Please, Never Tell a Woman She Should Just “Get the Epidural”

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

Jessi Klein, the television writer and author behind the new book You’ll Grow Out Of It, doesn’t want women to feel guilty about accepting pain meds during delivery — and she seems to be shouting it from the rooftops in her recent New York Times essay, entitled “Get the Epidural.”

Now, for the most part, Klein’s message of not shaming other moms for how they choose to give birth (or raise their kids, for that matter) is a notion I can certainly get behind, and she definitely makes some pretty valid points in her piece. The pressures surrounding new motherhood are enough to make even the most confident new mom doubt herself.

But honestly, she kind of lost me with the whole telling women how to give birth part. Because while Klein at first suggests that telling women what to do with their bodies is a bad idea, that’s exactly what she ultimately winds up doing.

“When you have a baby, there will be plenty more pain,” she writes. “The pain of recovery, no matter how you give birth. The pain of nursing. The pain of not fitting into any of your old clothes … So really, just get the epidural.”

How exactly does telling women to just “get the epidural” make any more sense than a woman saying “just go for the unmedicated birth”? It’s simply a matter of opinion about which type of birth is optimal. And just as Klein didn’t want to be told that an al’ naturale birth is best, women with other plans than the one Klein suggests probably don’t want to be told that they’re doing it wrong, either.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to giving birth — it’s as varied as each woman’s body. And as such, we have every right to do our own research, draw our own conclusions, listen to our guts, and do what we feel is right for us. But in an effort to discredit all the voices telling women how to approach birth, Klein has ironically done the opposite. She’s simply added to them, with her own opinion on the way she thinks you, me, and every woman should go about giving birth. And there’s nothing empowering about that.

“Get the epidural” might sound like harmless, practical advice to a woman who really knows deep down she wants one, and just feels guilty about it. But to many other women — especially those who are not yet sure about how they want to give birth, or others who are planning to forgo medication all together — it’s inappropriate and honestly confusing. In fact, Klein’s well-intentioned sentiment also seems to be a little fear-inducing, as if to say, “trust me, you’re not going to want to feel what’s coming.” Considering all the fear that already swirls around giving birth, that’s probably the last thing a lot of women want to hear.

“There are so many debates in this life in which there is some evidence of one thing and also some evidence of the other,” Klein continues. “At such a point, you just have to decide to believe in and do what is best for you. So here’s a radical idea: Why not do the thing that makes you happy?”

Here’s the thing, though: I’m definitely with Klein on the whole “do what makes you happy” argument. But not every woman believes a medicated birth is “the thing that makes you happy.” She also implies that the only logical reason for denying yourself of one is to “win” some kind of award for your efforts — something that reeks of more mom-shaming. She writes:

“Shortly before my son was born, I spoke to a friend on the phone about how guilty I felt that we were planning to hire a night nurse for a few weeks. Shouldn’t I be the one to take care of him all the time? He was my peanut that I had created. Wouldn’t I be shirking my maternal responsibilities if I didn’t stay up around the clock? I was worried that I was already a failure.”

“At which point my friend said, ‘What are you trying to win?”’

“What was I trying to win? I thought about it and realized — nothing. There’s nothing to win.”

She’s right on that one — there is nothing to win. But most mothers I know don’t care about the Unmedicated Birth Trophy Klein speaks of (because, oh yeah, it doesn’t exist). They simply want to do what feels right for themselves and their new baby in those all-important first moments. And opinions about birth completely aside, there are plenty of solid, science-backed reasons that some mothers choose to avoid pain medication anyway. Exploring potential medical risks and making an informed decision is everyone’s right.

After my first baby’s heart rate dropped drastically the moment the epidural entered my spine, I wished I had done just that. At the time, I thought I was prepared; but I’d been so convinced that the risks of medication were so obscure, practically unheard of even, that I didn’t waste time obsessing over them. Once inside the birthing room, though, I felt far more pressure to receive an epidural than to not. “Don’t torture yourself,” were the Labor & Delivery nurse’s exact words to me. Potential risks went unspoken — though to be honest, I’ve signed more waivers before undergoing light dental procedures. At the very least, I instantly wished I’d read a bit more about those possibilities before I agreed to my own epidural.

So while Klein suggests that women feel pressure to have an unmedicated birth, my own experience was exactly the opposite, and I know many women who would say the same. In every way — from being forced into a bed the moment I arrived at the hospital, to being sliced open with an episiotomy (a procedure that is not routinely recommended) — I felt that my decisions about my first birth were not my own. And sadly, that’s not an uncommon experience. Some women have experienced symptoms akin to PTSD post-delivery in what’s now being called “birth trauma” as a result of their experiences with forceful birthing practices. Some women have even pressed charges after forced or coerced procedures took place during their deliveries

So yes, in the culture of childbirth that we live in today, telling women to just roll over and “get the epidural” is a harmful notion; particularly when many already feel that decisions in the delivery room are being made for them. Let’s not tell her she’s wrong for doing what feels right for her and her baby. Because while this kind of rhetoric may not outwardly seem like shaming, that’s exactly what it is. And women have had enough of hearing what they’re supposed to be doing with their own bodies. The only thing we should be telling each other to do when it comes to our bodies and the lives we choose to bring into this world is educate and empower ourselves about our options. Anything else is a waste of time.

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