The birth of my third child forever changed me. In some ways, it gave me strength to know what I’m capable of — what we as women are capable of. But it also traumatized me. It instilled in me a fear I had never known; a loss of control I could never come back from.
Some say you’ll soon forget the pain of labor. I think that can be true for the first stages, but not those last agonizing moments. Not for me, anyway. I learned something in those moments about the value of birth plans, which I’d always dismissed as naïve exercises meant to create the illusion of control. Now, I see them as so much more: An essential blueprint for those who are helping to guide you through it all, sticking as close to your wishes as possible.
My “plan” for this delivery was a vague rendition of my two prior births. I would labor as long as I could tolerate — try to get to at least four or five centimeters dilated — and get an epidural once I had reached my threshold. What never crossed my mind, though, was that the very person who was there to help me would try and deny me that right.
First, a disclaimer: I love nurses — my husband is a nurse! I have had countless wonderful experiences with nurses during my pregnancies, deliveries, recoveries, etc. They are healers, teachers, and often heroes among us. But not all experiences are the same, and unfortunately, not all are positive.
The first hint of trouble came when I noticed the way my L&D nurse’s face lit up after mentioning that I wanted to labor “as long as I could stand.”
“I plan to have an epidural eventually,” I made sure to add. But I’m not sure she heard me — she immediately told me she would give me the room with the jetted tub since I was trying to “go natural.”
I corrected her, reminding her that I would labor until I reached my threshold. But that too seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The first stages of my labor went as I’d hoped: I had my husband nearby for support and an oversized birthing ball (aka my lifeline during contractions). As I concentrated on my breathing, I tried to drown out the pain with music blaring from my headphones. My nurse popped in and out occasionally, but seemed to be trying to keep her distance after I mentioned that I had just recovered from a nasty cold. She was pregnant herself and hoping to avoid my germs, she said, so she asked that I wear a mask.
“She asked you to wear that?” another nurse later exclaimed in surprise.
Oh yes, she had. And let me tell you — huffing and puffing through contractions while wearing a mask isn’t exactly the most comfortable way to labor.
Meanwhile, the contractions were swiftly gaining intensity and coming closer and closer together. It had taken me hours to make it to three centimeters, but then in the span of one arduous and agonizing hour I went straight from three centimeters to six and a half. I felt proud of myself for getting to that point — and definitely ready for an epidural.
“Can you call the anesthesiologist?” I asked the nurse.
Immediately, she resisted. Instead, she kept insisting that I try the jetted tub.
“I want to get the epidural before I’m in transition,” I explained.
“You already are,” she said, before adding something that infuriates me to this day: “I just don’t want to you be disappointed in yourself.”
Oh, yes — she really said that.
I was shocked and insulted. I’d never proclaimed that I wanted a “natural” birth, and had never demanded that they try to convince me to avoid pain relief if I asked for it. And it was never my plan to go all the way without any medication.
So no, I wasn’t disappointed in myself — I was proud of getting as far as I had. But her comment left me feeling frustrated and crippled with anxiety. Once again, she tried to convince me to get in the jetted tub.
“Women say it’s as good as getting medication,” she noted.
In fact, she was so persistent that I eventually agreed to try it, but asked her once more to call the anesthesiologist. I knew it could take up to 30 minutes for him to get there and I could labor in the water until he arrived.
Once inside the tub, I started to come undone. The searing pain was like nothing I’d ever experienced — not even with my other two deliveries. It took over my entire body. In between contractions, I kept trying to calm myself, but couldn’t. I knew what was coming. I screamed and squeezed my husband’s hand with brute force. At one point, I remember the nurse helping me through one contraction. Her voice was strong yet calm and her advice really helped me. But then she quickly took off again. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why she’d pushed me so hard to “go natural,” but was never around to help me.
As I sat there, overcome with pain (and still wearing that damned face mask), I wanted nothing more than to get out of that bath tub and find out where the hell my epidural was.
My husband called the nurse back.
“Is he here yet?!” I demanded, wondering what could possibly be taking the anesthesiologist so long.
“Oh … ” she said, acting surprised. “You were getting in the tub, so I thought you wanted to keep laboring.”
I can’t even describe the panic that flooded through my body at that moment; the crippling disappointment. She hadn’t called the anesthesiologist at all. I was in too much shock to even respond to her. The contractions were coming one on top of the other and I was passing that point of no return.
And then, a miracle happened: My nurse’s shift ended and a cheerful new one took her place. Just in time for me to reach nine centimeters dilated.
“Let’s call the doctor!” the new nurse happily declared.
“I WANT THE EPIDURAL!” I screamed.
“But you’re at a nine,” she said.
I didn’t care. I was in the ninth circle of hell and I knew what was coming next. My mind flashed to the painful episiotomies and stitches that came along with my previous two births. Oh hell no — I was getting that damn epidural, so help me God.
Finally, the sweet relief came: The anesthesiologist arrived, and administered one coveted dose of medicine into my spine before I started to push. And while I still experienced plenty of pain and pressure while pushing, I was spared the dreaded “ring of fire” so many women who go natural have described to me. Still, when they finally placed my newborn into my arms, I couldn’t readily forget what I’d just been through. Seeing my baby’s face didn’t wash away the trauma I felt in the moments leading up to his birth, and the joy I felt over meeting him could’t erase the anger inside me that crucial decisions had been made without my consent.
Maybe I could have handled delivering without medication better, had I prepared for that kind of birth; but it had never been my plan. I hadn’t hired a doula to hold my hand throughout, and help me ease the pain. I hadn’t studied up on the Bradley Method or attended weekly Lamaze classes. Sure, there are women out there who may not need that kind of help to deliver naturally, but I’m not one of them. And having my wishes ignored felt like such a violation.
In the end, though, I am forever grateful for what I walked away with that day: My beautiful and healthy baby boy, who’s perfect in every way. And of course, there’s some truth to what they say, that even the best laid plans are just that — plans. Every birth is different, and not everything will unfold as you imagine it to.
But my experience that day also taught me a powerful lesson I won’t soon forget: Never underestimate the power of your own voice. Being your own advocate and making sure your wishes are heard and thoroughly understood in the delivery room — and with all matters of health — is every woman’s right. Oh, and also, take it from me: Don’t be afraid to ask for another damn nurse!