I Couldn't Get An Epidural During Labor, & It Was Just As Bad As I Imagined
Despite being rather accident-prone, I've never been one for pain. At times, stubbing my toe on the dining room table is enough to bring me to tears, as is a particularly bad headache. I'm no more comfortable watching the pain of others, either. While I love Game Of Thrones as much as the next casually obsessed fan, I've lost track of how many nightmares the brutality within it has caused me. Suffice it to say, I knew long before going into labor with my first daughter that I wanted an epidural. Childbirth is notorious for being one of the worst varieties of pain the human body can experience. There was no way I was going to go through it without the strongest possible drugs.
That first birth was long and arduous. I was in labor for over 50 hours, and my doctor held off until I had dilated seven centimeters before offering me the epidural. Prior to its administration, the pain had been unbearable. I was convinced that my screams would awake the entire hospital. I was sure that it was only a matter of time before I'd crush my husband's bony hand.
Then came the bliss, though. After actual days of pain, the epidural was in and the lower half of my body was entirely numbed as a result. I had always imagined that pushing a baby out of one's vagina would be the most grueling aspect of childbirth, but thanks to the epidural, I barely felt my baby come out of me. It was the contractions that were the real killer — and it was the contractions that made me certain I'd demand an epidural if ever I had a second kid (and that I'd demand for them to put it in long before the seven-centimeter mark).
I knew I wanted a hospital birth, I knew I wanted an epidural, and I knew I wanted them to administer it as soon as active labor struck. Little did I know that I'd only be in active labor for four hours this time.
As luck would have it, I was pregnant again a year later. This time, I felt more prepared with my birth plan. I knew I wanted a hospital birth, I knew I wanted an epidural, and I knew I wanted them to administer it as soon as active labor struck. Little did I know that I'd only be in active labor for four hours this time — and that, on a particularly busy day in the OB unit, there wouldn't be an anesthetist available to inject my spine. By the halfway point, it became clear that no one was coming at me with a needle. It also became clear that I was going to have an almost-unmedicated birth, and that it would be just as horrible as I always assumed such a thing would be.
In the United States, approximately two-thirds of women opt for an epidural during childbirth, according to LiveScience. In the United Kingdom, where I live, it's more like a third, Baby Centre UK reports. Instead, the most common forms of pain relief during labor are nitrous oxide gas and pethidine injections.
Because healthcare is socialized in this country (something that I am immensely grateful for), I don't doubt that the higher costs of procedures like epidurals are part of the reason they aren't recommended as frequently. Childbirth is also predominantly midwife-led over here. Unless the birth is considered "high risk," a doctor typically won't intervene during pregnancy or labor. Midwives can't administer epidurals, though, so if a patient wants one, an anesthetist ideally needs to be notified as soon as possible.
In my case, there wasn't really any time to notify an anesthetist. Although there was one at the hospital, active labor came on too hard, too fast. Anyone who could've performed an epidural was busy taking care of other women, leaving me to contend with "laughing gas" as my prime method of pain relief.
Although nitrous oxide isn't widely available at most labor units in the U.S., it's absolutely standard in England. When I entered my first pregnancy, it was the drug most celebrated and advised by midwives (likely because there are virtually no side effects for mama or baby). It was also the drug most celebrated whenever women in my company spoke of their own labors. "It was f*cking great," a family friend once proclaimed. "As long as you keep your breathing steady, it really helps the pain," my mother-in-law assured me.
The laughing gas did nothing. With every passing contraction, the pain grew worse.
An hour into active labor with my second daughter, my midwife found me a gas and air machine. The best part of this pain relief, in my opinion, is that you pretty much control it yourself by breathing the nitrous oxide in through a mouthpiece. In theory, you should be able to take up as much or as little as you feel you need. So many women had told me that as long as I breathed in a fair amount, I'd be high as a kite. The pain would be lost in a fog of trippy giggles and drug-induced contentment.
So, maybe I didn't do it right. Maybe my inhalations were too short. Maybe my allotted drug supply was just low. For whatever reason, however, the laughing gas did nothing. With every passing contraction, the pain grew worse. In some moments, I truly believed my body would be torn apart from the inside-out. I could picture it happening. I could picture my stomach being ripped to shreds like something out of The Walking Dead, and I tried staring at my husband with a look that would hopefully convey, "If I don't make it through this, you've got this. You and the girls will be OK."
Of course, logic should have dictated that the whole experience was perfectly survivable. Until approximately the 18th century, women typically gave birth with no pain relief other than natural breathing and positioning techniques (and sometimes liquor). Logic should have told me that women (the superheroes that we are) have been doing this since the dawn of time. Our bodies are designed to cope with tremendous amounts of birthing pain. My body would be OK.
No amount of logic or "miracle of childbirth" videos could've prepared me for this pain, though. Something I heard repeatedly through my pregnancy was how much easier this one's arrival would be. "Your body already knows what to do," people would say. "My second delivery was SO. MUCH. EASIER," countless women told me. "By the third time, the baby just sort of slides out!"
Nothing could've been further from the truth, though. Even though labor was much shorter my second time, the contractions were something wholly unexpected. Something that, even two months after the fact, creeps into my passing thoughts and makes me want to burrow into a duvet.
Shortly after the baby was out, the pain stopped. Within minutes, I could breathe steadily again. Within hours, the contractions were only a memory.
The remarkable thing is that I got through it. Even with only mild pain relief throughout, I had my baby. I pushed her out after agonizingly screaming, contorting my body into all manner of acrobatic positions, and digging my nails into my partner's arms for several hours. And shortly after the baby was out, the pain stopped. Within minutes, I could breathe steadily again. Within hours, the contractions were only a memory. Within months, I can't actually feel the pain anymore when I look back to that time.
The unremarkable thing is that I am not special. Women have done this for centuries: before epidurals, before birth plans, before lamaze classes. We have done it while drunk, while high, while unconscious, and while perfectly sober and unmedicated.
If given the option again, I would always choose the epidural. I would always choose to make things easier for myself by soothing my body in whatever way possible. However, I don't hate the fact that I was forced into an almost-unmedicated birth. If nothing else, it was a reminder that things don't always go to plan, and that that's OK. It was a reminder that we have so much untapped strength within us. It was a reminder that, sometimes, we can get through the unthinkable. Even if there's a hell of a lot of screaming along the way.