My first pregnancy came as a surprise: I had just gotten married and my husband and I still lived in a minuscule studio apartment, with no room for much furniture, let alone a child. But after sharing the news, we were comforted by the overflow of advice we received, including a reference for a midwifery practice that was affiliated with a renowned OB/GYN who delivered at a top hospital and nursing centre near our apartment. This information brought a rush of comfort as I didn’t yet have a doctor in the city. After our first prenatal visit and a sonogram that showed our baby was thriving—another relief, as we knew a number of first pregnancies end in miscarriage, and both had a family history of pregnancy loss— we were finally able to enjoy the excitement and anticipation of having a baby. We began planning for our little one’s arrival, delighting in picking out a crib, stroller and other necessary gear.
We read all about the baby’s development, about birth and the transformative year ahead. As my belly grew, so did my conviction that I wanted a drug-free labour. I decided that I wanted to experience the contractions and feel the baby’s progress through birth. I wanted to be able to stand up and move around during the delivery, and not be tied to a hospital bed, IVs and monitors. Above all, I wished to feel in full control of my body throughout childbirth, which I felt the numbing from an epidural, or even being hooked up to an IV, would not allow.
To best prepare, we took several natural childbirth courses where we learned labouring positions, breathing techniques, and how to use props like a heating pad and counter-pressure applied to the lower back to help ease labour pain. When my due date arrived, I felt ready. I wasn’t concerned about the pain, and even as contractions began, I was steadfast about sticking to my natural birth plan.
Unfortunately, on the night I went into labour, both the hospital and birthing centres were full. Because my husband wasn’t allowed in the labour and delivery triage area, I was left alone to wait for a room to become available. With no other options, I vomited on a table, and felt a sense of dread as it became increasingly clear that my birth was not going to go exactly as I envisioned.
Two hours later, I was admitted into a birthing room. But because the centre was so busy, the midwives and delivery nurses couldn’t provide constant attention. I kept being reassured that everything was “going fine,” and despite being told previously that a natural birth meant there would be no medical interventions unless necessary, just regular checks with stethoscope and blood pressure machines, I was hooked up to a series of monitors that would allow nurses to quickly check on me every 30 minutes or so. I felt like I was being left alone to labour with my husband without so much as a warm blanket or some words of encouragement. When a nurse came into my room, she would check the screens and monitors, watch me through a contraction or two, then brusquely ask, “Should I get your epidural?” When I was vomiting, she offered no help. Requests for a blanket and some hot water to stop me from violently shivering were repeatedly ignored. “We’re out of blankets,” they kept saying.
Five hours later, our midwife, who had been tied up with another labour, brought me some hot water from the nurses’ lounge. I was later informed that the nurses who had denied me earlier always had access to both hot water and warm blankets—even when the centre was busy. Nine hours later, our daughter was born, but because I had been shivering for so long, both of our body temperatures were low and she had to be put under a “toaster” to warm up.
Despite all these challenges, when I finally held my daughter in my arms, I felt happy that I had stuck with my birth plan, and I was grateful that we were both healthy. But I also knew that if I were to have another baby, this experience would teach me how to better prepare.
Before heading to the hospital for the birth of my second child, I packed two large blankets in my hospital bag, along with an extra pillow. I planned to fill large thermoses with boiling water and bring my hot water bottle from home so that my husband would have something to press against my back when the pain got strong. But the best decision we made was to hire a birth doula to help manage the labour pains and to advocate for us, should things once again not go as we hoped.
When my water broke a month before my due date, I was admitted to the hospital and put on Pitocin to induce labour. Here I was again: hooked up to monitors and two IVs, clearly not able to have a drug-free birth. But I was still decidedly against pain medication—the one aspect of the process I could and was determined to control.
With induced labour, the pain feels like contractions on steroids. This time, I needed that hot water bottle; I needed the counter-pressure. I also needed the doula’s extra hands, her cheerleading and her suggestions of different positions, to find some comfort despite the wires and IVs. As the contractions rolled in, I felt like I might break in half and even considered the idea of an epidural despite my birth plan. Thankfully, between contractions, the pain subsided and I was able to catch my breath. Also, being on Pitocin helped move things along, so the labour was seven hours shorter than my first.
The delivery nurse who had been sitting beside me as I laboured kept her face glued to the screen displaying my and the baby’s vital signs throughout the labour. Like the nurses during my first birth, she failed to provide any further care and went through the same script they had: “Let me know when you want the epidural.” She never turned her head, as if she saw me as nothing more than extensions of these cords and wires.
I’ll never understand why the labour and delivery nurses I encountered refused to honour, respect or support my birth plan. Perhaps they saw many patients come in with a natural birth plan, only to change their minds; or perhaps it was the hospital’s practice to keep offering the option of pain medicine during labour. In my opinion, pain is a natural, expected part of giving birth. It’s not a symptom that requires treatment, and surely nurses are trained to honour a patient’s personal health plan. As a patient, I felt bullied. The condescending tones of the nurses made me feel like they thought I was stupid, and that I was wrong in making my own choices.
I have no regrets about my decision to forgo pain medication. My only wish is that I had been better prepared for how that decision would be received by nurses. If I were to have a third child, I wouldn’t consider any other birth plan. And when a friend asks for natural birth advice, I tell them to hire a doula for support and bring all your own comfort measures.