How I survived labor without an epidural—and found my new purpose  

For #MotherlyStories |

I knew from the get-go that I wouldn’t be getting an epidural, so I can’t tell the story with any heroics.

It had nothing to do with my resolve or resilience: thanks to spinal surgery years earlier, the epidural space in my back was crowded with scar tissue.

Induced labors were more painful, I knew, so my OB/GYN and I were having a little standoff. Five days past my due date, I wasn’t sure the baby had been kicking quite as much as usual.

“Ask to see the anesthesiologist when you get to the hospital,” she said. “Maybe you can get one after all.”

But the anesthesiologist looked at the gray and black image of my Franken-spine, held together with screws and bolts, at the space he’d usually fill with narcotics, and shook his head.

“It might damage something and give you a headache, but nothing’s going in there that’s going to relieve any sensation” was the gist of his message.

Minutes after synthetic prostaglandins was placed on my cervix, contractions started coming, hard. They went from the level of “isn’t this cute, I’m in labor!” to “somebody DO SOMETHING right this minute” within the space of a half hour.

A nurse pushed something into my IV that made me see visions of endless rows of doghouses, where endless rows of fuzzy little dogs went in and out, in and out. Isn’t there anything else you can do to make it stop? I bellowed.

The philosopher Elaine Scarry, in her book “The Body in Pain,” explores the isolating nature of pain. Because the experience of pain is bordered so definitively by a person’s own skin, it is something you do alone. Empathy, touch, nearness—these things can mitigate the sensation of pain, but ultimately, we each go it alone.

Never before—and never since, except when, two and a half years later, I gave birth to my second child—have I had such a keen sense of the profound loneliness of my existence; of my absolute sovereignty over the inner kingdom of my self.

Between writhing and shouting and crying, I realized that no one else could do this for me.

Later, I realized something else: that even if someone could, I didn’t want them to do so.

I wanted to do it myself.

When, after twelve hours of agonizing labor, I pushed my son into the world, I was triumphant, euphoric, a bloody, sweaty, grinning fool, nearly as pleased with myself as with the beautiful baby who was already kicking and waving his arms, whose nose and lips and coloration already looked familiar.

I felt invincible after giving birth; I had been through the fire, and could not be burned.

I could be a mother.

I could do anything, damnit, and do it myself. (With a few strategically placed shoulders to cry on and timely back-rubs and sips of water.) I don’t tell this story lightly. In mommy circles, I’ve often kept it quiet. It sounds self-congratulatory, but the truth is, I didn’t have a choice. And I didn’t feel strong when I was doing it. I felt like an animal.

I can’t say with integrity whether I’d have chosen an unmedicated birth again if an epidural had been available to me. I know that there are risks to the epidural that are too frequently minimized. I know that labors go long and inhumanly painful, and that pain can turn to suffering, and an epidural can then be an instrument of mercy.

But I also know that once my labor was over, my pain was over, and that joy and strength and a raging passion for my newborn son flooded right into the space the pain had vacated. I wasn’t numb, unable to move.

I felt exquisitely alive.

I stood up from the birthing bed, took a shower, and walked slowly down the hall to the nursery, a bruised and bleeding but triumphant woman.

A mother.

Rachel Marie Stone is a writer, editor, teacher and speaker.

Rachel is a writer, editor, teacher and speaker.
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