A couple of months ago, Jessi Klein, a woman we are all indebted to as the brains behind Inside Amy Schumer, wrote an article for the New York Times titled "Get the Epidural." This was no random essay, but it was the tactfully chosen excerpt of her new memoir, You'll Grow Out of It, which was set to come out a few days later. Tactful, because it did have the intended effect of making women talk, discuss, bicker, comment, and troll-comment all over my Facebook feed for the following weeks.
In her article, Klein explains her feelings on childbirth after a stranger at a grocery store inquires about her birth plan, only to look shocked and offended by her response. When Klein confirms that she is planning on getting an epidural, the horrified stranger rapidly leaves the scene. Annoyed, Klein goes on to justify and defend her choice to get the epidural and tells you to do it too.
I had so many feelings after reading her words, most of them flooded by my own decision, made a few weeks prior, not to get an epidural. My story: I chose not to get an epidural after a nine-months-long decision process — an equation of epidural pros and cons. The cons against the epidurals were too high, so I didn't get one.
Knowing myself, it seemed like it made more sense to suffer the immense physical pain of labor rather than getting shot with an immense needle. Maybe a weak choice, as it was purely based on weighing fears against each other, but it was mine to make. In that instance, potentially losing complete control over my arms and legs seemed scarier to me than going through labor pains for a few hours. Additionally, the possible innumerable medical interventions that can occur after being administered an epidural seemed way more daunting than "natural" labor. And so I decided to go "natural."
In her essay, Klein discusses the way that society is biased when it comes to assessing "natural" standards for women. Generally, "natural" anything is neither welcomed nor accepted when it comes to women. (Armpit hair, anyone?) Unless, she argues, it's about their suffering, in which case it becomes widely applauded. Klein argues that women should not need to feel the pressure to go through difficult and painful labor because they have something to prove. Childbirth pain, she explains, is overrated.
Klein writes about the term "natural birth" and explains its significance in the context of childbirth:
"'Natural.' It sounds so...natural. So relaxing. So earth goddess. So feminine."
I beg to differ. "Natural" = feminine? If there is one thing that natural childbirth is not it's feminine. Natural childbirth is gnarly and butchery; it's raw, and it is scary. I spent my entire pregnancy curating my decision to psychologically and physically pursue a "natural" birth, not because it sounded, like Klein writes, "earth goddess," but because, to me, it was just more practical: no drugs, no side effects, no problem. However, when I made peace with the decision to face indescribable physical suffering for an unknown period of time (could be three hours, could be three days), I did comfort myself by thinking of earth goddesses. Remembering that millions of women before me had done it that way with not remotely the same support and health-care system I had at the tips of my fingers helped me go through with my plan.
I decided to go "natural" not in a "feminine" way, but in a "your mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all have done it before you, so shut up now and get it over with" way. Not "natural" because it felt kumbaya and National Geographic of me, but natural because I couldn't be bothered with putting up with any side effect, rather than none at all. In an example of what matters for some and may not matter for others, the aftermath of the birth was very important to me. Knowing that after giving birth without meds, my body's ability to start functioning normally relatively soon was reassuring.
A small part of me also wanted to go "natural" because, in our era of contouring and filters, where it seems like we can always simply draw for ourselves a new fairytale reality when ours is not Instagram worthy enough, it's good to remember that we still have the option of doing it dirty, barefoot and in the kitchen if we feel like it.
It wasn't until recently that women decided to reclaim their birth as their own. In the '70s, women were routinely put to sleep before giving birth only to wake up gently to an attending nurse handing them a cleaned and tightly swaddled baby and announcing his/her gender.
Escaping the pain always seems ideal to me, but this former technique does feel cold and disconnected from the entire experience of childbirth. Some women decide not to have an epidural because they want to feel with the core of their being what it means to give birth. Some want to feel the pain and ride with it because they believe it will make them stronger and fiercer, untouchable.
Throughout my pregnancy I became wary of the pain, afraid to be in the excruciating, unbearable — yet ultimately totally bearable, because, shockingly, the body goes through with it — unfathomable pain of childbirth.
And so I picked up a few books, which taught me that pain, if guided, can become an enormous agent of help. I taught myself pain-management techniques from deep meditation to ice-cube holding in longer increments. These techniques, while seldom useful during labor, were of tremendous help navigating the pregnancy. I learned to breathe. Not breathe like the stuff you forget you're doing right now, but breathe like I was anchored into earth, into nature, into the moment. I learned to meditate, to transport myself into where I felt I wanted to be. I learned mind control. (My own, that is.)
In the process of getting ready for natural labor, I learned to be calmer, slower, gentler. Heck, I almost learned to successfully hypnotize myself. Now isn't that a skill everybody wishes to possess? (Believing you're in Saint Barth's while waiting at the DMV, anyone?)
So, escaping the pain is great. Medicine, drugs, epidurals: They are true blessings. I wish there were an option that allowed for no pain as well as no needles, no side effects, no drugs, no stress on the body or influence on the newborn. While scientists are working on creating that option (please, someone tell me that they are), women will be choosing —when they have that option — whatever birth plan they may.
I never felt that I was braver than women who chose to relieve some of their pain by medicating. The choice to suffer physically didn't feel heroic; it was just the most comfortable choice that I could make. And "earth goddess" or not, I never perceived my birth as being more "natural" than any other types of births. When a human baby comes out of a human body, it should be considered natural enough regardless of the techniques used.
Birth is crazy. It's a miracle! Can't we all just chill? Instead of bullying each other, women should be appreciative of the luxury that is modern medicine and not use it as a weapon to bring each other down.
What really should be praised is our ability to make that choice when in certain countries it's routine C-sections for all or no epidural — or Tylenol, for that matter — for anyone. We should gratefully embrace the bounty of options available to us and, in the same spirit, so should we embrace our fellow sisters, women, and mothers everywhere doing it the way they want.
In the United States, the catfight between mothers doing things differently from one another has permeated everything. It would be nice if we made a pact to stop it — and in doing so may even have a ricochet effect into all the choices women decide to make, and we will leave each other alone, in peace, to follow our own paths.