The Push is Powerful Stuff

pushingEither you like pushing, or you don’t. Not too many women who feel so-so on this topic.


Personally, I hated it. Three kids, and each one I would have coped with contractions for another calendar day before I would have willingly pushed.


So when I have a mother who is a fierce non-pusher, I get it.


I recently attended a lovely birth for an almost-mother-of-three, who I watched paddle around her birth tub like a dog caught in a swimming pool, looking for a way out. She spun circles, flipped from front to back, moaned and groaned, cried, and howled.


I’d seen all the signs of transition—the shakes came and went, the hot-cold temperature swings, the long, strong contractions that piled up on one another.  Now I was just waiting for her to give in and grunt.  I encouraged her to listen to her body, find her way.  I don’t generally reach in to check a cervix, or “give permission” to push. I would rather she follow her instincts and birth this child with the seasoned wisdom of her body and the intellectual memory of two prior births. She’s an old pro at this by now, and I don’t want to distract from her ability to run this show.


After a bit, I suggested she push a bit, “Just see how it feels.” Sometimes a little push makes the floodgates open and a baby pours out a few short minutes later. It’s like a sneeze that sneaks up on you—once you’re in it, it’s coming out!


Not this lady. I’m pretty sure I heard her fake a push, just to get me off her back. I love when this sort of stuff happens in labor—cracks me up. A woman is so far in her head, so deep in her body and hormones and sensations, that she misjudges her acting abilities. I could do a stand-up routine with the hilarious comments and antics with which I’ve been blessed.


“Reach down and feel your baby’s head,” I tell her. Once she realizes the baby’s knocking at the door, she’ll often give in and move it on out. Nope. She is not interested in that. She shakes her head violently, and spits out a few negative comments.


“Can I reach down and check?” Nods. Yep, her baby is just lurking right inside the vagina, just a couple of knuckles deep. His heart tones are strong and steady. I tell her I think that when she’s ready, that baby could be born with just a few pushes.  I use an upbeat tone of voice, matter-of-fact and pleasant. No response, no acknowledgement.


She’s not ready. Eyes closed, swirling around the tub again. Groaning and even screaming. I’ll wait her out a bit longer.


You like it or you don’t, the push is powerful stuff.


Funny how labor messes with your head. You have months to come to terms with it. And still, on the day baby is ready to make its way to your arms, you still find yourself bargaining for divine intervention, courage, a way out. It might be pushing, it might be vomiting, it might be even letting yourself go into active labor. Everyone has a wall to climb, a bargain to strike. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, sometimes it takes longer.


My wall was pushing, three babies in a row. I lay on a bed and faked sleep for a full hour after I reached 10 centimeters with my last boy. The sweet midwife gently woke me a few times to ask if I’d like to push now. Pshaw! I am sleeping, sister. Leave me be. I fake snoozed, listening to whispers and shuffles about the room, while I tried to find a magical escape clause.  At the time, nearly 14 years ago, I had no idea I would someday be a midwife. Little did I know how well prepared I would be to recognize a non-pusher, and how to help her face the inevitable.


Like most midwives, I’m willing to make space for a woman to come to terms with her fears, on her own time, in her own way. This is the beauty and strength of midwifery. I know  physiologically she’s ready to move forward, but  emotionally she’s not ready to let go of fear and walk through the fire. If baby is fine, I can wait.


Yet some women are like me. We have to be seduced, sweet-talked, encouraged, and eventually pushed.  A good midwife knows when to say when.


I don’t get all Army Sergeant when kinder, gentler techniques fail. I do, however, get serious and tell them it’s time. I will bend over the birth tub, let her feel my hand or fingers, and say, “I’m going to keep my hand right her while you go ahead and push now. I’ll tell you how you’re doing. Okay? Next contraction, push like you’re pooping. Your baby is ready to come out.”


In this case, four pushes later a pink little head slipped out. Incredibly, this mother—who so hated pushing—was now able and willing to hold that baby in place so that her older children could be summoned from a neighboring room for the big reveal!


Baby Oliver came up swimming into his mama’s arms, with a standing-room only crowd oohing and ahhing at his beautiful cry.


In the week since the birth, we’ve talked about pushing a few times. It’s still fresh in her mind. Her eyes get dark and she shakes her head. This is truly trauma, even in its most humane and gentle form. I don’t have any idea of how to make it easier for her, should there be another baby in her future. All I can do is sympathize—on a very visceral level given my own memories—and praise her for the courage it took to do the hard work of bringing a baby into the world.


We push our babies out. We are pushed ourselves. You like it or you don’t, the push is powerful stuff.


 Image by Angela Tabako: find her at or on Facebook




About Jana Studelska

Jana Studelska CPM/LM, is a licensed midwife practicing in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. She has been working with babies and mothers since 1998–as a La Leche leader, a certified doula, a childbirth educator, a regional birth network board member, and finally as a credentialed midwife. She is an author and writer, and has won several national awards for her work. Currently, she is the MANA Region 4 Representative for the Midwives Alliance, representing the upper midwest. She lives in Duluth, MN, with her husband, teen-aged boys, and a herd of dogs.


9 thoughts on “The Push is Powerful Stuff”

  1. I LOVED the pushing part. It was easy and felt so right for me. As I a midwife I see lots of non pushers. Amazing how we all have what is best for us.

  2. This is a great piece, Jana. Funny though, I never had to consciously push – my body took over and all I could do was hold on for the ride of its pushing. I’m preparing for my second home birth this Fall and I hope that all goes smoothly once again.

  3. Lovely article! For me it wasn’t that I was in love with the idea of “pushing” in that direct way…but I would have done ANYTHING that I had to do to get that baby out and be done with the intensity of those final few minutes….pushing seemed to be the only way to go! 🙂 If there were multiple ways to get a baby out…I’m pretty sure I would have done them all simultaneously!

    After completing my first year as a doula/midwife assistant, it is certainly one of the most interesting aspects of the “job” to watch how individually each mother reacts to the last few moments of pregnancy. I see some women who have been waiting for the moment to push since the first labor pang began (for some from the first moment they found out they were pregnant!) and others who have savored every moment of their pregnancy and must first grieve the loss of that intimate connection of pregnancy before rallying themselves to ‘let go’. it is always unique…and always beautiful!

  4. I hated pushing with a passion. I’ll never forget seeing my daughter’s head dangling between my knes in the reflection of the mirror over my dresser and yelling for my midwife to just “get her out”. I knew that wasn’t the way it worked but all I wanted was to not to have to push again. I totally get it.

    Of course, the amazing release of birth…..and a beautiful new baby…..makes up for it all.

  5. What a great piece. I was so much a non-pusher! Terrified. And the second time around more scared because I knew what I was in for. My second midwife was perfectly empathetic and somehow got me through it.

  6. It’s funny. For my first birth, i was desperate to push. I was in the hospital and was secretly pushing without permission. Then once I was cleared to push, it was awesome. I loved pushing. But with my next birth, I didn’t want to. I think it’s because labor was only two hours. I refused to believe it was time, and I didn’t want to be checked to find out. The midwives kept getting on me to take my underwear off, to find a good position for pushing, and I was like, “I’ll humor you guys, but there’s no way it’s time to push.” I hadn’t had something I recognized as transition, and I was positive things were going to have to get a lot worse first. I didn’t feel ready at all — labor had just leaped on me, two weeks early, and given me no time to get used to it before getting intense. Finally I asked, “Do you really think it’s okay to push?” They said, “Definitely, his head is right there.” So I tentatively pushed a bit and there he was! I still hated pushing. It didn’t feel good this time, it was unpleasant — possibly because he was right on the perineum before I even started, so we went straight to the “ring of fire” right away. But it took almost no time at all.

    Anyway, I definitely agree — that’s powerful stuff!

  7. Being able to intuit the block to pushing has been helpful for me in general not just as relates to birthing literally.

    I had my one and only at 40 and turning 50 this year don’t expect any more. The pregnancy and the contractions were easy and grace filed.

    Fully dilated and with the baby’s head crowning I could not wrap my head around the idea of pushing.

    It was not that I did not want to push, I did not know how. In hindsight I believe this to be a gap in my pre-natal education. I was willing but surprised by the request since I had an idea in my head that I would just open, or perhaps the baby would do the pushing and make its way out. It was next to impossible to revise these ideas in childbirth.

    Some times we try to be so natural we say too little because we do not want to impose upon what will be right for that mother and that baby. No one ever spoke to me about pushing until it was time to push and I felt ambushed and unprepared although willing. Since it was not a natural inclination I had to figure it out and there was just too much overwhelming emotion going on.

    For me the block was the fear of not being able to take care of my son once he was born. One of my doulas was able to intuit and articulate this. Hearing it spoken out loud released a wall of unconscious emotion. After that, everything was easier.

  8. Funny, I hadn’t thought about it in these terms! Honestly, I’ve come away from my first labor with the feeling that I “failed at pushing” – I couldn’t get her past my pubic bone unassisted. I felt like I was in a trance, just following orders, thinking about breathing and timing my pushes. I remember saying only one thing during pushing, “I’m sick of everyone telling me what to do”. 😛

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