The other day I visited a friend of mine who had a week-old baby. She looked so calm and composed. I asked her how her birth was, expecting her to give me the usual, horrific, blood-filled story of screaming and tearing, but she just looked at me with a serene glow and said: “Amazing.”
“Sorry, did you say ‘amazing?’” I replied.
She proceeded to explain how dreamy her 12-hour delivery was: how she took a nap halfway through her labour, and how it was an incredible bonding experience with her husband. She also left the hospital with not even one stitch, which also boggled my mind.
I was so thankful that she’d had a safe and healthy birth, but I also left feeling a little, well, jealous.
While I’ve had two so-called “natural” and drug-free births, my delivery-room experiences were nothing like what my friend was remembering. I was damn lucky, don’t get me wrong: No Pitocin, no forceps, no vacuum. Both my girls were born healthy and with minimal complications, and I walked out of the hospital in pretty good shape. I don’t want to seem ungrateful. But I wouldn’t describe the event as “amazing” or “dreamy.” It was one of the most painful, traumatizing things my body has ever experienced. The feeling of expelling another human the size of a watermelon is something I can distinctly and easily recollect at a moment’s notice. They say your body forgets, but mine certainly hasn’t.
I’m an athlete and I enjoy a physical challenge, which makes me strangely proud of my drug-free births. But I also think that having a vaginal birth without an epidural shouldn’t be so idealized—the term “natural birth” itself is unfair and divisive. And I want pregnant women to know that “natural” labour isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
I had this very naïve idea that childbirth would somehow be beautiful? Or something less animalistic than it was. I had read Ina May Gaskin’s Guide To Childbirth and while I knew it would hurt, I had also thought that it might be a blissful, spiritual experience. Gaskin even says it can be “orgasmic” and includes pictures of a woman in the throes of labour, smiling away. Ha!
My first labour was 30 hours long and I managed most of it at home. When I called the labour and delivery department to let them know I was having contractions, the nurse told me not to come in until they were three minutes apart. While I had hoped to have no interventions or drugs, I was open to whatever I needed to do to get the baby out safely.
By the time I got to the hospital at 7 cm dilated, I was in so much pain that I changed my mind—I wanted an epidural. Unfortunately for me, the hospital was really busy. An anaesthesiologist finally showed up when I was 10 cm dilated and she started to get set up, but then she suddenly had to leave after an urgent page from the emergency room. I looked at my husband in a panic and gasped, “She’s coming back, right?”
“Yes, don’t worry, she’s coming back,” he reassured me. But she never did.
(After the fact, he told me that our nurse apparently silently mouthed these words to him: “No, she’s not.”)
I had no choice but to give birth without drugs. After thirty hours of contractions, twenty minutes of intense pushing, and an episiotomy, my daughter was born, at 7 lbs 4 oz.Can you hypnotize yourself to a pain-free birth?
Right after the birth, while propped up in bed beside my newborn daughter and sleeping husband, I texted every single one of my pregnant friends:
“That hurt like hell. GET THE EPIDURAL.”
It’s not so much that I wanted the pain relief—though that would have been nice—it was more that I wish I’d been able to step back a tiny bit and savour the extraordinary moment that I became a mother. I barely even opened my eyes during labour because the experience was so intense. I couldn’t focus on anything other than breathing through the contractions that shook my body. It’s amazing to me now, in hindsight, that I produced a human life, but I didn’t really get to experience or register my amazement while it was happening.
The second time around, two and a half years later, I arrived at the hospital after six hours of labour at home, at 9 cm dilated. The contractions were so aggressive that I debated getting an epidural, but by the time they rolled me into the delivery room, I was already at 10 cm. I figured I had done it once, I could do it again. After two hours of writhing and screaming my head off, I experienced another insanely painful birth, and more stitches. (To everyone who’d told me it would hurt less the second time—that was all lies!) The OB/GYN was yelling at me to slow down and to stop pushing (to minimize tearing), but I couldn’t stop my daughter’s speedy arrival.
Now that I’ve had two children, I know that social media does us a disservice when it comes to images of what labour is really like. You see photos of women birthing their babies in pools of water, all warrior-like and strong. Or posing with full hair and makeup, seemingly minutes post-delivery, beaming at the brand-new little bundle in their arms.
I didn’t break out the iPad to watch my favourite TV show, or have a moment to put on a birth playlist. I didn’t text my friends mid-labour or invite my family in to chat—it was too panicked and way too fast. We also didn’t take any photos during either labour (I probably would have killed my husband if he had tried), but he did capture some excellent post-birth photos where I look like I was run over by a truck.
When they placed my eldest daughter on my chest, I was in shock. So when someone tells me they had a magical, ethereal birth where they watched the baby crowning in a handheld mirror, pulled the baby out themselves, then cried tears of joy and relief at this transformative moment, I feel a little sad. I didn’t experience that. Birth is supposed to be full of big, memorable, once-in-a-lifetime emotions, and I feel like I missed out.
Maybe the epidural wouldn’t have made a difference in how things happened. Maybe it wouldn’t have slowed down my labours at all. Maybe it would have made things go totally sideways—I’ll never know.
But I still wonder.