For those of you who knew me before Eric and I started planning to get pregnant, you may have at least guessed that I wasn’t exactly a natural birth advocate. I thought the idea of a scheduled c-section sounded like a great idea, and the thought of breastfeeding totally creeped me out. I had a colleague who had had an all natural birth that lasted thirty-six hours, and that was enough to convince me that ALL THAT was something I did not want. After all, as Americans in the twenty-first century, we’ve been given the opportunity to do away with pain during labor. Why wouldn’t you want to do away with pain? Why wouldn’t you want to do away with the strangeness and ickiness of breastfeeding? Knock me out, and give me the drugs. That was quite and very much the way of my reasoning.
Fast forward to July 3, 2009. That’s right — almost exactly a year ago. Eric and I formally decided to go off of birth control that day. I only remember it because it was the one week in the summer that Eric was home from a business trip to San Diego (one that he thought I’d be able to go on, but that’s another story), and it was the night that we saw Away We Go, the day before the fourth of July. Yes, a baby. We decided we were going to have a baby in 2010. Exciting. As you might have guessed, I hadn’t given labor too much of a thought, except that I still thought it was a yucky, painful process. One that I clearly wanted to avoid.
And then I read this post on one of my favorite blogs. (And this one and this incredible, beautiful conclusion to follow up. If you read one of those posts, read the last one, please. Yes. So amazing.) And with those words, and her experience, I began to question what I once knew. When I went to stay with my husband his last week in San Diego, I told him that I thought I wanted a natural birth. Of course, he’s always been a big supporter of this, pretty much calling me crazy for wanting a c-section — I mean, that’s major surgery, and why would you want to schedule that when you don’t have to?
Fast forward again to January 2010. I find out I’m pregnant on the day that we go to visit Eric’s family. I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting that weekend, and it only makes me nervous. After that, I start to do my research in earnest. I read everything I can get my hands on about healthy pregnancy, natural birth, and labor: Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin, Birthing from Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz, Your Best Birth by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, Pushed by Jennifer Block, Hypnobirthing by Marie Mongan, and The Birth Partner by Penny Simkin for my husband and coach. (And I just got The Birth Book by William Sears.)
I began to realize that I was seriously under-educated about pregnancy and childbirth. I began to realize that most of us — women and men — are seriously under-educated about childbirth. As Americans, we’ve also been seriously mis-educated, misled, and misguided about PAIN. We hear a lot of cliches about labor in particular, and we see them on our television and movie screens. We hear this: “You wouldn’t undergo a root canal without anesthesia, right?” or “It would be like trying to push a watermelon out of your nostril.” We hear about how painful it is, how it’s unlike any other pain you’ve experienced, how it’s pure insanity to go it without pain relief. We see women in terrible pain on A Baby Story, lying back as the doctors swoop in to save the day. We see Ellen Page in Juno and Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up begging for epidurals when they go into labor (and Amy Poehler in Baby Mama celebrating her choice to have one in a rather public way). Think about it: do you see any positive portrayals of natural birth in the media? Do you see any portrayals of women being empowered as they choose the way their child comes into the world?
Let me know if you think of some. I can’t.
In fact, I would posit that we’ve been taught to fear labor, fear the natural signals of our bodies, and fear the pain that is associated with those natural signals. We’ve put our trust instead in doctors, who are incidentally, mostly dudes. (Side note: there are lots of great doctors, and natural-friendly ones to boot. But there are plenty who keep on pushing the fear.) By putting trust in someone other than ourselves, and by passively absorbing the fearful images we see in the media, we give up a valuable part of our birth experiences. We get swept away in the wave of fearing pain, and we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to become educated, take control, and guide our birth experience as captain, rather than passenger.
When you fear something, it gets a lot worse, right? It hurts worse, it feels more painful, it is more intimidating, more frightening … so it is with labor. If you fear it, you will automatically tighten up, which works against the natural contractions your body is producing to guide your baby forward. When you work against your own body, and cannot relax, it can hurt a lot worse. Common sense, right? But still, over nine months (and indeed, the many years before we get pregnant), we are developing an image of an intensely painful experience that we cannot cope with, that will control us, that is compared to an illness in the medical world. How can one be expected to work against that fear when it comes to the day of labor?
Adrenaline plays a role here too. If you see a bunch of people you don’t know in your labor room, you get scared at the onset of a painful contraction, or your doctor gives you a rough exam while you are laboring, it can trigger an adrenaline rush. According to Birthing Naturally, “Adrenaline is the “fight or flight” hormone that humans produce to help ensure survival. Women who feel threatened during labor (for example by fear or severe pain) may produce high levels of adrenaline. Adrenaline can slow labor or stop it altogether.” And if your labor stops, you need the drugs, right? So say the doctors.
Well what’s wrong with the drugs? Pitocin and pain relief medications of all varieties help a tremendous amount of women through labor, but they can also mess with your body a bit in ways you might not expect. I’ll comment here about pitocin — it’s a synthetic version of the natural hormone that makes your uterus contract. But it doesn’t work in the same way that your natural hormone, oxytocin, does. It makes your whole uterus contract rapidly and all at once. You might guess that causes pain — not so great pain that might cause you to start seriously needing the pain meds. Pitocin also doesn’t trigger the natural pain relief mechanism your body has to offer — endorphins. So when you get the pitocin, you start needing the epidural, and the epidural, while innocuous to the body in many ways, can slow labor as much as 25%. And when labor slows? That’s right … “emergency c-section.” Sounds nuts right? It certainly happens.
Understandably, many remain frightened of the pain. But many remain unaware of the benefits of laboring sans drugs. You heal faster, you can walk around and try out different positions, you don’t have to have a catheter to pee, you can get in and out of the shower or tub, and you can sneak in a snack or a drink of water every once in a while. Too, you can listen to the signals of pain that your body gives you as positive markers of where you are in your labor. Finally, you are connected to the millions of women who have come before you — your ancestors — who labored naturally. But how do you cope with the pain in a society that tells you pain is unnecessary? Well, that’s the question. How can you?
In all the books I listed above, there are tons of relaxation techniques, exercises, and guided meditation that many women say can help. The Bradley Method encourages slow, abdominal breathing, while Hypnobirthing touts self-hypnosis. Birthing from Within tells about non-focused awareness. There are a lot of options out there. Hypnobirthing even claims that labor was never meant to be painful, and Mongan’s book all but promises a pain-free labor. (We’ll see about that … ha.) Whatever the technique is, the important thing to me is that I get to choose it. I manage the pain, and it doesn’t manage me.
I can’t tell you where I got so confident about this decision, but it happened early on in my pregnancy. I didn’t want this to be something that happened TO me, but rather a whole event that I guided in the best ways I knew how. I’ll state here that I’m not belittling anyone who chooses a different path — we’re all trying to be mothers in the ways that we think will benefit our children the most. I’m also not going to say that I won’t consider pain relief if I’ve been laboring for 36 hours. And I’ll certainly go with a c-section if my baby’s life is in danger. But the important thing to me is that I have chosen to become educated about my options, and not close my eyes in order to let someone else manage the process for me.
That’s all for now.