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Medical Fiction Question #2: Labor Pains

Q: From writer DH (question edited for clarity):

If you don’t mind, I’m having a hard time writing a scene for childbirth, and I can’t seem to stomach watching the youtube videos detailing birth. So I was hoping to get some pointers. I’m doing a third person narrative during the scene, not really focusing on any one viewpoint for any long time period, except maybe the OB/GYN for obvious reasons.

A: Okay, so it seems like the basic question is one that every writer faces: How do I write convincingly about something I’ve never experienced? A classic example is that of murder mystery writers: no murder mystery writer (that I know of…) has actually committed murder and very few I’m sure have actually witnessed one. But does that stop them from writing about it? No.

So what’s the secret? Research, research, and more research.

Basically what I’m saying is, just watch the darn videos. Childbirth is a natural process which many many people go through every day. While it can be a very messy (and to some very disgusting) process, it is one of those life-changing experiences that will be hard to write authentically about without having witnessed or experienced it in some fashion. It’s kind of like trying to write about what it’s like to lose a family member if you’ve never actually lost a family member.

If you just can’t stomach the videos, there are ways you can get around actually describing the child birth. For example, you could write from a viewpoint where you don’t actually have to describe it. While it is a bit of a cop out, it isn’t unrealistic–very frequently fathers or other family members find they have to leave the delivery room because they just can’t stomach it.

As can be expected, pregnant women themselves have a lot of questions about what will happen to them during the delivery, and as such there are millions upon millions of books and websites devoted to “what to expect from labor and delivery” and in fact, maybe you should just google that and read a few websites as well (see a sample list of websites below).

Here’s a little bit of info on what to think about when writing this scene(based on a normal vaginal delivery in a tertiary care center):

1) Who will be in the room:

– the patient

-one or two family members (or more depending on hospital policies and size of the labor room)

-the OB/Gyn team (OB, nurses, residents, medical students): The OB usually doesn’t come in for much of labor, just checks in periodically. She/he just shows up for the actual delivery; the nurse is the person that the patient will mostly see and talk to until then, followed by the med students and residents.

-the pediatrics team (might just be the nurse, or a pediatric resident might be there as well depending on the medical history of the patient and/or hospital policies)

2) What the room will look like: varies widely from hospital to hospital. Some hospitals have labor and delivery units that are separate from the post-partum unit, others don’t.

3) What does it feel like to give birth? Depends on the level of anesthesia (check out the pregnancy websites)

4) What is the atmosphere like in the room?

–As a med student, I found the whole thing very exciting. the room was charged with a certain energy that was palpable. I LOVED going to deliveries. Witnessing a baby being born is so miraculous.

–As a resident in pediatrics, I was almost never called to normal deliveries–just the ones where something could potentially go wrong, so I was generally very anxious and worried until the baby came out and started crying (and if things went wrong, it was very exciting in a bad way).

–I can’ t comment on what an OB or a nurse feels after delivering babies year after year, since I don’t have that level of experience, but I would hope that they would still find it exciting or rewarding in some way, and not let the fear of something going wrong ruin it for them (figuring out exactly how your particular character is feeling is your job as a writer).

–As a patient, I was just plain exhausted and wanted the baby to come out and be healthy. There were so many emotions going on inside my head that I had no idea what to feel when the baby was actually born (though I was certainly glad when it was over and the baby was fine). I feel a little uncomfortable sharing my personal pregnancy/delivery story online, but I’m sure you will find many others have no such qualms and have their testimonials about “what it’s like” on pregnancy websites. You probably know a lot of people who have had babies before. Ask them what it’s like. (though they might be fuzzy on details and won’t be able to help too much with what it looks like, since the patient can’t see much of the actual delivery over her giant belly unless she has requested a mirror. and if she had a c-section, she didn’t see anything but the big blue sheet in front of her).

One last piece of advice: The delivery doesn’t end with the birth of the baby. There is a placenta to be delivered too! It annoys me that people always seem to gloss over this bit when it isn’t an insignificant part of the process.

As promised, here are some websites to look at:

I hope this is helpful, DH, let me know if you have any further questions. Happy writing!

Got a medical fiction question? Email me (amitha [at] amithaknight [dot] com), comment on my blog, or send me a tweet. I’ll try my best to answer! (Note: This blog post is meant to be writing advice only and should not be construed as medical advice in any fashion whatsoever.)

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