In Defense of the Epidural

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a couple weeks now. The issue of whether to go natural (or not) when it comes to childbirth is a very controversial subject, one about which many people are very passionate. But I find that there’s a lot of misinformation, on both sides of the issue, so it’s for that reason that I think it’s only fair that I share my story.

Full disclosure: I am not a childbirth expert. My experience is limited to one wee baby, so you can just take my story for what it is: one first-timer’s account.

I was pretty ambivalent about what kind of birth I wanted. I never wrote a birth plan (it seemed to me like an unrealistic way to try to micromanage a birth) and I didn’t do a ton of research about the whole birthing process (I basically took a three-hour crash course).

My whole take on the birth experience was just to let it happen and not plan too much. If I felt like I could do it without help from any drugs, then great. And if I couldn’t stand the pain, there was a solution for that. I figured that was the best attitude to have since I had nothing tangible in the way of experience to go on. About the only thing I cared about is that I didn’t go to the hospital too early; I couldn’t bear the thought of being sent home for some reason. I just wanted to stay at home as long as I could stand it because I’d be free to move and walk around as I saw fit and I could eat (yes, I know that’s random, but the thought of going like 12 hours with nothing but ice chips sounded bad to me).

I was very intrigued by the idea of a natural childbirth. I mean, it makes sense that you might be wont to introduce a drug into your system out of consideration for the baby, even though an epidural is a local anesthetic, which means it doesn’t circulate through your internal system into the baby’s.

I also was very impressed by the people who’d been able to manage a natural childbirth; they really had the strength, endurance, and tenacity to make it happen. I liked the idea of possessing those qualities myself.

But just how badly did it hurt?

When you ask most moms how much it hurt, they usually say something along the lines of, “Oh, it was really painful, but it’s all worth it in the end.” Okay, that was a fair response, but it didn’t tell me squat; I wanted to know exactly how much it hurt. So, I turned to the men.

The first husband I asked about his wife’s au naturel birth, gave me a super detailed play-by-play. In fact, it was more like a dissection of the whole event. The thing that most stuck with me about his account was how he described the blood just running down his wife’s legs as she was trying various standing positions. (I think at the time he was pretty horrified, and maybe even scared, as well, if the truth be told.)

The second husband that weighed in on the subject gave me these words of advice: “Don’t be afraid of the epidural.” After unleashing a litany of expletives on him and her mother as her labor progressed, he said that his wife only told him to “eff off” once after she got her epidural. (That seemed like a plus.)

Well, I’m going to tell you that labor hurts a lot. Like a lot a lot. My  labor first began around 1:30am. Those early labor contractions were manageable; they were really more uncomfortable than anything. They were just enough to make it impossible to get back to sleep. So, at about 4:30am, I got up. By 8:00am, the pain had jumped up a few notches. I found myself needing to get up an walk around my dining room table a few times until the contractions subsided.

Around 11:00am or so, I decided I needed to get in the shower because the contractions had ratched up in intensity yet again. (A hot shower totally provides relief but it’s rather short lived.)

By 1:30pm, I was having big enough contractions that I decided to call my doctor because I was starting to think that I should maybe go to the hospital. He asked me whether I thought I should go immediately or whether I could hold out a little bit. I said I could hang on for a bit, but I wasn’t sure how much longer.

Then he told me that this could be false labor, so not to panic if they sent me home. At that point, I was thinking, “Oh my god, if this is false labor I am in big trouble for the real thing.” It was hurting so much that I was starting to feel nauseous. (My mom, incidentally, looked and me and told me the doc was crazy because I was most certainly in labor.)

I took one more hot shower just before 3:00pm, and then I told my mom I thought I needed to go to the hospital. The contractions were seriously severe at this point. I remember sitting in the hospital admissions trying to give the woman my information and having to pause nearly after every word to wait for for the contraction to subside.

By 4:30pm, I was in the delivery room with the nurse telling me I was about 5cm dilated. She asked me what the pain was like and pointed me to a chart that went from 0 to 10, with zero being no pain and 10 being extreme pain. My contractions were coming in anywhere from an 8 to a 10, depending on the contraction.

So, by 6:30pm, I was done. I ordered the epidural.

That wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience either, just so you know, if you’re considering. Chances are that the anesthesiologist will stick the giant needle in your back at just the time when you have a level 10 contraction, which is exactly what happened to me. But I just kept doing the yoga-style belly breathing that I had been doing to get through my really tough contractions and got through the epidural as well, despite the weird but short-lived shooting pains that I had going from my butt down the back of my legs to my knees.

Wow. That’s about all I have to say about the epidural. Once it took full effect–I could tell by the fact that when the nurse propped up my left leg it immediately flopped to the side–I said to my mom, “I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do this.”

I literally could not feel anything;  it was like my butt was a giant cinder block. There was absolutely no pain or even sense of contraction. And contrary to popular myths, the epidural didn’t slow down my labor. In fact, my contractions intensified and sped up.

But what was amazing about the epidural was that I could totally relax. In fact, I turned on the boob tube, watched a few episodes of The Office, and took a nap. Around 10pm or so, I woke up and the nurse told me to get ready because I was going to need to start to push.

It was a weird feeling to try to push when you can’t feel anything from your waist down, but I just focused my mind on tightening my abs down through my pelvic floor (it’s similar to pushing out a big poo) and I was doing it. I breathed like I would during a weight training exercise, with a big inhale followed by a long exhale as I worked the muscles. And voila, a little after midnight, we had a kicking, screaming baby on our hands.

So, when I look back, my birth experience was really not stressful at all. And I wasn’t totally wiped either. I mean, I was tired, but I felt pretty good overall. And I like that I was feeling rather peaceful and at ease when baby was born. I think that’s an appropriate way to welcome him to this world.

In saying all this, I don’t want to seem like I am unsupportive of people who choose to go au naturel. I think mommies-to-be should do what’s comfortable for them. I just share my story for those soon-to-be mommies who maybe are considering the epidural but are feeling a little guilty about admitting it.

I feel like there’s so much pressure these days to go natural that some moms are scared of saying in advance of the birth that they may want an epidural. (Conversely, I think it’s probably true that the medical field isn’t super supportive of many of the natural birthing techniques. I also think many mommies aren’t all that well educated about this type of birth.)

But with all that said, I think the term “natural” childbirth is really a misnomer; it’s really just a medicine-free birth. I don’t like the implication that a birth with pain medication is un-natural. I’m pretty sure that I’m just as much a mom as someone who did the whole 24-hour labor without meds; I just chose to not have any pain. (And when I say no pain, I mean literally none. Not even for the crowning.)

So, at the end of the day, it’s all about choice. I’m just here to share my story and provide reassurance that i f you go for the pain meds (1) you are still a good mom and (2) baby will be fine. I don’t see any reason to think that a baby will have more problems with an epidural than with nothing. Complications can pop up any time, without warning, whether you’ve got the best doctor at your side or you’re giving birth in a bathtub at home. Any day, anything can happen. So, don’t stress yourself out about what you “should” do and just do what makes you most comfortable.

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Filed under birthing, delivery, epidural, hospital, natural childbirth, newbie parents, newborns, pregnancy

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