Is childbirth really like running a marathon?

I'm bad at sports. So nothing made me worry about my delivery like hearing it was an extreme athletic feat

Topics: New Mom Confessions, Life stories, Motherhood, Pregnancy,

Is childbirth really like running a marathon?The pregnant woman on the ninth month. The child will be born one of these days(Credit: Morozova Tatiana)

A year ago, I was massively pregnant and living in terror of the day I would have to somehow expel the person growing inside of me. I was scared of the pain, scared of the sweating, scared of the screaming and pushing and ripping and stitches and hemorrhoids, not to mention scared of hospitals and needles and catheters. I wasn’t scared of having someone be dependent on me for the rest of my life, but I was scared of self-absorbed doctors who would be more focused on their upcoming golf vacation than tending to my needs. And the prospect of checking into a hospital and shooting an 8-pound being out my vagina was daunting enough without every book likening the experience to running a marathon: the endurance required, the agony involved, the importance of staying hydrated, the possibility of pooping somewhere you’d rather not. If childbirth was like running a marathon, I was going to have a C-section.

I’ve never been what you could call “sporty” or “in shape.” I did once overhear my brother describing me to someone as having “an athletic build,” but that was just a polite Midwestern way of saying “kind of fat” — you know, athletic like a rugby player, not athletic like a marathoner. I do not and never have gone to the gym, worked out or owned any shorts made out of lycra, jackets made out of Gortex, or socks made out of anything that wicks. I hate sneakers that look like insects.

When it comes to anything other than typing or turning the pages of a book, my hand-eye coordination leaves something to be desired. And if someone is watching me or telling me exactly how I’m supposed to move my body, I seize up with a sensation that’s a cross between performance anxiety and that feeling you get in dreams where someone is chasing you and no matter how hard you try to run, your legs will not cooperate. Panic, I think it’s called. Run, run you tell your legs, but they do not run. Left alone, I can throw a dart pretty well, but start coaching me on how to do it better and suddenly I’m hitting the bartender in the eye and at least two people in the bar are crying.

As a drunken outdoor sports enthusiast proclaimed at a party when I told him, no, I don’t ski or snowboard or surf: “Oh! You must be one of those readers!”

A month or so before my due date I finally talked to my husband — who happens to be an emergency room doctor — about some of my childbirthing fears. He reminded me of my willingness to get an epidural and reassured me he would not under any circumstances park himself south of the border. “I’ll need you up near my face, being supportive,” I said. What I meant, of course, was, “There’s no way in hell I’m adding ‘fear that you’ll never have sex with me again if you witness a human head emerging from my lady parts’ to my list of birthing concerns.”

Emergency medicine practitioner that he is, my husband values efficiency, practicality and even-keeledness above all else. (Why he married a creative writer with a tendency toward inconsolable crying jags, I still have not figured out.) I told him that, among other things, I was nervous he would get annoyed when, in hour 36 of labor, I demanded a different flavor of popsicle or a softer roll of toilet paper or a different husband or whatever. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I know it’s not going to go quickly or easily. You’re kind of a black-cloud patient.”

Apparently during training there are residents for whom everything seems to go right — “white cloud” residents — and “black cloud” residents for whom everything seems to go wrong. “You know, a patient they’re taking care of who seems totally fine suddenly dies or something,” he cheerfully explained.

I protested that barely anything had gone wrong with my pregnancy. Aside from debilitating nausea and excruciatingly painful varicose veins in unmentionable places, everything was fine. I hadn’t even complained that much — for a pregnant lady. “So many things [pant, pant],” I huffed as we walked up a teeny tiny incline, “that could have gone wrong haven’t! [pant, pant] I’m just sensitive. [pant, pant] And I do not [pant, pant] have a black cloud [pant, pant] over [pant, pant] my [pant, pant] head!”

We then turned into the alley behind our house, and I proceeded to slip on some loose gravel and fall on my knee so hard I was pretty sure I broke it and probably the baby, too. For weeks my knee continued to kill me, both when I was using it and when it was resting. It especially hurt when I sat down or stood up and even more especially when I sat down or stood up from a low seat, such as, say, a toilet. And yes, the rumors you’ve heard are true: Pregnant women do have to pee extremely often.

By the time I felt my first labor pangs I had decided that 12 to 36 hours of labor would be nothing compared to six weeks — or 1,008 hours — of knee pain.

After I labored valiantly at the hospital without medication for, oh, about 13 minutes, an anesthesiologist was called in to administer an epidural. Dr. Wright the anesthesiologist began to regale us with tales from his recent golf vacation. I was clutching my husband’s arm while the anesthesiologist examined my spine to see exactly where to stick the giant needle and wouldn’t you know, Dr. Wright stopped talking about himself and said, “Wow. You must be a runner — or some kind of athlete!” Maybe I was going to be able to handle this birthing thing just fine.

In the end, giving birth wasn’t so much like running a marathon as going on a mildly strenuous 45-minute walk surrounded by people telling you you’re doing a great job. Compared to 20 weeks of nausea, 10 weeks of varicose veins, and 1,008 hours of knee pain, childbirth was a piece of cake with chocolate frosting and a really cute baby on top.

Epidurals do wear off eventually, however. A few days after I was safely tucked at home with my healthy and intact baby and the pain in my nether-regions had subsided, my knee pain resumed in earnest. I consulted my regular doctor (instead of my husband who kept saying from his six-years-older-than-me vantage point, “Yeah. Getting older sucks.”) My doctor recommended physical therapy, which I tried not to take as punishment for having been so clumsy as to fall on my knee in the first place. The idea of spending an afternoon in a room lined with Pilates balls and free weights freaked me out almost as much as the idea of shooting a baby out my vagina.

My physical therapist turned out to be a nice enough person, a mother herself who wore lemon-colored jeans rather than the requisite track pants and agreed that pregnancy really does take a toll on our bodies — I don’t just have a weak character, as my husband implies with his eyebrows each time I complain.

She had me walk around the room a few times, from the treadmill to the stationary bike and back, so she could analyze my gait. Increasingly uncomfortable at being watched and assessed, I joked that I felt like America’s Next Top Model. Either my comment wasn’t funny or the physical therapist didn’t believe laughter had a place at the gym. Instead of smiling she laid me down on a table and told me to “engage” my “core.”

I felt the all-too familiar uneasiness begin to rise. “You know,” I stalled. “I’ve never really known what people mean when they say that. I mean, it’s not like I’m an apple, so …”

The physical therapist suggested I tighten my stomach muscles as if I were “about to receive a blow to the belly.” Which was, you know, a super helpful metaphor because it’s something I clearly have experience with. I may be a reader, but I’m scrappy in the ring! I reiterated my uncertainties, but she waved my words away. “Never mind,” she said. “I think your abs have shut down. You’re going to have to stop cheating with your glutes, and we’re really going to have to work on your quads, which are just not strong enough at all, are they?”

At the word “glutes” my eyes began to mist over and by “quads” I was crying in earnest. “Sorry,” I sniffled, as the physical therapist handed me a Kleenex. I wanted to explain my tears, explain how in athletic situations I feel inadequate and panicky like a mute foreigner being asked directions to the nearest hospital by someone with a visible gunshot wound. But it came out as, “I’m not … all … sporty!”

The physical therapist appeared not to take offense. She changed the topic to what I’m sure she thought was safer ground, telling me that my sneakers were “street shoes” and did not provide adequate support. She sent me off to buy new ones from an establishment named Super Jock ‘n Jill.

I took one look at its wall of horrible insect-like “performance” sneakers and felt tears again spring to my eyes. “I’m kind of picky about aesthetics,” I told the 18-year-old Super Jock salesclerk, hoping he’d nod knowingly and pull a pair of supportive and attractive shoes off a high back shelf. Instead he stared at me blankly and asked if I wanted to try the Asics.

“Do you have anything not made out of mesh?” I tried again, going for the specific rather than the general. “I don’t like the feeling of air on my toes when I’m walking outside and it’s not summer and I’m not barefoot,” I said.

“Wuh?” The salesclerk squinted his eyes like our exchange was beginning to hurt his head.

Before I started to cry for real, I shoved my feet back into my hopelessly unsupportive street shoes and said, “I’m sorry — I’m a reader,” and hobbled out the door.

Wilson Diehl has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa and teaches writing at Hugo House in Seattle. You can read more of her work at

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>