I have given birth twice, enduring, in the process, more than 27 hours of labor. Most of this labor, incidentally, was tremendously painful. Fortunately epidurals exist, and I eventually employed them for both of my deliveries. I. Regret. Nothing. Of course, there are some things I wish I knew about epidurals before I had one, but life is all about learning from experiences. Fortunately for you, I'm here to give you a head's up so maybe, just maybe, you'll be armed with more knowledge going into that delivery room than I was.
While I didn't have a specific plan one way or the other regarding pain relief during labor and delivery, I was very open to the idea of getting an epidural when the time came. I knew the basics like, for example, it was a catheter that was placed in your spine to deliver pain relief during labor, and was administered with the use of a large scary-looking needle. I also knew that there are different kinds, but I wasn't committing one way or the other. I'm very often a "play it by ear" kinda gal.
Most laboring American women will opt for an epidural. Speaking as someone who has had two, I can see why: labor sucks and epidurals are amazing. Of course, I can only speak from my own experiences, and I know there are some people who are vociferously anti-epidural. Some of those people feel that way on principle (which is fine as long as they don't get judgmental or preachy) and others just had a completely horrible experience. Those people aren't lying and neither am I — you never know exactly how your body will respond to a medication.
But I can tell you, from my experience, that I'm really happy with my decision to go for it. That doesn't mean I didn't face my fair share of surprises,though. So with that in mind, here's what I wish I knew about epidurals, before I had one:
It Doesn't Hurt Too Badly
Again, I can only speak from my experiences, but I really didn't find the big enormous needle being poked into my spine too bad! Like, it didn't tickle, but it wasn't the horror stories I've heard from other women.
Granted, I have a high tolerance for pain and generally lucked out (the anesthesiologists got them placed on the first try both times), but I was pleasantly surprised nonetheless. It would have spared me some anxiety to know that beforehand.
It's A Very Weird Feeling
Just because it doesn't hurt doesn't mean it's not a super creepy feeling. Like, it's a big enormous needle being poked into your spine. The only way I can describe it is the physical manifestation of what a gasp feels like. It's unsettling, and that unsettled weird feeling affects you more, in my experience, than any accompanying pain.
Catheter Isn't So Bad, Either
My real fear about getting an epidural was the idea that I would need a catheter along with it. (A two for one deal!) Why? Because if you can't move you can't get up to pee and they don't want you wetting yourself in your hospital bed. I don't know why this idea upset me so much, but I was actually shaking and on the verge of tears as I was prepped... and it was really nothing. For one, the epidural is already starting to numb you up and two, nurses know WTF they're doing. They administer catheters all the damn time.
It's Not "Giving Up"
"Giving up" implies that there's only one correct way to give birth, which is patently false. Often, "natural birth" (which is often but not always taken to mean "medication-free birth") is hyped as the pinnacle of all possible birth experiences. I'm sure it's lovely for many people, but after 13.5 hours of tremendously painful contractions (and my water had already broken, so I didn't have any internal cushioning) I'd experienced enough nature for one day.
There are lots and lots of valid birth experiences, including: medicated, unmedicated, induced, planned C-section, alien busting out of your chest and going on to chase Sigourney Weaver around a space ship...
... OK, maybe not that last one, but still, the point remains that birth is birth.
You Still *Feel*
Some people have reported to me that their epidural made them not feel a thing. I felt every single one of my contractions after my epidural, they just didn't hurt. It's a very weird sensation, but sincerely welcomed after hours and hours of intense pain every couple of minutes. When it came to delivery, I could also distinctly feel my daughter making her way out of the birth canal. It would have been simultaneously encouraging (and a good fair warning) that an epidural is not synonymous for "numb from the waist down."
It Will Barely Touch Butt Contractions
If I were ever First Lady and had to choose a platform to make my thing, Butt Contraction Awareness and Education would be a serious contender. Because they are real and I didn't know that until I was having them.
Basically "butt contractions" (not a technical term) are just regular contractions, but you feel them in your bottom. This is because as your baby descends during labor they are putting pressure on your bowels. This feeling sucks and my epidural did very little to alleviate them, even though I was virtually pain-free in my belly. Fortunately, the butt contractions didn't hit until about two hours before birth so it was bearable in terms of duration.
It Can Make Your Labor Better
I was on Cloud Nine after I got my epidural and, no, it wasn't because the drugs were making me loopy. There's just something powerful that happens to you psychologically when your body isn't in pain after being in a lot of pain for a long time. I was relaxed, I was better prepared to process the mental aspects of giving birth, and I was also able to rest.
The Anesthesiologist Will Be Your Favorite Person Until Your Baby Is Born
And I told them so, because no one else has done for me what they did for me. If I'd have known their names, I would have been tempted to name my children after them.
It Won't Ruin Your Birth
There's a lot of debate as to whether an epidural will increase your chances of a C-section or stall labor or make you unable to feel your baby physically or connect emotionally. As much as I knew that most of these claims were not founded in great (or any) evidence, I was nevertheless deep down a little bit worried in a "what if" kind of way. It would have been helpful to know ahead of time that both of my birth experiences would be wonderful (and that the epidural would contribute to those positive experiences.)
You Will Be Up & Walking Shortly After Birth
Particularly after my vaginal delivery. It seriously felt like no time at all that I stood up and had a nurse watch me pee (another thing I feel like I would have appreciated knowing ahead of time, because I had no clue).
People Will Judge You
I mean, I probably should have guessed this because of course they did. But after a few pangs of shame or hurt, I came to the conclusion that whatever is going on that makes them feel the need to judge someone for the way someone else brings a baby into the world is on them. Let them sort out their baggage: you're too busy with a new baby.
Most People Won't Judge You
To be honest, I was probably way more worried about this than I needed to be. Because, at heart, I'm a people pleaser and I love getting approval and validation. I was worried that people would look down on me for not giving birth "the right way" and, while a couple did (to varying degrees of subtlety) most were like, "Oh cool, rock on."
Some people are garbage, but many are quite charming when given the chance.
They Can Wear Off
Just in time for delivery and the ring of fire! And then your midwife will say, "Actually this is good, now you can push more effectively" and you're like, "THERE IS A BABY COMING OUT OF MY VAGINA AND I CAN FEEL THE EXACT SHAPE OF HER HEAD! GET HER OUT!"
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.