While pregnant, I expect the groping of my belly and the compulsory “Do you know what you’re having?” or “Should you REALLY be eating that cheese?” But please, whatever you do, do not ask me if I’m getting an epidural.
Posing that question, whether you’re a friend, stranger, or medical provider, assumes that I have made a choice, prior to experiencing the labor, as to whether or not I will be able to manage the pain. So naturally it makes me a bit defensive. I’m not against epidurals in any way, but whether I should get one is a big decision. How exactly am I to make a judgment call like that until I’m in the moment?
This is why I’ve chosen to work with a doula for both of my pregnancies. I knew that my obstetrician (with my first) and midwives (with my second) would not have the time to thoroughly walk me through every possible birth scenario and answer my laundry list of questions. I also wanted to ensure that once I was in labor, I would have someone experienced who would be my advocate and cheerleader for the entire labor. While I knew that both my husband and sister would be unbelievably caring and supportive, they could not offer the same degree of advice or wisdom.
The best thing my doula did was to sit me down and walk me through every possible option when it came to pain management during labor. She showed me what an epidural looks like. She explained what would happen step-by-step – who would administer it, when and how I could ask for it, etc. She educated me about other forms of pain medication. And I felt fully prepared to experience labor and ask for these drugs if I found that the pain was too much to bear. It was comforting, reassuring, and empowering to know that I had these options available to me, that there were different ways for me to confront the pain. Most importantly, I did not need to make the decision before going into labor.
And when that first day finally came, it was a roller coaster to hell and back. There were times when the pain was so severe that I would come out of a contraction crying out for help, crippled with fear that I could not ride out another one. After one particularly horrific, blinding contraction, I asked for it. No, I screamed for it. I wanted the pain to be over. I couldn’t do it anymore. “GIVE ME AN EPIDURAL!” I yelled.
My doula calmly suggested that I get an IV of fluids first. You have to be out of your mind, I thought. But she explained that my dehydration was exacerbating the pain and that I’d have to be hydrated before being administered an epidural anyway, so why not see how it goes?
Even though I doubted her at first, my doula was right. As soon as that bag was strapped in, the level of pain subsided. It was still mind-numbing, but I was able to go to that quiet, inner place deep inside myself to battle each contraction, and it wasn’t so crippling and all-consuming. Before I knew it, I hit 10 centimeters and was ready to push. Because I’d had no pain medication, I was actively involved in the whole process, responding to my body, and I pushed out a 9-pound baby in under 15 minutes.
After two pregnancies, I’ve come to understand that the pain of childbirth is not something to be feared. It’s not an illness, but a normal and productive pain. It is a pain that gives life. And labor is different for every woman and for each of her births. Some are more painful, some require more medical intervention. I was fortunate that my second birth was far easier than my first, but the most important thing was that I was educated about my options and encouraged to make my own decisions. The female body is far stronger and more powerful than any of us know until we’re put to the test, and no one should ever make a woman question how she chooses to cope with it.
So for all you expecting mothers out there, the next time someone asks, “Are you getting an epidural?” think about responding, “I don’t know. I’m not in labor.” It’s as honest a response as you can give.