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When I was pregnant with Maya, I didn’t think much about giving birth. It’s ironic, given that I spent the entire 40 weeks analyzing every symptom, every sensation, every kick. I guess I was so focused on getting through the pregnancy with both of us intact that I neglected to consider arguably the most important part.
For me, going in blind was a good thing, because how can you be terrified of something when you have no idea what to expect? (The 1980s-era video of a gory live birth we saw in parenting class was somewhat unpleasant, but instead of being freaked out, I got misty-eyed.) Plus, I knew the discomfort was just a temporary obstacle to the ultimate goal: having a baby.
So while I’d heard other moms’ horror stories about 48 tortuous hours of labor, crime-scene-worthy amounts of blood and vaginas literally ripping in half, I shrugged and figured everyone’s pain tolerance was different. (This is not to say that I’d be OK with my vagina splitting apart.) My threshold is so high, in fact, that when I broke my nose at age 12 and the doctor tried to reset it, I barely flinched. He said that 300-pound football players had fainted on his table after the same procedure.
Instead of something to be feared, I viewed giving birth as a miracle, a challenge and a chance to push my body to its limits, something I’d never truly done (minus the time I climbed a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado). I thought about my mom, who’d chosen to birth TWO babies without pain meds. I also thought about the new “natural birthing suites” that my local hospital had just debuted; they boasted queen-sized beds, mosaic-tiled hot tubs and nurses who appear at your bedside offering massages and calming herbs to sniff. It sounded like a very zen place to have a baby, and I wanted in. The catch: no epidurals allowed.
So I decided to give birth without one. I wasn’t hardcore committed — I’d request drugs if things got too intense– but I was about 75 percent determined.
That all changed when I showed up at the hospital one week before my due date bleeding heavily, necessitating an induction (they weren’t sure if my placenta was separating, and they wanted to get the baby out ASAP). Getting induced means I couldn’t have my baby in the natural birthing suites, as I’d need constant monitoring, which apparently killed the tranquil vibe. I was bummed (mostly to miss out on the massages) but knew I could go drug-free in the regular L&D ward, too.
My Pitocin drip was turned on at 9 am. The nurse that dropped in every 30 minutes to crank it up warned that contractions would likely come fast and furious, but after two hours, strolling around the hospital corridor with my IV pole and a cherry popsicle (you can’t eat solids during labor for fear that you’ll aspirate food should you need an emergency C-section), I was only feeling slight discomfort. Had these been period cramps, I wouldn’t have even popped an Advil. If this is labor, I thought, bring it on.
At one point, my OB came to check me; I was 5 centimeters dilated and in good spirits. “I’d like you to progress a little faster,” she said. “Breaking your water will move things along. Do you want an epidural first?” I didn’t even consider it. “Nah, I’m fine for now. I think I’ll take a shower.” She flashed a skeptical smile. “OK, but I bet after that shower you’ll be begging for the drugs.” With that, she grabbed what looked like a crochet hook and stuck it into my cervix.
Fast forward about 10 minutes. I was in the shower when I got hit with a wave of pain so intense that I almost crumpled to the floor. (For those who know me, the fact that I was about let my bare ass touch a public shower tells you how much it hurt.) The contractions kept rushing in at what seemed like 60-second intervals; there was barely any relief. I was sweating, which is hard to do in the shower. I was gripping the walls for support. I couldn’t catch my breath. What was I thinking turning down the epidural? Why the f*ck was I trying to be a hero? Accepting medicine that would ease my pain didn’t make me a wimp — it made me sane.
“GIVE ME THE DRUGS!” I screamed. “I NEED DRUGS, NOW!” (If you’ve never shouted these phrases before, especially while naked and soaking wet, it’s kind of fun. Had I been lucid, I would have appreciated the drama of the moment.) As if on cue, like he’d been lingering outside my door until I inevitably succumbed to the pain, the anesthesiologist appeared. Minutes later, all was right with the world. I couldn’t feel my uterus…and I liked it.
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. The machines I was hooked up to showed that I was having contractions, but I felt just dandy (never mind that my legs were numb from the epidural and I was shaking uncontrollably, a side effect of labor). I visited with my parents and in-laws and chatted with the nurses about the baby names we’d picked. I didn’t even turn down a teenage-looking med student who came in and eagerly asked to check my cervix. “Oh, wow,” he said, feeling around. “You’re at a nine.” By the time my doctor arrived, I’m pretty sure the baby’s head was poking out.
Eight minutes and a couple of pushes and piercing screams later (my brother heard them from down the hall), Maya was born. I’d never felt such complete joy, or relief: I finally had a baby! And a beautiful, healthy girl at that. I soon realized that taking care of said baby was far harder than just pushing her out, but that’s a story for another post.
Now that I’m almost 32 weeks pregnant, I’ve been thinking a lot about giving birth again. I have plenty of time to do so, as I’m awake every two hours in the middle of the night, thanks to my pea-sized bladder and sore hips. You’d think going through the experience once would make me more confident, but I’m actually feeling a bit apprehensive. It’s partly because I know labor has the potential to be really gnarly and partly because my last go-round was relatively “easy” (at least after the epidural). What are the chances getting that lucky twice?
At the end of the day, though, the experience is out of my control, so I’m not wasting too much mental energy worrying about it. (I wish this had been my philosophy during my first pregnancy.) I know I can handle whatever this baby throws at me. Especially because this time, I’ll definitely be getting the drugs.
Nicole Frehsee Mazur is a Detroit-based freelance magazine writer and former editor at Rolling Stone. Her work has appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine, Time Out, Maxim and more.