Although my mother and mother-in-law both gave birth without the assistance of epidural analgesia, this does not appear to be the norm for most women, at least in the current times. I do not go around broadcasting that I plan to have an unmedicated birth, because I really have no clue how it will ultimately all play out, and it could very well be the case that medical interventions become necessary… but hopefully not.
Some of the sentiments I’ve heard about an unmedicated birth are quite snide, and I get these from all kinds of people, including those who are professional healthcare providers (not my own, fortunately). No, I don’t want a gold star or a pat on the back for needlessly suffering through pain, nor do I believe that “natural suffering” should be part of the grand experience of labor and birth. Believe me, if I could literally snap my fingers and have a pain-free birth, I’d do it. However, the fact remains that no medication or medical procedure is without attendant risks and potential complications.
Some studies suggest epidural use causes increased labor time and increases the need for instrumentation use in the form of forceps and/or vacuum, which in turn leads to increased risk of severe tearing (here). I have no strong opinions on what other people should or should not do, except that I believe every woman should have enough information on data and risks to come to whatever conclusions based on her personal preferences. But just as to myself – as a person who has never undergone any sort of surgery, medical procedures frighten me. I have not so much as had tonsils removed, had a mole biopsied, or ever needed stitches. No joke, the most invasive medical procedure I have undergone is probably a pap smear. So the mere idea of having a needle in my spine that pumps drugs continuously in my body, along with a catheter up my urethra, or potentially having someone stitch my vagina or slice my belly open, causes just as much if not more anxiety than the fear of labor pain.
Further, having worked in the medical field, I have a selective awareness of all the things that can and do go wrong with medical interventions. I’ve had a case where a patient experienced a severe spinal infection from spinal analgesia and have also had a case in which a woman permanently and completely lost bladder control after a catheter mishap during birth. Granted, these complications are extremely rare, but at least with an unmedicated birth, I know what the worst complication is – pain. Pain sucks, but if you can tolerate it, it’s a lot less scary than complete loss of bladder control, paralysis, or a c-section.
All this being said, I dread pain and am not about to go into this without the right resources and tools, which is why we decided to take a Hynobirthing class. My clients are almost exclusively composed of healthcare providers, and being a person who very much appreciates medical technology, embracing alternative measures was not easy for me. This is particularly the case because the alternative measures inevitably involve a certain degree of what I describe as Hippie crap, for lack of a better term.
I own more than a handful of boho skirts and love Bob Dylan. I don’t wear deodorant because I don’t need it but that does not mean I want to give birth while dancing in a naked circle in the ocean or that I will ever be sold on the spiritual/emotional benefit of candles, incense, or aromatherapy [NOOOOO]. I am not one of those “spiritual not religious people.” I am not searching for cosmic truth or seeking to be one with nature.
I previously had no interest in meditation, spirituality, and certainly no interest in hypnosis, because I liked my life at a certain pace, and I liked to be in control. On my high school graduation night, a hypnotist performed a demonstration, and of about 40 people, I and one of my friends were the only two skeptical individuals who were not able to succumb to the hypnotist’s antics, despite following directions.
So how did I get over this?
First, I told myself I had to. I did some light research and found that plenty of women can and do experience bearable births without epidural use, and told myself that if I wanted to take this path, I would have to consider, accept, and follow the advice of the practitioners who specialized in this area. I’m not one to follow anything blindly, but I did make a commitment to this particular path. I bought Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, my friend gave me Mindful Birthing, and I signed up for prenatal yoga.
During my first couple of yoga classes, I internally cringed at instructions to “send loving thoughts” to my baby and affirmation cards about beautiful birth goddesses. When told to “let go,” my instant thought was Let go of what? No, I don’t want to. But then the Asian mom in me said Listen to the teacher! What do you know? Plus, you paid for this, so pay attention and just do it! While yoga was not life-altering, it did bring a sort of calm and balance into my life.
In turn, the breathing techniques and general culture involved in prenatal yoga primed me for the Hypnobirthing class, which was taught by an experienced and knowledgeable midwife. The course featured much informative material about the stages of labor and delivery, the relevant anatomy, and exercises for managing pain. Don’t get me wrong; I still engaged in internal eyerolling at some of the videos, particularly the one where the narrator spoke like she was trying to get me to join a cult, and proclaimed nonsense about the spirals of the nautilus shell having some relation to the order of the universe and pain relief [please, just don’t]. However, I do strongly believe the meditation, breathing, and relaxation practices and visualization techniques were on point, useful, and will be immensely helpful during labor and birth.
In the end, as with all things in my life, I settled on a mishmash of what worked for me. I fully embraced Ina May’s perspective on dispelling the fear associated with birth, but ignored her implicit calls for further socializing medicine; I incorporated the benefits of prenatal yoga without resorting to paganism; and I fully engaged in meditation/relaxation exercises without committing to birthing in a tub at home and eating my placenta.