The decision to get an epidural during labor is not taken lightly. Informed women weigh the risks and the benefits and make the decision that is best for them and their baby, with input from their doctors and/or midwives. There is, however, a misconception that women who choose epidurals have chosen to go the "easy route," but there are real struggles only moms who had an epidural truly know. Those struggles make it obvious that an epidural, while helpful, isn't all unicorns and clouds and rainbows.
I was terrified of the process of getting an epidural; from the scary ass needle to the fact that I would have to remain still (I'm not a "still" type of person), to the possible side effects. I felt like I was stuck in a catch 22. I didn't want to experience the full wrath of seismic contractions, nor did I want to experience the pressure and sting of an epidural near my spine. The idea of a needle anywhere near my back made me want to vomit. There were nights when I lay awake thinking that maybe this whole getting pregnant thing had been a very, very bad idea. Then, of course, there were days toward the end of my pregnancy (usually after Googling the hell out of "epidurals" and "what contractions feel like") that I wished the baby could stay inside of me forever.
By the time I finally made it to the hospital, I had decided that I would see how far I could get enduring contractions without pain relief. I labored for several hours, assessing my pain on a pain scale. My nurses checked in on me often, asking me where the pain registered, and reminding me that at whatever point I asked for the epidural, it would take about half an hour more for the anesthesiologist to arrive. That meant that I would have to think about the fact that the contractions could be even stronger by the time he would get there, which would make it harder for me to be still enough for him to administer the epidural. In the end, I decided to play it safe (by my book) and not to go too far on my pain scale before calling for the good stuff.
The "good stuff," however, is certainly not without its own challenges. There are fears attached to getting the drug, things that could go wrong, side effects, those pesky insecurities we have about not having had a "natural birth," and the following:
The Fear Of Getting Past The Point of No Return
You've got to time your epidural wisely. It is wise to do it before your contractions happen very close together. If you wait too long to get the epidural (i.e. to the point when your contractions are off the charts insane, and you've turned into the girl from The Exorcist) it could make it difficult to stay still long enough for the anesthesiologist to administer it. Since only you truly know the severity of your contractions, you're the one who can make that final call. (No pressure or anything.)
When my pain level was at a six, I decided to call in the anesthesiologist. I wanted to get to the point of being able to say to myself, "I have experienced the age-old shared pain of a woman being in labor, but now I am over it."
The Struggle To Stay Absolutely Still
When you receive an epidural, you must try to stay as still as possible. Anesthesiologists can typically administer the epidural to women making minor movements, but it is unlikely they would do it to a woman experiencing contractions that are two minutes apart, for example.
The Reality That Once You Get It, You're Not Going Anywhere For A While
Once you get the epidural, the scary looking needle is removed and a catheter is put in its place so that the anesthetic can continue to be administered during labor. A catheter ensures you will be sitting in that hospital bed from here on out (or until after your baby is delivered and the catheter is subsequently removed).
Not knowing the next time my feet would be able to touch the ground was pretty anxiety inducing. I honestly hadn't thought this part of my birth plan – the part after receiving the epidural – all the way through. I just hadn't pictured not being able to move around once the epidural was put in. So this was a bit of a shock, and a little scary, and really made the day go by much more slowly. Not fun.
That Elephant Leg Feeling
The epidural's job is to relieve the pain of labor, so many women report feeling like the medicine goes above and beyond by eliminating all feeling from the waist down. This was my experience both times I was an administered an epidural. I felt an extreme heaviness, especially in my legs. I felt like I was intellectually aware that I had legs, but that when I asked my brain to move them in any capacity, their response was, "Can't do it. Not gonna happen."
Those Horror Stories About The Migraine Headaches
In some rare cases, women can experience migraine headaches after receiving epidural or spinal injection. This was probably my number one fear about getting an epidural, and was one of the things that kept me up at night long before I even considered getting pregnant (just like I used to stay awake worrying about having a breakout on my wedding day when I was only 13 years old).
As a chronic migraine sufferer, I couldn't imagine dealing with childbirth and a newborn with the added torture of a migraine on top of it all. The possibility of getting a migraine from an epidural was almost enough to make me not get one at all. In the end, however, the guaranteed pain-relief of the epidural won out over the hypothetical pain of a could-be migraine.
The Simple Fact Of The Enormously-Sized Needle
The epidural needle looks like something used to tame a wild beast into submission. Why my birthing class instructor (or any birthing class instructor for that matter) felt the need to show this to the class is beyond me.
I think this is one of these things better left unknown, especially since you wouldn't see it anyway, since the whole procedure is done behind your back and the only needle you feel is the tiny needle used to administer the numbing anesthetic that precedes the epidural needle.
The Full Body Shakes As The Epidural Wears Off
As the epidural wears off, you may find yourself struggling with some full body shakes and overall itchiness. I had chills and was shaking all over for the next hour or so after my c-section, when the effects of all the anti-pain meds (including morphine) were wearing off. It was a very out of control feeling and I didn't like it one bit. Especially because my entire family had this expectation of greeting me, The Happy Mom And Her New Baby, but instead they got this weirded out, shaky, elephant-leg woman with an itchy rash on her chest.
Feeling Like You Have To Defend Your Decision
Even if you're not the defensive type, conversations can arise that may put you in a position where you may feel you have to explain why you decided to go the epidural route. For me, these conversations tend to come up around women who have had amazing experiences with "natural births." It is not because these women ask me to explain myself, necessarily, but for some reason I feel like the question hangs in the air as to why I allowed medicine to intervene on what could have been a completely natural experience. I am working on trying to be less defensive and less insecure and instead just be comfortable sharing my story, and allowing others to share theirs, and let that be the conversation.