newborn sleeping

When people learn I had natural childbirth with both my children, they usually say something like: “Wow, you must be super tough.” The truth is, I feel like a huge phony anytime someone commends me for my physical fortitude.

I had natural childbirth because I was scared. There, I said it.

Let’s be clear, I’m not superwoman. First, I labored around ten hours for each birth with zero back pain. Second, I was not induced, so all the contractions I experienced naturally were natural. I know exactly one friend who endured natural childbirth on Pitocin. I think she has her picture in a Hall of Fame somewhere. If she doesn’t, she should.

The truth is, basically every reason I had for remaining un-medicated during labor stemmed from an intense fear of something:

1). Fear of Needles

Needles skive me out. I’m one of those people who looks away when the phlebotomist draws blood. They always ask, “You, ok?”

“No,” I want to scream. “You have a sharp piece of metal jabbed in my arm. I won’t be fine until you get it the heck out.” Instead I just say, “Uh huh,” and pray I don’t faint before it’s over.

The thought of someone sticking a needle in my back, near my spine was just more than I could handle.

2). Fear of Vomit

Pain medication has a tendency to make me puke, which is basically my least favorite thing in the world to do. When I read that the medication given in labor sometimes causes nausea, I decided I’d rather be in pain than have my head stuck in a bowl. And yes, I know some people vomit during labor without the drugs. There was nothing I could do to prevent “natural” puking, but I could avoid a repeat of my epic codeine intolerance.

3). Fear of a C-section

Like any mom, I was willing to do whatever it took to bring my daughters into the world safely. Still, the thought of a C-section scared the ever-loving crap out of me. In addition to needles and medicine that might make me hurl, I’d have to have my abdomen slit open and my intestines scooped out of the way. Both of my birth plans included the following bullet:

  • Cesarean Section: I would like to avoid one (but who wouldn’t)

I was trying to mask my fear with humor, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t fool any of the nurses. I certainly didn’t fool myself.

I wanted to do everything I could to avoid a dash to the OR. After careful consideration, I decided feeling what was going on down there might help move the process along quicker, and keep my doctor from taking matters into her own hands.

4). Fear of not living up to my family’s expectations

My mother endured over a day and a half of natural childbirth to bring my brother into the world and another eighteen hours with me. By the time I gave birth to my eldest daughter, I’d been hearing tales of my mother’s pain tolerance for well over twenty years. It set a standard, one I felt obligated, for whatever reason, to keep.

Near the end of my first pregnancy, my dad pulled me aside and said: “There will come a time when you need to go to your happy place. Can you picture that?”

(I swear, he really said this. And what’s worse, I knew exactly what he meant.)

“Yes,” I said. “I even have a picture of it.” I had shoved a photograph of Edisto Island, SC, in a bag with all the other things I never used during my first hospital stay. I had intended to place it on a shelf somewhere (you know, because labor and delivery rooms are just full of tidy little shelves to shove decorative prints) and use it as a focal point while I breathed.

“Good,” he said, “You just need to go there.”

Despite being in my late twenties, I still feared disappointing my parents.

All of these fears combined to beat out the fear I had of pain. So, now that we’ve established that I’m not nearly as tough as you might think, I’ll let you in on how I managed to get through two labors and deliveries with zero medication:

1). I took a class on natural childbirth and laughed.

My husband and I couldn’t stop giggling during the breathing instructions. As we chuckled on the classroom floor, I’m surprised the nurse didn’t pause her rhythmic panting to preorder my epidural. The truth is, not taking the whole thing seriously helped.

2). I convinced myself that the discomfort of childbirth was productive pain, rather than an indication that something was wrong.

During my first pregnancy, I read and reread the positive birth stories in Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth. Those stories kept replaying in my head while I was in labor.

Believe it or not, childbirth was not the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. I say experienced for a reason. I have no doubt the pain was less when I dropped an iron on my leg (don’t ask). However, I experienced the pain of those third-degree burns differently. There was absolutely no reason for it. It was a stupid mistake. And it hurt like hell.

The pain of childbirth was intense, but slower. It ebbed and peaked. My body had time to adjust. Plus, I knew I was working toward something wonderful. Changing my perspective on pain helped me work with the contractions and progress my labor.

3). I stuck it out until I thought I couldn’t, and by then I was already there.

Around hour eight of my first labor (after being up through the night), I told the nurse I wanted the epidural, so I could rest. When she checked me, she realized I would be ready to push soon. At that point, I figured why not. I’d made it that far.

With my second child, I decided I could handle the pre-pushing part just fine, but I wanted to be numb for the actual head-tearing-out-of-my-body segment. Again, I waited too long. It only took ten minutes of pushing, and there wasn’t enough time to numb me.

4). I went to my “Happy Place”

Turns out, I didn’t need a picture since I kept my eyes shut during contractions. As far out as it sounds, there were a few moments when I felt like I left my body and went walking on the beach. Call it positive thinking or endorphins or even delirium, but I made a happy place in my mind, and I went there.

Natural childbirth was the best option for me, but I will never judge someone for having an epidural. In my humble opinion, being able to take a needle to the spine is pretty bad ass.

All laboring women, whether they receive medication or not, are tough. They are all working hard toward something wonderful. How they get there varies with each birth, and like so many other parenting choices, the decision to use medication or not should rest with the person actually doing the work.

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Kathryn Hively

I started Just BE Parenting as a way to cope with the anxiety of balancing work, motherhood, and the impulse to write. That’s right, I’m not a parenting expert. I, my kids, and my family are perfectly flawed in MANY ways. As a parent, I’m trying to let go of perfection and just BE the best mother I can for my kids. The ‘B’ and ‘E’ in Just BE Parenting also represents the first letters of my children’s names. What works for me and my family may not work for you and yours. That’s ok! Even if we’re not the same, I hope you’ll find something relatable here.