BACKGROUND: The childbirth experience is multidimensional, and therefore difficult to describe and explain. Studies of it have produced inconsistent findings, and the phenomenon is often confused with satisfaction with the care provided. This study aimed to clarify different aspects of the birth experience, and to identify factors that could explain the variation in women's overall assessment of it. METHODS: All Swedish-speaking women in a large city who gave birth during a two-week period in 1994 were given a questionnaire one day after the birth, and 295 (91%) of the questionnaires were returned. Information about the labor process and medical interventions was collected from hospital records. RESULTS: Women usually experienced severe pain and various degrees of anxiety, and most were seized with panic for a short time or some part of their labor. Despite these negative feelings, most women felt greatly involved in the birth process, were satisfied with their own achievement, and thought they had coped better than expected. The overall experience was assessed as positive by 77 percent of women and negative by 10 percent. No statistical difference was observed between primiparas and multiparas in total birth experience, and few differences in the specific aspects of the birth. Of the 38 variables tested in regression analysis, the six that contributed to explaining women's overall birth experience were support from the midwife (sensitivity to needs), duration of labor, pain, expectations of the birth, involvement and participation in the birth process, and surgical procedures (emergency cesarean section, vacuum extraction, forceps, episiotomy). CONCLUSIONS: The study showed that negative and positive feelings can coexist, thus confirming the multidimensional character of the birth experience. Women's assessment of their childbirth is influenced by both physical and psychosocial factors, highlighting the importance of a comprehensive approach to care in labor.