Why I Wish I Would’ve Had an Epidural… in America
Oh, Facebook. I was clicking around/procrastinating instead of working on a deadline when I saw a post from a former coworker. She was nine months pregnant, planning a natural birth at home and wanted to know if putting an ice cube on the inside of her wrist would help numb the pain, literally and figuratively I guess. That’s when I privately messaged her something along these lines: Um, having a baby is a big deal and an ice cube isn’t going to do it. When the time came, she actually needed to go to a hospital for an emergency intervention but all ended well for her and the baby too.
But back to the birth business. In the last four years I’ve had three natural births, all in Italy, and nary an ice cube in sight. The truth is though, I kind of wish I’d have done it differently.
Our first baby arrived about six months after we relocated to Italy from New York City. Speaking only a little Italian, our choices for an OBGYN were limited. I picked the one who spoke English. He happened to be one of the most respected private doctors in Rome, but when I explained to him that I’d like a polite little epidural, he immediately launched into a number of terrifying scenarios, each one adding to the domino effect he ultimately labeled “medical interventions”. Was I prepared for that, and did I agree right this second that he should use “whatever means necessary” to get the baby out when the time comes? So that wasn’t a great start.
My next step was to find an English-speaking midwife and he happened to pair up with one regularly. I wasn’t sure what her role would be, particularly if I was still planning to get an epidural, but I liked the idea of another person to support and coach me along.
Nervous about the actual birth as my girth grew wider, I wanted step-by-step instruction so I convinced the midwife to set up a childbirth class for ex-pats. Sure she said, but since her life was so hectic, could I just organize that for her? So I did. Soon six couples lined the halls of her studio.
But instead of relaxation or visualization techniques, what followed was a mash-up of theories about the medicalization of birth. The point was, new moms-to-be, that natural childbirth was the only option for educated parents, or at least those who cared at all about the child about to be born. And eventually I relented. No epidural for me.
I chose a water birth at a clinic. While the water did help sooth the pain of my contractions—in as much as it felt better IN the tub than out—I’ve since joked many times that it’s certainly not an epidural.
But here was the real issue: I had no idea how to manage the pain. My birth experience was similar to that of the pioneers: just bear it. Allegedly my body “knows how to do this” but during my four hours of hard labor it became clear that I could’ve used a pointer or two. When I started begging her for an epidural, saying I’d changed my mind, the midwife left the room, as did the OBGYN. Their theory, they’d told us earlier, was that their presence would only slow things down. Let a woman be, they said, and she’ll progress much better, faster, easier in the long run.
My experience however was terrifying. I threw up every hour, getting weaker and weaker as the pain seared through my whole body. I didn’t expect this. I knew it would hurt but this lightening bolt set on repeat cycle felt shocking: I couldn’t believe I could have so much pain and not be dying.
When my sister-in-law had her first baby two years later, she did it naturally at home and described it as magical. Magical. My experience was scary, lonely and unbelievably painful. I would never recommend natural childbirth to a friend…unless they had real training. In English.
We’ve just moved to the States but it’s a little too late in one way. Our family now includes three kids under five and that fact right there says it all; we’re probably done. I do have little fantasies about a cushy little American birth clinic though, with a lovely water tub, the kind that’s not blown up but has a special door that opens up, or a very civilized epidural followed by a birth where the special delivery isn’t upstaged by the torture it took to happen. At the very least, I have visions of a Bradley Method Class, instilling me with techniques and confidence to carry the whole thing off.
I know there are horror stories about births-gone-wrong in the US and I’ve heard many negative things about epidurals, plus wonderful insights about natural birth. But if I ever get the chance to do this thing again, someone with insights and experience will coach me through it in my native tongue. Ultimately, I was very lucky to have three uncomplicated pregnancies followed by three uncomplicated births, and now I have three amazing children. And for all of that I can only say, grazie.
P.S. The upside to this experience is that all of the kids were born in Rome, which is a special story they’ll have forever. One they can tell their friends in English.
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