Before I gave birth, I loved the very idea of birth. (Actually, to be honest I still love the idea of birth.) But that doesn’t make it easy, and it certainly didn’t make things go the way that I expected them to when I was pregnant a little over a year ago. I'd initially planned a home birth and there were many reasons that I wanted to give birth to my baby at home: I don’t love being around doctors, I hate the smell of hospitals, and I was extremely wary of being forced to labor on my back. But part of the reason, for me, was that at home I knew I wouldn’t have the option of pain-relieving drugs. I didn't want to want them, or be glad that I'd asked for an epidural during delivery. So I reasoned that if I knew I could ask for them if it got “bad enough,” I’d always be measuring my pain against that, wondering if I really could handle it or if I needed help. But at home, surrounded by loved ones and my totally stellar birth team, I wouldn’t have that option. Rather than wondering if I could handle it, I’d find a way to handle it. Talking to other women with kids, especially those who'd had both hospital and home births, helped to reinforce that idea for me.
And you know what? For the first part of my labor, that more or less held true. As the pain of contractions became more and more intense, I kept thinking, “oh my god, there’s no way I can take much more of this!” and then somehow, I did. I normalized whatever pain level I was at, and then when it got worse that became the shockingly hard thing. After a few days of labor, pain that I would've once considered a nine or a 10 on that crappy “rate your pain” scale was registering as more of a three. I felt like a rockstar. Like a goddess. I felt like I was going through this amazing and impossible process that was also completely natural and I was going to come out the other side a changed woman. I bounced on my birth ball, drank coconut water, took 5,000 hot showers. But then the labor kept going. And going. And going. All told, I was in labor for about five days, over the course of seven days.
Because my labor was so extremely long, and extremely exhausting, I actually ended up going to the hospital twice. The first time I went to the hospital, my body panicked and my labor stopped. I just wanted the baby out, but the doctor I saw questioned whether or not I had actually been in labor at all (the unfortunate habit of not believing birthing people is yet another reason I'd wanted to avoid doctors and hospitals if at all possible) and didn’t want to intervene. He reminded me that going home, resting, and waiting for labor to start back up again meant that I still had a chance to fulfill my original birth plan. I hoped that I'd have a few days to really and totally recover, but within 48 hours my water broke and I was back in the proverbial saddle, and back on the literal birth ball in my bedroom.
At the hospital, I received an epidural. And it felt like a miracle.
I was feeling a bit discouraged, and a lot exhausted. The second time I went to the hospital was after I said “I want to die” for the 12 time in a row and basically refused to play a part in my own labor anymore. My midwife, bless her, had some very kind words for me about how I shouldn’t consider transferring to the hospital a failure, but I wasn’t listening. Between sobs, my general attitude was something like, “whatever, bundle me into the car, I don’t care what happens anymore.”
At the hospital, I received an epidural. And it felt like a miracle. Well, it felt like a miracle once it was in, that is.
If you’ve never had an epidural, let me enlighten you: the experience itself is pretty awful. Or, at least it was for me. I’ve heard from others that they didn’t find it to be all that dramatic. I am not a medical professional, so I may be explaining this extremely poorly, but essentially what happens is they put a giant freaking needle in your spine (yes, the correct terminology is “giant freaking needle”), and it needs to be done extremely precisely otherwise you’re basically screwed (like I said, I’m not a medical professional). I was only allowed to have one support person in the room with me, so that meant my wife stayed and I had to send my mother and my midwife out.
I felt, for the first time in almost a week, somewhat like my old self.
I held onto my wife’s hands and looked directly into her eyes while the anesthesiologist and his team tried to pinpoint the exact right spot to put the needle in. I’m extremely ticklish, and I kept flinching despite my best efforts. The whole procedure included a constant soundtrack of the anesthesiologist saying, “Katherine, don’t move. Katherine, you’re doing awesome. Katherine!”
I don’t remember what it felt like going in, which is honestly probably my memory being kind to me. But once it was in, the pain melted. The experience was everything I didn’t want, everything I'd so desperately wanted to avoid. There I was, laying on a hospital bed, with a catheter and an epidural, unable to get up, unable to feel my legs. It was totally surreal and totally different than what I'd emotionally prepared myself for. But it was also completely magical. The constant pain of contractions had been ruling my life for so long that I'd started to forget what life was like before them. I'd gone so far as to beg for death. And now I couldn’t feel them at all. I felt, for the first time in almost a week, somewhat like my old self. My midwife watched the monitor I was hooked up to and said, “oh wow looks like you’re having a big one!”
I just shrugged, and then everyone in the room laughed.
The physical and emotional relief that I felt, and that those who had been watching me suffer surely felt, was enormous. I found myself looking at my wife and smiling, and it wasn’t a strained smile, either. Then I heard someone say, “you should really get some rest while you can.” So, I took their advice, and I let myself sleep. Six hours later, I woke up to only a sight twinge-ing pain, and the hum of the machines reminding me that I was still very much in labor.
After that, things got really real. I ended up having to make a decision about a c-section, and it ended up being the only way we were going to get our child out of my body safely. I won’t deny that having a c-section had been one of my biggest fears about going into the hospital, and that it was a massive disappointment for me. Despite all of that, though, I’m still glad that I went ahead and got the epidural when I did. After all I'd been through, I honestly don’t know how I could've handled any of it if I hadn’t had that break.
Getting some rest gave me the strength I needed to deal with what was to come (and make no mistake, it was still hard as hell) and allowed me to make decisions with a clear head rather than out of desperation. I still fully believe that in many cases, no medical interventions are necessary, and the best thing we can do for birth is to just get out of the way and let it happen, so to speak. But I’m also incredibly glad that medical technology is available for when we need it, because oh boy, did I ever need it. If I had it to do all over again, I would've asked for the epidural sooner. And that's honestly the only change I'd make.