First Person: Baby Steps

Making peace with my epidural.

When I was pregnant with my daughter last summer, I had planned a medication-free birth and I was in good company. Most of the women in the childbirth class my husband, Eric, and I attended said they’d do without, too. In crunchy Portland, where questions about giving birth in the woods routinely pop up on Facebook mothering groups, it seemed as if a “natural” birth was the standard.

In the 40 weeks leading up to my daughter’s birth day, I came to believe that my body could handle whatever it took to bring this baby, who we’d nicknamed Peeper, into the world. Millennia of women managed; I figured I could, too.

But when the time came, that night in the hospital, I found myself kneeling on a hospital bed, my skin sweaty and muscles shaking. My contractions built, then crescendoed, and left me feeling like a floodlight had burned through my every cell, distilling my awareness until I knew only raw physical sensation.

When the pain briefly ebbed, it left behind doubt.

The struggle left me nearly mute, but I found one word, an unlikely one. “Durian,” I said to Eric. We had chosen the stinky Asian fruit — not a word we used in everyday conversation — as our code word. Eric knew that it meant that I wanted an epidural, and that he shouldn’t try to convince me otherwise. Birth plan be damned.

To my great relief, an anesthesiologist perched behind me within minutes, and sweet numbness from the waist down soon followed. I was too hollowed out to feel disappointment in myself for failing to follow through on my wishes for a natural birth.

After a short rest allowed by the cessation of that bright, blinding pain, a nurse checked the progress of our baby. “I see hair,” she exclaimed.

Forty-nine minutes later, at 9:19 p.m., 7 pounds, 14 ounces of perfection entered this world. Fear, doubt and pain dissolved under a tidal wave of euphoria. How could I ever feel, or have ever felt, anything but love? In the moment my squalling purple child was placed on my chest, nothing existed beyond the glow that held my baby, husband and me.

In the following weeks and months, I shared our birth story with friends and family. “Did you get an epidural?” some women asked. In answering, I qualified my answer feeling the need to justify my choice: “Yeah, but I lasted until 9 ½ centimeters,” or, “Yes, but I had back labor,” or, “Yes, but it allowed me to relax enough for my body to do the rest.”

Every so often I still feel a twinge of less than because of one tiny injection in my back, because of the pride wrapped up in my idea of a natural birth. I routinely write about pregnancy, and every time I research an article about natural pain relief techniques, a voice in my head whispers that I could have — should have — held out.

Yet as the months tick by and as Peeper’s milestones pile up, that voice is overpowered by my daughter’s joyous exclamations of “dog!” and the jarring, tinny, beautiful music she makes when pounding on her toy piano.

As I let go of my ideas of how I should have given birth, I see more room for playing chase. I inhale more deeply to blow kisses. I stretch into the space of continually becoming a mother. n

Photos is of the author with her husband and Peeper, on the day of Peeper’s birth.

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Catherine Ryan Gregory

Catherine Ryan Gregory

Catherine Ryan Gregory is a Portland writer and mother to 1-year-old Maxine and 3-year-old Edie. She hikes with the kids rain or shine, can't keep the house clean and blogs about trying to be a good—or good enough—mother at
Catherine Ryan Gregory

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  • Gibson Jacobs

    I refuse to apologize for easing pain. I had every drug in the book, topped off every 30 minutes and when, at last, after a 12 hour induction with back labor and fever and swelling, I delivered the largest perfectly healthy baby OHSU had ever seen, I was relieved to meet the baby we nicknamed Critter, a 10# 5 oz, 10 day overdue bouncing baby boy.
    There is no shame in wanting labor to hurt less! none! I planned my epidural! The anesthesiologists came in to check out my already damaged spine a month before his birth because that WAS in my birth plan.

    • More power to you, mama! I completely agree that women should do whatever it is that they want in labor. It just took me a little while to treat myself the way I think all mothers should be treated.