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

Published October 7, 2010 10:40PM (EDT)

The pregnant woman on the ninth month. The child will be born one of these days (Morozova Tatiana)
The pregnant woman on the ninth month. The child will be born one of these days (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.

By Wilson Diehl

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

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