“Wait, what?” you think. Epidurals are on the “do not want” side of the birth plan, if you want a natural birth. You know, the birth plan that you carefully crafted, printed extra copies, laminated so they wouldn’t get wet, and gave to every nurse, doctor, and receptionist you encountered at the hospital.
If you’ve given birth, you may have had an experience like mine — which is to say, it did not go as planned. I wanted a natural birth. No intervention, no meds, no being stuck in one position. Just me and my agonizing screams as I push a small human through the canal that sometimes hurts when I insert menstrual products. We would do delayed clamping, and my husband would cut the cord. We would do skin-to-skin contact right away, and try and establish breastfeeding immediately.
That didn’t happen. Many things did not go according to plan, and I was in a bad way. That is, until an epidural saved me. Without it, I would have needed a cesarean section, which was at the top of my “do not want” side of the birth plan. (Though no shame or judgment if you had a C-section.)
Epidurals get a bad rap within some circles. If you start typing “epidural” into Google, a top hit is epidural hematoma. If you follow the word with “back,” suggestions include “pain,” “issues,” and “problem.” Some individuals believe their persistent back pain after giving birth is due to their epidural.
The National Institutes of Health conducted a randomized study on the long-term effects of epidurals versus non-epidural pain management during labor. The researchers determined there was no causal relationship between epidurals and long-term backaches.
So this is my Ode to Epidural, the pain relief technique that allowed me to give birth vaginally. Mine is just one story about birth, about things not going as planned, about pain and desperation, and finally, about holding a small person to whom every atom in my body is dedicated with a ferocity that can’t be explained.
My brain plans in years. I’m really good at bouncing back when things don’t work out, because I already thought through many different scenarios and outcomes. I’m like Dr. Strange, in that way, though I don’t possess a sentient cape. “What will I do now?” is not a question I ask. I know what I’ll do — I’ll go with Plan B, or C, or D. Therefore, it was no surprise that I made plans for my birth experience.
I have concerns about giving birth in this country. America has the worst maternal mortality rates in the developed world. It’s far worse if you are a woman of color. Many American hospitals do not take the precautions and measures that hospitals in other nations do to monitor the health of mothers once they give birth. When we toured hospitals, we asked about mortality rates and what best practices they implement.
We hired a birth doula. One reason was so that I could have an advocate for my wishes, someone to walk me through decisions, and allow me to focus on the difficult task of bringing a human into the world. She was amazing.
Things started going not as planned approximately one hour into my due date. I got out of bed to relieve my squashed bladder when I felt a small POP, like a joint cracking, except that I felt it in the bottom of my abdomen where there are no joints. When I stood up I felt a gush of warm liquid. My water had broken.
I wanted to labor at home, and go to the hospital when it was time to deliver. They wanted me to come in right away, however, since I was now at risk for an infection. 19 hours later, I was still laboring, with a cervix that was slow to dilate, and strong, frequent contractions. My doctor was concerned that my cervix would be damaged as my body tried to push my baby through it before it was dilated enough. I chose to receive an epidural at this point. I was able to sleep for the first time in almost 24 hours. The pressure on my cervix subsided.
When I was finally ready to push, I pushed for almost six hours, and then, my little son was born. These six hours were exhausting. I was tired, desperate to push my baby out. He was face up, moving slowly. My doctor said that usually, they recommend a c-section after about three hours of pushing. I declined. That, and an episiotomy. If I was going to tear, which I did, I wanted to do so naturally, dangit!
Birthing our baby was incredible. Despite things not going as I wanted, despite changing plans repeatedly, it was incredible. I am so glad that I got an epidural, to save my cervix, to give me needed rest, and to eventually allow me to push my baby out. That moment when I felt the pressure subside, and I opened my eyes and saw that little person on my belly as they clamped and cut the umbilical cord, was incredible.
There were a few agonizing seconds as I waited to hear him cry. I couldn’t see what my husband did, that his dark blue eyes were wide open, his eyebrows scrunched and his mouth turned down in a frown as he took a deep breath in order to vocalize his protest at being suddenly exposed to air, lights, and hands. After a few minutes of him being cleaned and wrapped, and a little hat placed over his cone head, he was in my arms. The planets aligned, the unicorns sang, and he was perfect.
I’ll always be thankful for advancements in medicine that allow women to give birth in a variety of ways. Natural birth is amazing. C-sections save lives. And epidurals? I think that might go on the “yes please” side of my birth plan next time.