Mike and I are sitting in a circle with eight other pregnant couples. Our childbirth education leader, Carol, has just asked if we would like to see what a contraction might look like. Like Bartleby, I would really prefer not to. Everyone else, however, nods yes, they would very much like to see a contraction.
Carol sits back in her chair and closes her eyes. She makes a low “mmmm” noise that stops and then starts again louder. To my horror, Carol begins to moan, and gradually slumps off her chair until she is on the floor on all fours, groaning and hitting the ground with her fist.
I feel many things watching this. I am embarrassed. I want to leave. I am al- ready terrified of birth, but now I am also terrified of Carol. Her moans eventually get lower until they cease, and she returns to her chair, quiet, eyes closed for another few moments before she opens them again and gets out of “character.”
“What did you think?” she asks the group. One woman says she’s interested in learning position to help with the pain. Another woman says she’s afraid but excited to give birth. A woman who seems like she might be a little bit of an asshole raises her hand. She turns out to be me.
“I think, I don’t want to do that,” I blurt out. I tell everyone I am seriously considering an elective C-section, because I am. Everyone looks at me like I just said I am seriously considering throwing a puppy off a roof.
For the rest of the class, Carol leads the group in a slow, meandering discussion of pain management methods that allow you to avoid an epidural. To my amazement, none of my fellow preggos seem to want one. They talk about getting an epidural as if they are talking about getting gonorrhoea. There are some hedges about maybe getting a “walking” epidural or a “late and light” epidural. My head is exploding.
Carol says she’s going to show us a video of women in labour. “It’s not scary, I promise,” she says. She pops in a DVD and then, not surprisingly, struggles with the AV for a few minutes. Finally, she gets it to play, and we are seeing a hospital in what appears to be the late 1970s, based on the porn moustaches of the dads and the curly ’fros of the moms (both black and white). We watch the women in hospital gowns walking up and down the halls, supported by their partners, sweating and staggering. One woman is in her labour room, holding on to a bar on the wall and whispering to herself like she is possessed. Another is in the hospital bed, eyes closed, a grimace on her face.
There’s fifteen minutes of this stuff, and then we cut to some of the actual births. I’ve always avoided watching birth videos. But now I’m being forced to watch this, like I’m in A Clockwork Orange, and I can’t look away. We see one baby come shooting out of a vagina, purple as a plum, and for the first time in my life I see what the umbilical cord really looks like. It’s blue and looks like fifty Twizzlers twisted together.
Carol snaps off the TV. “See?” she says, grinning. “None of those women had epidurals. And they looked okay, right?” I do not think they looked okay.
Five hours later, we are wrapping up. There is still another whole day of this tomorrow. This is a two-day intensive class for which we have paid hundreds of dollars. Carol asks if anyone has any final questions. An Italian woman with a cute accent raises her hand. “Erm, I am just curious, um, just, why does everyone not want an epidural? I do not want it, either, I am just curious as to why others don’t.
Carol’s brow furrowed. Everyone’s brow furrowed. Except mine. My brow didn’t furrow. I don’t know what the opposite of furrow is. Let’s just say it unfurrowed.
It unfurrowed because if there is one thing I want you to get out of this book, and I am not putting any pressure on you to get anything out of it, but if I were to tell you one thing that I would want you to close the covers of this book and walk away convinced of, it would be this:
GET THE EPIDURAL.
GET THE EPIDURAL.
No one ever asks a man if he’s having a “natural root canal.” No one ever asks if a man is having a “natural vasectomy”
When you write an email and you use all-caps, people don’t like it because they say it seems like you’re screaming. They’re right. I am screaming.
GET THE EPIDURAL.
I mean, if you really want to give birth without medication, and it is important to you, and you are absolutely certain that you are the only one telling yourself that you want to birth your baby this way, then by all means, go ahead. But if you are Googling around and feeling unsure, or your mother-in-law is telling you that she did it without the epidural (she doesn’t remember correctly, I assure you), or some doula is pressuring you to give birth at home in a tub filled with quinoa, basically, if you have a shadow of a doubt… GET THE EPIDURAL.
Not only do I recommend getting an epidural while you’re giving birth, I’d say get one beforehand. I’m sitting here writing, and I would get an epidural right now if I could.
I have gone online to try to understand what reasoning there is for women not to get an epidural. The top reasons seem to be:
1. You can’t feel yourself pushing.
2. You’re numb and can’t move.
3. There’s an increased risk of C-section.
I will now quickly address these assertions. (Let me add now that I know every woman is different, and every labour is different, and we are all snowflakes, and I am definitely not a doctor, but on the other hand...GET THE EPIDURAL.)
1. Re: You can’t feel yourself pushing
So, I had an epidural. And not just any epidural. I demanded it as soon as I got to the hospital and I told them to turn it all the way up until the knob might come off. Hours later, when I was fully dilated (ew) and it was time to push, I experienced an intense need to poop. If you want to know what it felt like, I can’t describe it in any other way except it felt like I was going to give birth to an armadillo out of my butthole.
When you get this sensation, your entire body wants to help this armadillo escape and is willing to assist by any means necessary. Not only will you push, but you will push with every molecule in your body. I pushed, and I felt myself pushing. That said, I would have loved to feel absolutely nothing. I would have loved to give birth the way women did in the 1950s when they were basically chloroformed with a rag at eight months pregnant and didn’t wake up till their baby was two weeks old. I don’t know why we stopped doing this.
2. Re: You’re numb and can’t move
This was not true for me. I could feel my legs and move my legs, though I probably could not have stood if I wanted to. That said, I didn’t really want to move. Once I got my epidural, I lay still on the hospital bed staring at the wall-mounted TV, happily watching an epic marathon of Sex and the City on mute.
I had it on mute because I know every line of dialogue in every episode of that show, and also I was enjoying the peaceful beeps and blips coming from my foetal monitor, after a shitshow of a morning that included vomiting from the pain of my contractions. Also, I was entitled to unlimited ice pops, the kind I ate as a kid that come in long plastic tubes that you have to bite your way through.
I did this for six hours. How often in this life do you get to lie in bed eating ice pops and watching Sex and the City for six hours? Please continue reading to reason #3…
3. Re: There’s an increased risk of C-section.
I suppose you could argue that if your labour wasn’t progressing, and a new position would have helped but you can’t get into that position because you have an epidural, you might end up needing an emergency C-section. But what would that lead to? Probably recovering in bed, getting to watch more Sex and the City and eating more ice pops. This seems like a classic win-win.
GET THE EPIDURAL.
Once I got my epidural, I lay still on the hospital bed staring at the wall-mounted TV, happily watching an epic marathon of Sex and the City on mute
Why do so many women feel like they shouldn’t get an epidural? Consider this. I am seven months pregnant and standing on line at a grocery in Brooklyn, minding my own business (as much as anyone pregnant can mind their own business, because people constantly feel like they have the right to talk to pregnant women about their pregnancy). A woman in front of me turns around. She’s a little younger than me. She does not appear pregnant. She is not with kids. Maybe she has kids at home. It doesn’t really matter.
She asks me, “When are you due?”
This is a common question and one I don’t mind answering, although I have never felt compelled to ask anything of a pregnant woman that I don’t know.
I say, “June twenty-seventh.” I assume we are done. But then, she says: “Are you having a natural birth?”
I’m just trying to buy a sandwich. Is this complete stranger really asking about my plans re: my vagina? I cannot believe this. Still, I decide to be honest.
“Fuck no,” I reply with a smile.
She looks at me, worried. “So… you’re having an epidural?”
I am beside myself. “Why don’t you go fuck yourself,” I tell her.
(Okay, I didn’t say that. Instead I said:)
“Yes. At the very least.”
Now she looks genuinely shocked. She turns and scurries away, like a missionary who’s just been told by a particularly stubborn native that she’s very excited to go directly to Pagan Hell.
I have thought about this conversation often. It annoyed me the rest of that day, and many days after, and recalling it now, I’m annoyed again. I just had to eat a cookie to stop being annoyed. But at the centre of this interaction is one of the key little acorns of bullshit that perpetuates this guilt over epidurals. The term natural birth.
“Natural.” It sounds so… natural. So relaxing. So earth goddess. So feminine. But how often do people really want women to be or do anything “natural”?
It seems to me the answer is almost never. In fact, almost everything “natural” about women is considered pretty fucking horrific. Hairy legs and armpits? Please shave, you furry beast. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to remove your pubic hair, that’s also an abomination. Do you have hips and cellulite? Please go hide in the very back of your shoe closet and turn the light off and stay there until someone tells you to come out (no one will tell you to come out).
It’s interesting that no one cares very much about women doing anything “naturally” until it involves them being in excruciating pain. No one ever asks a man if he’s having a “natural root canal.” No one ever asks if a man is having a “natural vasectomy.”
GET THE EPIDURAL.
“But what about the science,” some women (and many men) will say. “There is science supporting all the estimated ‘risks’ of an epidural!” Well, again, I am not a doctor, but I do have the Internet. And I’ve Googled the pros and cons extensively, which is very close to what a doctor would do. And the fact is there’s science supporting both sides. There’s a boatload of science that says having an epidural is totally fine. And for everyone arguing that epidurals slow your labour down, there are all the doctors who say that epidurals actually speed your labor up.
There are so many debates in this life in which there is some evidence of one thing, and also some evidence of the other. At such a point, you just have to decide what to believe. So here’s a radical idea: Why not believe the thing that makes you happy? Why not disavow the argument that means you will be writhing in pain for umpteen hours and just GET THE EPIDURAL.
You probably already see the wisdom of this philosophy in other areas of your life. For example: There is that old rumour that Richard Gere once had to go to the emergency room because there was a hamster stuck up his butt. I can either believe this, or not believe it. It’s way more fun to believe it, so I do.
GET THE EPIDURAL.
And finally, I offer you this thought. 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.
There is so much pressure on women around birth and labour and mothering to do it one way or another. It’s so easy to believe the notion that having a baby demands complete and total sacrifice, and anything short of that is not enough. That if you’re not in pain, you’re selfish.
But here’s the thing: If you’re worried that skipping the pain of childbirth means you’re somehow cheating your baby, or yourself, you’re not. Because the truth is, life offers more than enough pain that you will not be able to skip. By the time you’ve had a kid, you’ve probably been through some of it already. The pain of breakups. The pain of rejection. The pain of being picked last for a team. The pain of hearing your parents fighting in the other room. When you have a baby, there will be plenty more pain. 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. The pain of not even fitting into your maternity jeans. The pain of hearing your baby cry and not knowing how to fix it. The pain of wondering whether your partner still finds you attractive. The pain of arguing with your husband while your child is in the other room.
The pain of knowing that you witnessed the very first moment of this beautiful person’s life, and that one day, hopefully at least a hundred years from now, there will inevitably be a last moment.
Get the epidural.
You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein is published by Two Roads.