I WANT AN EPIDURAL. There. I said it. This is the first time I've been pregnant, and I'm scared as hell about giving birth. (Even typing those two words makes me clench up.) I've talked a lot with my husband and doctor, and also my mom, and I really do feel like having an epidural is the right thing for me. I'll be awake and able to push, but with a lot less pain. So it'll help me concentrate on the good instead of the bad, and maybe even enjoy (I hope) the birth of my baby.
I feel very fragile about this, so it's really upsetting that other people keep criticizing and questioning my decision. My sister said I'm being selfish, that I care more about myself than my baby. A close friend said that natural birth (pain and all) is God's plan for women. And another friend said I was just swallowing a line from "Big Pharm," that I was risking my health and my baby's for the sake of their bottom line—that I might as well just go the whole way and get an elective C-section. Then of course they all tell me their own birth stories, which just scare me more.
Can you help me 1) feel better about my choice, and 2) tell other people to shut up?
Giving birth to another human being might be the single most important thing you will ever do. It's also the most personal thing you will ever do. Never again will so many people stare for so long at your lady bits as if they were tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, offering a glimpse of the future if only they made sense.
Because childbirth is important, and personal, no one gets to have an opinion about it except you. No one.
People insist on telling you what they think because they've been through it themselves, dammit, and if it worked for them it'll work for you. They'll send you endless links to so-called expert web sites, recommend alarming videos, and show you pictures of their own vaginas. Look! It's stretching! That's the baby's head! God forbid you should birth a baby with the help of pain meds or scalpels or forceps. Only ill-informed, uncaring women who are destined to be bad mommies would beg for drugs, or even worse, plan to use them.
That's not all. Should Dad cut the cord (if at all)? Should the lights in the room be dimmed? What about music? Doulas? Squatting? What about that placenta? Throw a rock and you'll find an opinion.
The thing is, they have a right to their opinions, and I really—sincerely—hope they had the births they planned. But they do not have the right to impose those plans on you. Childbirth is personal. End of story. It's your baby, your partner, and your body. That applies to every single woman, including them—and including you.
My own experience of childbirth was all over the map. After months of advice that ranged from eating the placenta to general anesthesia, I did as you did—opted for an epidural. I wrote a birth plan, interviewed doctors, and talked with my husband about the birth experience he wanted. Then I wrote down the plan and had it taped to the wall over my bed. And before the tape was stuck, the plan went out the window. I was too far long to have an epidural, so I took a warm bath and cried. My carefully chosen doula was unavailable, so I had a doula I'd never met. Then the doctor decided I wasn't too late for an epidural and gave me one. Then, 22 hours later, I had an emergency caesarean. If that wasn't enough, my friends were upset that I wouldn't let them visit me in my exhausted, stunned, unable-to-walk state.
I felt worse than bad, even guilty about it, for years. Years. Childbirth hadn't been even close to what I'd planned, and not even the littlest bit natural. It was one thing to wait for labor to start by itself, and to ask for minimal meds for pain relief. But it was quite another to be cut open with my baby forcibly pulled from my body, after 22 hours of unnecessary hard work. (I say that with a nod to those who choose a C-section for any reason whatsoever. It just wasn't my choice.)
Finally, a compassionate friend said one small thing that made all the difference: Every birth is natural. When you bring a child into the world, produce an actual human being who will walk and talk and make a difference in people's lives, that is a mind-blowing part of nature. It doesn't matter how that baby arrives; only that she did. No one gets to tell you otherwise, or to judge you for the way your baby is born.
As for telling other people to shut up, swallow your pride (and potentially your morals) and say thanks for their advice, but this decision feels right for you. If they press, then put your hand up in the universal stop-sign gesture and say, "No really, it's the right thing for us." If they keep going, then tell them you're sorry but you need to pee (what pregnant woman doesn't?) and then walk away.
More than anything, Cat, remember that you are becoming a mother, not just to your baby but to yourself. You're navigating a huge transition, and you're doing it in the best way possible: making informed and careful choices that guard your health and well-being. That makes you a good mommy, indeed.
An After-Note: Let's all remember that the ability to make these choices is a privilege. Women who are educated, well-insured, financially comfortable, and more often than not, white, have more options than others. Low-income women are often under enormous stress, with less access to quality health care. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the United States black women are 60 percent more likely than white women to deliver prematurely. Even more shocking: Black infants are nearly 240 percent more likely to die, due primarily to low birth weight. Hispanic babies are no exception: they are 150 percent more likely to die. If you would like to help improve these statistics, consider getting involved with Improving Birth.
After a full year of writing this column, I have decided to take my own advice and tackle a large project that I've been avoiding for years. Unfortunately that means letting go of smaller projects, no matter how beloved. So in saying goodbye, I hope you'll humor me if I offer one last word of advice: compassion. That one word is a silver bullet into the heart of judgment and fear, and the surest way to peace, with yourself, and with others. Compassion.