I've Given Birth Both Naturally and Medicated — Here's What I Learned
Giving birth is work, no matter how you choose to make it happen.
I’m that woman. Friends know I’ll talk their ear off about “natural” childbirth if they’ll listen. Before my second daughter was born, I dreamed about giving birth at home, in a tub. When others would talk about immediately wanting epidurals, I didn’t get it.
With my first daughter, I’d managed to avoid one, even with Pitocin. When friends would ask why I did it, I'd give a variety of answers, mostly centered around fear. I was afraid an epidural would slow me down and result in a c-section. I worried about the possible side effects. I was concerned about the stress it might put on my baby.
In retrospect, while these reasons were all true, the biggest truth was I wanted to see if I could do it. I was a perfectionist. A natural birth seemed like the perfect option because it was a challenge. I was afraid of the pain but I wanted to know what it really felt like to birth a child.
It felt like ouch. Maybe for some (possibly better prepared or anatomically superior?) women childbirth really is painless, but for me, it wasn't. It was a week of Prodromal labor, where the contractions built in intensity each evening and then weakened during the day. It was dropping more F-bombs than I'd dropped in my entire 30 years. It was the scene in the movie where the woman screams in the back of the car as her body rips open.
But still, I did it and wouldn't have done it any other way. It may’ve hurt like hell, but it also gave me the most powerful rush I'd ever experienced. I was strong, I was woman, the entire hospital heard me roar. That flood of Oxytocin was like nothing I'd ever felt. The pain was worth the experience. It was magic, except, I immediately vowed to never do it again.
Then it came time to have a second child. I prepared myself as best I could. I (mostly) practiced what I preached. But something inside me didn't feel quite as committed to an unmedicated birth. And, honestly, I had a latent fantasy about having an epidural. The thought of all that pain again scared the crap out of me. I'm pretty sure some of that first trimester nausea was actually anxiety. Could I really face all that again?
I'm sure I could’ve, but I didn't. People like to tell you your second birth will happen quickly. Sure mine was quicker than the first, but by the third night of Prodromal labor, I was done. I was exhausted. I hadn't slept in three days, (with contractions at most ten minutes apart it was hard to get any sort of meaningful rest). So, when it was finally time to go to the hospital and Pitocin was back in the cards, I went to the dark side.
Of course, I kid. Epidurals aren't the dark side, they just feel like it when you've been working for an unmedicated childbirth. And, honestly, I was almost as afraid of the epidural as I was the pain. But, I was also beyond tired and the memory of the more intense contractions with Pitocin made me shake. I knew I needed to embrace modern medicine for a change.
Stories from friends who had epidurals also lured me in, accounts of naps and relaxation before baby arrived. That’s what I really needed. A nap. As I lost feeling in the lower half of my body I was finally able to relax. I closed my eyes and drifted away. I chatted and laughed and waited. I could see why hospital staff seem to prefer this kind of birth. No one is screaming. All there is to do is watch and wait.
That's what I didn't consider about the epidural, though. Once administered, you're just stuck there, suddenly a passive participant in the birthing process. The inability to move my legs was maddening. I repeatedly tried to beat them back to life, that pins and needles feeling leaving me hopeful I might be able to wiggle my toes just enough to keep my nerve endings alive. The dead weight of my thighs became foreign flesh I could flop around with the help of my arms or husband.
Eventually I accepted my limited state, just grateful to be pain-free and resting. The remainder of my labor was a breeze, minus the brief period where the pain relief wore off and I hit the wall of transition. When you labor without drugs, this wall is met more gradually, when you've been medicated and suddenly feel again, holy shit.
I wailed and did my best to shift positions, my body still too numb to cooperate. The nurse took off to find the anesthesiologist and he came running down the hall, two shots of something quickly administered to my back, everyone concerned because I could feel, or maybe because I was making so much noise.
Funny how much everyone worries about your pain when you've chosen not to feel it. I was suddenly a little girl again, everyone taking care of me and not wanting me to experience any discomfort. I wanted to laugh and tell them it was alright, I'd felt it all before and really, I could handle it. But no one cares what you've handled before when you've chosen a different route the second time around.
Well, except for my midwife. She was interested in my choice because she’d gone the unmedicated route for her first and only childbirth. She wanted to know if I was able to be more present without the pain, intrigued by births where mothers smile and giggle as the baby emerges.
And, she was onto something. In order to survive the sensations of childbirth, women have to go deep inside themselves into almost a trance-like state. With an epidural, this doesn't happen, but I also felt something was missing in my lack of agency. It drove me nuts to lie there and wait. I wanted to get up, move around, and put all that natural childbirth study to work. My poor husband had read an entire book to support me.
Thankfully, there was also truth to what my midwife had observed. I held my own legs as I pushed and my second daughter was born painlessly, with just three contractions. I got to reach down and lift her to my chest, tears and laughter all at once. Maybe this was the gift of having this midwife. She gave me a tiny taste of power in an otherwise passive state. Still, I wanted to feel like I did more to birth my second daughter.
And, really, I know I did a lot. My body powered through contraction after contraction whether I felt them or not. Plus all that work at home. I think that's something a lot of women don't realize about giving birth. There's no get-out-of-jail free card. You have to labor at home before they'll admit you, (which took multiple days for both of my births). Your epidural might wear off. You still have to deal with all the aches and pains of postpartum recovery and early breastfeeding. No matter what, giving birth requires a suspension of fear and some majorly hard work.
But that’s what no one tells you. You can spend your whole life afraid of all the bad parts of giving birth, but really, holding that baby makes none of it matter. Epidural or not, it’s the baby that makes the birth. That's what I learned from my medicated childbirth. Even if it wasn't perfect and I missed pieces of my first experience, it didn’t matter. My first birth wasn’t perfect either and I certainly was grateful to avoid so much of that pain this time around.
We shame ourselves too much as women. We deserve to feel proud of our births, medicated or not. I gave myself a gift by allowing the pain to stop. I let myself be less than perfect, which in turn gave me the opportunity to slow down time before the marathon of new parenting began. I feel no shame in that, even if I can’t help but pick it all apart and compare the two experiences.
So now that I've done it both ways, will I still encourage friends to give birth naturally?
But, most of all, I just want women to feel confident in their ability to birth a baby, no matter how they choose to make it happen. Each birth unfolds differently. If mine were faster, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted that epidural. But really, who cares. I listened to what I needed and stopped worrying so much about what other people thought, including my harshest critic. Myself.