To Epidural or Not to Epidural? That Is the Question.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I did what every new mom does — freaked the eff out. What did I know about raising a kid? I was absolutely clueless about babies. As far as I was concerned, they were small, whining machines that haemorrhage money from your bank account faster than a kick-ass sample sale.

And I preferred the sample sale.

But when I started researching all the different parenting “methods” I was fairly certain I would take a rather crunchy approach to motherhood. There was a debate at the time raging between “helicopter moms” and “free-range parents” and I figured I was somewhat in between. Yes, I’m pro-vaccine. No, I’m not babywearing. But when it came to the question of whether or not to have a ‘natural birth’ without pain medication, I felt the decision was obvious — no epidural.

My Natural Birth  – May 1, 2014

On D-Day, my contractions came slow and steady. I woke up at in the early morning hours with a familiar dull throbbing pain that felt akin to period cramps. I brushed my teeth and laughed through the contractions as they started getting stronger. Arriving at the hospital several hours later I was disappointed to discover that I was only dilated to a four. I thought I was further along than that as the cramps began building in intensity, moving from my lower belly and undulating across the small of my back. When the nurses asked what my pain level was on a scale from 1 to 10, I naively said, “Oh… maybe a three?” The nursed looked back down at me over the top of her glasses and asked with a raised brow, “And you’re sure you want to skip the epidural?”

I did.

Once in the birthing room I was in the zone. Buddhist chant playlist — check. Birthing ball — check, check. I was breathing through each contraction like a warrior, completing circle 8’s with my hips. Breathe in deep. Imagine the baby sinking lower into the birth canal. Breathe out the pain.

After hours of labouring patiently, my midwife was unsatisfied to find me stuck at six centimetres dilation. With years of wisdom behind her, she had me switch to a new position: on all fours. As soon as I moved into this position I felt the force of 50000 volts of electricity course through my back as if Zeus himself had thrown down a bolt of lightning.

“I cant’! I can’t! I need the epidural!” I screamed in agony. My husband — bless him — encouraged me throughout. “You can, Erin. This is what you wanted. You can do this.”

At this is point I entered into what can only be called a total disconnect from my corporeal self. I was completely outside my body; my spirit floating mere inches above. My mind was in intense meditation as the only way to control the absolute blinding pain of each contraction. I concentrated so fiercely on the wall in front of me I could have burned a hole through it with my eyesight. In all honesty, the pain of the transition phase from seven to 10 centimetres can only be described as the closest one can get to dying without the relief of death. Occasionally there would be a break in my concentration, a momentary interruption to my heavy, measured breathing, and my spirit would be sucked back into my body. Every muscle would involuntarily convulse; moving from deep inside the uterus, shooting up the shoulder blades, curling my fingers and toes, and the roots of every hair on my head throbbed with shock.

However long this period lasted remains a mystery  — perhaps it was several hours. Time was in suspension until suddenly, I felt an overwhelming urge to push. As a midwife’s assistant was rubbing my back in methodic circles I broke from my trance and said urgently, “It’s time. I have to push. I have to push.” Immediately the delivery room was filled with people. Lights were illuminated and positioned above me. Masks went on. Bodies moved into position poised for the delivery. I don’t remember any pain after that. It was like my mind went from a state of self-preservation to anabolic rhythm. Adrenaline was pumping, and I pushed. Once. Twice. Three times.

The baby was here. And everything that came before was forgotten.

My Epidural Birth  – July 21, 2017

Should we go? That was the thought on our minds in the final week leading up to the surprise early birth of my second child. We had planned on jetting off to Scotland for a long weekend wedding event. At 38 weeks pregnant, I had my reservations at first, but I was feeling great, much lighter and with more energy than in previous weeks. The flight is only 1.5 hours from Paris, and I had already contacted a local birthing centre in Edinburgh just in case. 

On the day before our departure, I had gone to the florist first thing in the morning to pick up bouquets and chocolates as a Thank You gift for the staff at Bram’s creche, as it was going to be his last day before beginning ecole maternelle in the Fall. As I handed over the bouquets and wished everyone a happy summer holiday, one of the women asked, “Do you still plan to go to Scotland?”, and with that, I uttered the famous last words with a laugh, “Unless something happens in the next 24 hours!”

It only took one.

When I got back home I walked into the bathroom to throw a load of laundry in the washer and suddenly felt a gush of water. “Well, there goes Scotland”, was my first reaction. At a glacial pace I began to organize my bags, take a shower, and get ready for the long work ahead. I hadn’t planned on getting the epidural this time either, so I was fully expecting that this was going to suck.

The contractions did not begin right away. They wouldn’t really get going until almost 12 hours later. So once I arrived at the hospital I went to work walking up and down the hallways trying to force my body into labor. Once the clock struck 5pm, some eight hours after my water broke, I felt no closer to giving birth to this child than I did when I arrived. Salah took off to pick up Bram at school and find a place for him to stay. We had zero plans. I was in total stress-mode. He dropped him off at a family member’s house then came back to the hospital for a few hours… and then left again to drop him off at a friend’s for the night. It was already around midnight and the nurse was becoming impatient with me.

“If you don’t start progressing before sunrise we are going to have to induce you,” she warned. That was the very last thing I wanted. I heard pitocin is horrible.

“Get me a birthing ball!” I motioned with a flick of my wrist like a snobbish French aristocrat demanding cake. She was getting on my nerves.

So it began. I started with the figure 8s. I did the whole ‘visualization’ trick. The baby was descending. Slowly. Surely. The pain was becoming more intense. WHERE THE HELL WAS SALAH?

Between wondering where Bram would be, and why this baby was so quick to ruin my Scottish holiday but so slow to GTFO, my stress level was rising. I read online that stress can release cortisol which delays contractions. Shit.

Finally, Salah arrived back at the hospital around 1 AM. I told the nurse I wanted the epidural and she dismissed me saying, “Oh, hunnie, you have to be more dilated.”

Here’s a pro-tip: don’t patronize a woman in labor. I know my body and I knew this baby was coming. I knew I needed some rest otherwise the rest of delivery would be very difficult and I didn’t want to put the baby in a stressful situation. I wanted the epidural so I could sleep, progress to 10 cm and birth this thing.

Another nurse arrived and agreed with me. This is not my first rodeo.

We slowly made our way to the birthing room as I paused every few minutes to let a contraction pass. They were getting closer together. Once on the table she had me double over and breathe, “Don’t move,” she warned.

Salah was asked to leave the room. I guess there’s something about seeing a 6-inch needle being shoved into your partner’s back that makes men queasy. Who knew?

Once the epidural took effect, I felt nothing. The difference between a non-epidural birth and an epidural birth is night and day. While my body transitioned from 7 to 10 centimetres I peacefully napped, every once in a while waking to what felt like a dull throbbing in my lower belly.

The midwife arrived after an hour (remember, this was an hour from when the other nurse condescendingly told me I’d have to wait…) and she asked me to give a practice push. I did and she told me to STOP! The baby was coming and she needed to get ready. She grabbed another midwife and with just the two of them in the room I gave two small pushes and Norah made her entrance into the world. A little red-headed shrimp with blue eyes.

After Thoughts

While I originally wanted to have a natural birth for both my children, in the end, I am happy I decided to go with the epidural the second time around. Childbirth is something that some women only do a few times in their lives (unless you’re a Duggar), and so I was glad to have two different perspectives on the process. I think if I had tried for an epidural the first time, there is NO WAY I would be able to do a natural birth the second time around. The pain of a medication-free childbirth is no joke.  So whether you decide to medicate or not, just remember that the choice is yours alone to make. You can change your mind! But if you do decide to go med-free, having a strong, supportive partner and the mental strength to endure is key to success. But really, the one thing I wished I had known before is this: don’t fear childbirth, that’s the easy part.

There is no epidural for motherhood.


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