By Georgia Ragonetti-Zebell, MD
“Sure. You’ll be asking for an epidural when labor hits.”
“Contractions are the worst pain ever. There is no way.”
“Anyone who chooses not to get an epidural needs intense psychiatric evaluation and treatment.”
“I thought I was going to die. You need one.”
That last one is a quote from my great grandmother when I told her I wasn’t planning to have an epidural. She delivered her three babies with no medications at home, because that’s what people in the rural south did in the 1930s. Clearly, it was not her first choice. With each of my pregnancies, she told me about how horrible the pain was and that it would kill me and that I should just get an epidural. She was a bit dramatic as a rule, and I think she secretly enjoyed being sick. She once called an ambulance because she had a rash. She could not understand why I would shun the pain relief options that modern medicine had to offer. And she wasn’t the only one.
I don’t remember putting much thought into my decision initially. I knew my mother didn’t have an epidural with me. Lamaze was very popular at the time that I was born. She and my father had taken childbirth classes and practiced the “hee-hee-hoo” breathing techniques. Her water broke at home, and when she hadn’t gone into labor by the next day, her OB told her to come to the hospital for pitocin. She remembers my father telling her during her contractions, “You’re not getting any drugs.” Six hours later, I was born. It wasn’t that bad, she says.
That was what I knew of childbirth when I became pregnant with my first. It wasn’t that bad. I was in my second year of medical school, and I had not seen a birth yet. I believed my mother. So I planned to go natural. Since I wasn’t planning an epidural, I chose to deliver at a birth center with midwives because I felt midwives would be supportive of my choice to avoid pain medication. But the more people heard my plan, the more negative feedback I received. “Why would you ever want to do that?” I had to think about it.
Sure, there were obvious things. Like, could I do it? It was a challenge; those people that said “no way” were wrong. My mom had done it. I had to be as strong as she was. I also had dreams of yelling at my kids one day, “Do you know the pain I went through to bring you into this world?” If I had pain medication or an epidural, could I say that? The natural childbirth community paints a beautiful picture. Ina May Gaskin says, “If a woman doesn’t look like a goddess in labor then someone isn’t treating her right.” Who doesn’t want to look like a goddess?
But here is what I realized: I simply wanted to feel it.
From the first flutter to the ring of fire, I wanted to feel all of it. The subtle waves, rising, peaking and falling with exciting regularity. The tightening belly, starting high and gradually pushing down, stronger and stronger. The pull, the moving of tissue to make room for the new life to be. The transition, the “I can’t do this. What was I thinking?” The surge, the involuntary bearing down that brings more and more force. The stretching, burning intensity of crowning. The moment where nothing exists but my body and my baby, caught in a struggle between two worlds. The relief as my body empties and I hear a cry. The search, finding my little one’s face and studying every feature. The awe at what has been created through me. The amnesia, that it wasn’t that bad.
And I did. I felt it all. Four times now. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. But, having delivered hundreds of babies, I now know that ALL women are strong. Epidural or natural, vaginal or cesarean, birth center or hospital, ALL women are goddesses. All women feel all of it, because that is motherhood. To love like you didn’t know you could, to protect like you didn’t know you would.
So don’t get an epidural if you don’t want one. And if you do want to be numb, ask for one as you walk in the door. Because once you are a mommy, there’s no getting around it. You will feel all of it. And guess what? It really isn’t that bad.
Georgia Ragonetti-Zebell, MD is an OB/GYN practicing in Upstate South Carolina, and is mommy to four (yes, FOUR) boys. She is a graduate of the Women’s Health Pathway at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and completed her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology with the Greenville Health System in Greenville, South Carolina. She has a special interest in natural childbirth, breastfeeding, and alternative methods in labor and delivery. She enjoys yoga, crochet, and reading, but spends most of her free time cleaning up poop while trying not to step on Legos.