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Labor: Sinking into Hell

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge 2017) author Kristin Reale writes in a powerful and compelling way about her birth experience.  While every woman experiences birthing differently, her description dispels the notion of giving birth as a lovely fulfilling expereince if only we would  just breathe properly. Kristin writes:  My body was preparing for about ten days before I went into actual labor; each night I would think “this has to be it.”  Although, it turns out, my body was just “practicing” as they say. My actual labor would not start until the eve of my due date. And when it started, it was like an “ooohhh, this is it.” My contractions started painful and steady, and then ramped up to a full force roar…and then stayed there, and stayed, and stayed for hours on end. I did not experience a plateau per se; what I experienced was a climb up the steepest cliff. About 17 hours in, after a grueling day of swaying, moaning, and intensely vocalizing my labor, I began to feel very frightened. The pain was only amplifying and I knew that I was not in transition yet, which was, as I had heard and read, the holy grail of labor where you were sure to feel that you were going to die, be split in two, break apart and not make it. I was completely exhausted hanging in the arms of my husband and doula. I was beginning to feel trapped, and so very alone. I couldn’t imagine at the time surviving and going deeper into labor. My midwife had been staying in close contact with my doula by phone and was in the area but not yet at my home. This separation from her proved to be something I would process in the months and years after.

Losing Her Grip

At some point my mind shifted from feeling like I was hanging off the side of a cliff from my fingertips, and instead, to a vision of barely standing in a rough rocky ocean, my feet sinking in the soupy sand, knees buckling, body swaying and being slammed by waves of contractions. Each time I would think I had my feet planted again to prepare for the next wave, BAM! I would be pushed over again by a mountainous wave. My breath would be sucked from me as I felt like my head was being pushed underwater.       Soon a very strange, quiet, calm came into my body, and my conscious experience. At this point, I laid my head down on the side of the soft birth pool, which I had been wading in for a few hours now, finding zero relief in the water. The calm provided a break from my relentless contractions, but I knew that this was the not a comforting calm, but instead the calm before a major, major storm of hurricane-like power. It was at this moment, I went very far–too far– within myself. Like sub-level far. One may relate it to “sleeping” during labor, but it felt much more dissociative than sleep. Sleep sounds too pleasant, too restful for what this was.  I would “come to” every minute or so and feel panicked that I WAS STILL THERE, STUCK. I knew I was losing my grip. After several bouts of my waking panic, I felt some surge of energy coming back. And all at once, I began to feel like I was tumbling down a mountainside again. At that point I began to throw up, my water broke, and I became even more of a naked primal animal. Although I may have been still, internally I felt as though I was thrashing about. I felt like I was going to DIE, right there in my living room, in a pool of my own blood.

Her Midwife Finally Arrives

About 22 hours into my labor, I returned to a more present consciousness, and felt completely taken over again by the force. I thought of three or four different stories I had read at that point from the farm commune–”throwing up is a good sign”. Check. “It is completely normal to feel like you are going to die.” Check. “This all means you are getting close to the end.” Really? Okay.” I knew now, on a very deep vulnerable level, I needed my midwife HERE NOW. She arrived moments later, and when she did I felt an unimaginable relief. I felt a soothing presence, a complete reassurance, a pure safety: my knowing she was there was like my own baby self being scooped up and “held”. What I know now, is that this was the very closest — and only thing — I had ever felt to unbreakable love.

Back from the Brink

About three hours later, I pushed my baby out and felt more relief than ever thought possible. In that moment of relief –as many women experience — I went from an unbelievable state of suffering, primal screaming, and need, to…some version of myself again. Like breaking through some thick opening back into fresh air, like pushing up from the ocean floor. I literally said hello again to everyone present in the room: like I had been away on some nightmare trip and just returned. They all marveled and giggled at this. It was amazing how all at once I was “back”. I felt like introducing myself again as the “new me”. My baby was of course perfect in every way, and snuggled into my arms as I laid in the birth pool for a time afterward.



Labor: Sinking into Hell

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). Labor: Sinking into Hell. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 2019
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