Turns Out I Can’t Get An Epidural — At All, Ever

I’m about to have my fifth kid, and I’ve learned a few things from this experience.

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A mother giving birth to her baby in the hospital
David Aaron Troy/DigitalVision/Getty Images

“At least I’ll have an epidural.” That was my mantra throughout my first pregnancy. Whenever I got scared of the pain of childbirth that’s pushed on us through movies and horror stories passed mom to mom, that’s what I told myself. I’d even hoped for a C-section with my first, thinking it would be a much more controlled and pain-free experience. (C-section moms, laugh it up. I was naive for sure, I know now.) But what I hadn’t considered, and what caught me way off guard, was when I learned I’m not a candidate for an epidural, the pain relief method two-thirds of birthing parents choose. I had to face my biggest fear: an unmedicated birth to build the family I wanted.

As a young gymnast decades ago, I pushed through pain and multiple surgeries to pursue my passion. I was ignorant to the costs to my body, which manifested in chronic back pain that I’ll navigate forever. I’ve had multiple operations and even today I live with nerve damage and scar tissue.

The fallout extended to childbirth, as I found out during my first birth, when they tried four times to place an epidural. The first few times didn’t work and fired up searing nerve pain worse than any childbirth I experienced later, essentially traumatizing both myself and my husband, who was looking on. The third try worked on half my body, so my pain was imbalanced. I spent eight weeks postpartum where I struggled to walk, move around, and even get to the bathroom unassisted. Needless to say, I’d think twice before trying that in the future, joining a chorus of other women who didn’t have the pain-relieving experience they thought they would.

With my second delivery, I didn’t even have time to consider the option, rushing to the hospital with a “precipitous” (super fast) birth, arriving at 8 cm dilated and meeting my baby just a half hour later. I wasn’t prepared for an unmedicated birth. I wanted to try the epidural again at a different spine level, with a different anesthesiologist. I fought that unmedicated birth tooth and nail, telling my husband I was dying, unprepared for the rush and drama of a quick birth. But finally a wise and watchful nurse convinced me the baby would be here so soon I didn’t need that additional risk. When it was over, I couldn’t believe I’d done it — I’d overcome a decade-long fear of unmedicated birth, and I was shocked at what my body and mind were able to handle after all. I’d walked right up to the line of what my body could handle, and returned from it changed.

I knew I wanted to have more children, so I began to learn more about my options for future births. I learned about water for pain relief, called hypnotherapy, and how doulas and midwives employed pain-relieving techniques used by women through the ages. I dove into a world where medicine was a potential tool for some, but far from the most powerful one in our toolbox for bringing new life into the world.

I fielded a variety of comments from family and friends, from those who presumed I was a “crazy hippie” who had something to prove by turning down pain medicine, to those who admired my ability to mentally persevere through an unmedicated birth. But I wasn’t a hero, and I wasn’t seeking out a transcendental experience. If I could get this magical medicine that helped others nap in transition or “enjoy pushing,” I sure would. I simply wasn’t a candidate for epidurals and vacillated between self-pity and even jealousy of others. It seemed dreamy, and much more manageable, even though I know perfectly well that isn’t actually always the case with epidurals, either.

I had two more births that followed, which were both traumatic and empowering in their own ways. I came to accept that I was meant to have unmedicated births, and that despite my pushback, resistance, and even anger about it, there was a reason I went through this. I learned about the intensely deep and powerful mind-body connection that exists in all of us, if we attempt to find it. When I adopted mantras like “My body is meant to birth” and “Every contraction is bringing my baby closer to me,” I was able to lean into pain instead of fighting it. Don’t get me wrong — none of this was fun, close to pain-free, or something I’d choose to do on a chill Saturday morning, but it was always life-changing, each time.

Heading into my fifth (and hopefully final) unmedicated birth in a few months, I feel tired at the prospect of doing it again, but also confident that I will, and that I’m able. My body has proven that it will follow the power of the mind and heart with practice and some fight. And it’s a lesson that I’ll have the benefit of carrying with me far beyond my birthing years: in a tough workout where my mind is sure I should give up; in a painful medical procedure; in the other challenges life has yet to throw at me. Missing out on epidurals taught me lessons far beyond what pain relief medicine ever could, and for that I’m grateful — even though if someone showed up with one at nine centimeters, I’d definitely take it if I could.

Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.

Alex has a Master of Arts in Teaching, and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications/Journalism, both from Miami University. She has also taught high school for 10 years, specializing in media education.

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