It took me about two seconds as a labor nurse to realize that when most babies are born, it looks nothing like it does in the movies.

Rarely does someone’s water break on the sidewalk. Babies usually take a long time to come out. I’ve never heard a woman actually breathe in a “hee-hee-hoo” pattern. And most mamas look like they’ve been through war (but just so joyful) once that baby is on their chest.

Basically, that Friends episode, The One Where Rachel Has a Baby: Part 1 is just not true.

When I got pregnant with my first child, I was pretty sure I didn’t need to attend a birth class. My career had shown me so many things, both good and bad. What could a birth instructor possibly teach me that I didn’t already know? But I wanted to try to have my baby without drugs, and I wanted my husband to understand the process and how he could help me. So I put my “know it all” nurse brain aside and gladly sat down next to my husband on that classroom floor.

The Motherly birth class

Labor is not just a physical process

Unsurprisingly, our labor class involved a lot of time discussing the physical occurrences of birth. Dilation, effacement, stages of labor, pushing time, pelvic size—all of it was addressed. We also spent an evening talking about pushing techniques, partner support, breathing techniques, relaxation and ideal scenarios. All sounds normal, right?

When our birth instructor began to talk about the emotional signposts of labor, I was hooked.

So much of my nursing practice was related to the physical signs of labor and birth. I couldn’t remember ever being taught about the emotional signs a mama displays. As I listened to her teach about each of the emotional signs—and what they meant—I couldn’t help but remember all of the mamas I had cared for. I had watched so many of them march through those emotional signs, but had never fully realized how concisely they indicated what physical labor changes were occurring.

Emotional signposts of labor

Typically, labor occurs in stages: the first stage (labor), the second stage (pushing and delivery of the baby), and the third stage (delivery of the placenta).

The first stage of labor will be a woman’s longest. That first stage is further broken down into three phases: early labor, active labor and transition.

Most women know most of this. What many women are not taught is that there are emotional signposts that line up with each of the phases of that long first stage of labor. And if you are privileged to birth a baby or watch someone you love labor and birth a baby, you’ll likely be as surprised as I was by how true these emotions are.

Excitement: The first emotional signpost occurs during early labor. The mama is likely smiling, taking pictures, anxious, chatty and restless. Many mamas continue to talk through their contractions.

Seriousness: If a mama is getting serious, she is exhibiting the second emotional signpost of labor, and she has likely moved into active labor. Many women lose modesty, move very slowly and deliberately, stop talking through contractions, and are extremely focused.

Self-doubt: Is mama confused? Scared? Does she no longer think she can do it? These feelings are the third emotional signpost. She has likely stopped trusting herself, her partner and her body. She’s probably ready to call it quits. But, these emotional responses usually mean she is in transition—the last part of the first stage of labor. That means that the baby is close to being born!

Sounds interesting, but what do I do with this knowledge?

Birth is such a personal process. Everyone’s story is so different, so intimate, so perfectly and beautifully theirs. But as a witness to hundreds of births, including my own two, I cannot deny that most women’s bodies are designed to follow similar processes during labor. The more you know about the process, the better you’ll be able to deal with all of the highs and lows.

Tuck these emotional signposts into the back of your brain. Share them with your partner. Talk about it with your doula. My husband and I remember so clearly the moment in both of my births when the self-doubt started—both of our girls were born an hour later!

When you’re laboring, let the seriousness, the confusion, the doubt and the fear all be an encouragement to you and your partner. Labor is one big emotional roller coaster, but those ups and downs also mean you are making progress. You are doing it. You are that much closer to holding that baby in your arms.