the contractions slowed and the water felt fantastic. The midwife had arrived and the three of us actually just hung out and chatted, and I’d pause to do some deep breaths when a contraction arrived. Since Ollie’s birth had taken so long, I assumed I had hours to go in the tub when suddenly I felt the baby and needed to push. I gave two excruciating pushes. My midwife checked the progress.

“Do you think it’s five more pushes?” I asked her, hopefully.

“Oh I’d say two, maybe three.” she replied.

My heart leapt!

“Well I can do five!” I said, in some kind of crazy counting birthing delirium.

I didn’t need to. Minna popped out after two.

In my list of pain, it currently stands:

1. Minna crowning. Intense but very brief.
2. Ollie labor on Pitocin. Hours of long immobilizing agony.
3. Crew race of 2000 meters. Intense. Horrific. Still the worst concentrated seven-to-eight minutes of my life.

Way way down that list, everything else.

In rowing we used to always throw around the saying, “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” I get to look at my two great kids every day. In a box in the closet is my gold medal from the 1992 New England Rowing Championships. If it wouldn’t be weird to wear it around, I probably would.

8 thoughts on “Pain and Birth and 2000 Meters

  1. love this post!
    although i will be giving birth in the summer, and so this made me a bit more anxious about the birth process than i already am. looking at my kid will make it all worth it. right?

  2. (1) My wife and I have a beautiful 5.25-month old son. I was by her side for every minute of his birth.
    (2) I sat 2-man in the University of Florida heavy-8 from ’94-’96.
    (3) I, too, still count off Power 10s all the time.
    Excellent piece of writing, Meg.

  3. Great piece! I’m reading at 454am as I get up for the first onwater of the year. Thanks for reminding me why I do this. My three year old is snoozing away upstairs, and yes I’d rather do any race than have another baby -although I probably whine more about the races.

  4. I’m not sure what you have tapped into of late, but your writing just keeps getting better! I love this post and how you told this story…
    Although I can’t relate to the rowing experience, I recall my attempt to try out for the cross country team and my time on the swim team resulting in various “I want to die moments.” I think the most memorable, though, is hiking up Mount Sinai in Egypt, to see the sunrise on Christmas Day — torturous but so worth the effort.
    I can relate better to the giving birth part as I had a homebirth with my first child and am planning the same for number two, due in August. I went from no contractions to waking up with contractions that were two-minutes apart (and not comprehending I was in labour, thinking it was “false labour”) and found getting on top of those initial contractions to be the most painful and difficult (is this what being on Pitocin is like?). I found my experience scuba diving — and breathing as one does with a regulator — helped me eventually ride through the contractions. The funny thing is my body just switched to breathing that way as opposed to a conscious effort on my part to do so. The pushing phase was faster than anyone expected and more intense than painful, as my son ended up popping and flying out to everyone’s surprise, instead of crowning and gradually making his way out.
    I am a little nervous about giving birth to number two, as the intensity of my first birth experience was a bit overwhelming. But I think I have found my motto. “Pain is temporary, pride is forever” is now permanently tatoo-ed on my brain — what a great idea to live by!

  5. @beyond: Don’t be anxious! First of all, if you go for the epidural, you should be pretty comfortable the whole time. If you’re going to try and go without, just remember your body evolved to do this thing, without modern painkillers. You can do it! And looking at your kid will totally make it worth it, so much so you might even do it again! 🙂
    @renee Part of the Pitocin trouble for me was being hooked to a fetal monitor, so I could see the contraction before I felt it, which let to dread and tensing up before it arrived. And they seemed to last forever! There was, as you say, no way to get on top of them.
    For Minna contractions were very close but somehow they didn’t freeze me up in the same way. Also I was able to move around. With Ollie I was hooked to IV and stupid monitor, so it was hard to even move. It’s very difficult to manage the pain without moving around, I found. And yes, I agree about intense! Congrats and good luck with #2!

  6. The fetal monitor was incredibly uncomfortable. My stomach felt like it was on fire and I didn’t want anything or anyone touching it. Oof, memories. I was a coxswain and still remember the look of total fury on the face of each rower when I called for power 10s.

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