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Labor in time: if only it were objective

May 7th, 2004 · No Comments

I first noticed Tyler Cowen’s post at Marginal Revolution on subjective time when I was visiting The Binary Circumstance and read Chip Gibbons’ Perception of Time:

Think about the times you’re really into doing a painting or writing, really enjoying a movie or under pressure at work to meet a deadline. Time goes by very quickly, too quickly it seems. It’s as if there’s not enough of it.

Indeed…hence my postings published at late hours on this blog! I start writing and then I can’t tell what time it is. Writing is dangerous for me…I need to watch the clock more…

…but labor, giving birth to babies, is one time I need to watch the clock less. As I’ve learned, time can’t tell you anything about labor. While textbooks teach that various biological processes tend to happen at certain rates, I soon realized that no one taught my hormones and muscles to accelerate with that predicted precision. A clock tells you nothing when you’re wandering around the ward in your flapping hospital gown. One hour’s time can get you a baby born. One hour’s time can also get you nowhere near delivery and deliverance.

Tyler Cowen quoted Jay Ingram:

When your mind is focused on something other than the passage of time, you are fooled into thinking that less time has passed.

This, I believe, is one of the key principles of childbirth techniques, as taught in class. For my first pregnancy, I brought to the hospital a bag filled with items intended to keep my mind “focused” on “something other” than how fast or slow my labor was proceeding. Our teacher had recommended a “focal point”, so I had packed my journal with its Monet cover, thinking the soft pastels and impressionistic flowers would calm my body and soothe my anxieties, reminding me of quiet romantic moments. I never looked at it once.

Although I had had all kinds of techniques planned, ranging from playing favorite tunes on the stereo I’d lugged along, to reciting memorized passages of literature (not kidding!), I found too quickly that when the intense contractions came, nothing mattered to my mind other than survival. Some women talk about being transported places. The only place I was transported was Pain. All I could do was try to get through it:

Breathe in. Breathe out.
Move around. Walk back and forth.
Lean on Ted.
Rock back and forth.
Push on Ted.
Stomp back and forth.
Throw entire body weight onto Ted….

Chip Gibbons commented on the Jay Ingram quote

If I understand that correctly, when I’m focused on something other than time, an event that took thirty minutes by the clock could seem like five in my mind.

I’m not sure about that.

I know that when I write, thirty minutes can seem to be five. I look up and how did the clock move?!

When I’m in labor at the hospital, thirty seconds can seem to be five years. Centuries. Eternities. I don’t look at the clock. All I want is out. Out of the hospital. Out of the pain. It messes with my mind and I can’t tell time at all. Certainly subjective. To Ted, or to my mom, or anyone else not in labor, the hours seem like hours. They stand outside my body and look at me objectively. They look at the clock and watch the seconds go by. But to me the hours are days, years, eternities measured in moments of muscle movements.

However, after the baby is born, an entire transition occurs again. On this side of delivery I am delirious with joy. I have energy I never imagined moments earlier. I call friends and family, my voice bouncing. I smile. Laugh. Chirp. Beloved Baby is adorable and I’ve forgotten much of the effort it took to bring her out of me and into the world, forgotten some of the sensations I suffered. I feel great. I feel better than I have in months. Hours melt like minutes, tempered only days later by the ensuing sleep deprivation.

So, to answer Tyler Cowen’s question:

Would you rather have one year that felt like two, or two years that felt like one?

If the choice is one year of labor or one year of post-partum delirium, I’d choose that Baby-just-born joy. But I don’t think I can make that choice, of course. I don’t think I could have one without the other. They are defined by their contrast and contradiction. I don’t think I can choose the “two years that felt like one” without the “one year that felt like two”: they are balanced in time, labor and life.

Tags: motherhood