I was never against the drugs. Drugs, I thought, were for other people. For people who could tolerate long needles shoved up their spinal cords. For people who didn’t mind being confined to a bed. I didn’t have something to prove when I opted for a natural birth—I was just deeply afraid of doctor intervention. Now, I know this makes little sense when comparing the level of pain one endures during the dreaded ring of fire—the agonizing sensation that occurs when your baby stretches your vagina to its capacity—but there is a difference between the fear of the unknown and the fear of needles.
I opted for the unknown.
My mother’s own birth story probably had something to do with my decision as well. Drugged up on scopolamine, my mother didn’t remember giving birth to me in 1971. When she woke up from the drugs, her first words as a new mother were: “Did I have a baby?”
My au natural decision lead me to a birth plan that included rocking, dancing, panting, a tub, endless midwife attention and music streaming through the room. My son’s delivery would be a labyrinth, said the doula who lead my birthing class. “Some women even howl like wolves,” she said.
But after my water broke—it coincided with a contraction that felt like someone whacked my belly with an anvil—I didn’t expect to be pummeled with excruciating back. The contractions were so overwhelming that I couldn’t speak.
Once we got to the hospital, I dropped to all fours. I howled like a coyote on acid.
“Am I five centimeters yet?” I asked the nurse between contractions. My breath short and shaky, as if I had run five miles.
“I just checked you,” she said. “You were only three.”
I begged her to check again.
Five centimeters meant I could climb in the tub. The tub would magically alleviate all the pain. Like an epidural, it would wash over me. This is what they told me.
Here’s the truth. The tub was lovely. But it did not, I repeat, did not, take away the pain. I rocked myself back and forth in the water while a team of people (midwife, mother, ex-husband) took turns rubbing my back and sprinkling water over my shoulders for about an hour and a half.
And then what can only be described as a cement block, otherwise known as my baby’s skull, attempted to split my vagina in two in a wild rage of energy.
“I feel his head, oh my God, I feel his head!” I screamed.
My midwife reached down between my legs and confirmed it. “Yep. That’s his head.” she said, calmly. “Drain the tub.” (That particular hospital wouldn’t allow a tub birth.)
So they lifted me into a wheelchair. Delivery doesn’t come along with much dignity, I quickly found—my bare breasts and the baby crowning between my legs wasn’t much of a shock to anyone. “Maybe someone could give me a towel?” I asked as they wheeled me down to the delivery room.
After two pushes and a slight cut, my son was born. From beginning to end, it was four hours. You’re a lucky one, they said. What an easy delivery, they said. You’re a birthing machine.
My version was slightly different. “It was torture,” I said. And I swore to never, ever have another baby. Ever again.
That was until humanity worked its special memory loss powers over me and I decided to have another baby with my second husband. The second time around, the pregnancy had been tough; I had hyperemesis, a severe form of morning sickness and was attached to an intravenous drip of Zofran (anti-nausea meds usually reserved for cancer patients) for at least five months. When the nausea subsided, vertigo set in. Yet with all of that, I wanted to experience a water birth. (This time, my midwife group switched hospitals and tub deliveries were allowed.) A water birth seemed like a peaceful end to my tumultuous pregnancy.
And so the pregnancy Gods offered me what everyone promised: hard pregnancy, easy labor. This time, there was no debilitating back pain. I chatted, I laughed. “Maybe I’ll even have one of those birth orgasms,” I told my husband.
Yet, when a hospital nurse walked into the room and asked if I was having an epidural, the water birth fantasies swept away and soon, epidural fantasies took over. Like most of you, I watched multiple TLC A Baby Story episodes where women received pedicures during labor.
So I turned to my midwife and said, “What do you think I should get?”
Without blinking, this was her response: “I think you should go for the epidural.”
This wasn’t what I expected to hear from my midwife. The water birth lady suggested an epidural.
“After everything you went through, why not make it easy on yourself?” she said.
At five centimeters, the pain was tolerable. But I imagined myself screaming in the tub, cursing myself for not taking the drugs. Then I remembered, I wasn’t against the drugs! I was against the needles. I was against being told that there was one way to have a birth. I was against not having a choice.
So I chose the epidural. Birth doesn’t come without some form of pain—this is not what nature intended for us. The epidural injection itself was a bizarre, painful sensation that traveled through my spine with a fury and then disappeared the next moment.
Soon, I was numb from the waist down, attached to tubes and flat on my back. There’s not much more to tell about an epidural, especially if it works and if there are no complications. You chat. You count the hours until you can eat sushi. You watch your blood pressure. You wait. Soon, my belly tightened. Soon I was ready to push. Soon, a baby was being born. I birthed my daughter with some discomfort—but no pain. No pain!
Would I do a natural birth again? Absolutely. Even with the miles of complaints.
But the drugs aren’t so bad either.