Yes, I had an epidural. No, my childbirth wasn’t pain-free

From the moment I saw the word “pregnant” on the pee-soaked plastic stick, I knew I wanted an epidural. As much as my friends and family might see me as this strong, fierce woman in other parts of my life, when it comes to pain, I’m a huge wimp.

I can run long distances and lift heavy weights, clean bloody wounds without feeling the least bit queasy, and I never hesitate to speak my mind or stand up for myself. But of the few things that are my kryptonite, pain is definitely high on the list (also suspension bridges — eek!). I knew an epidural would be a part of my birth plan.

What I didn’t know is that even with an epidural, there’s still plenty of pain to cope with during childbirth, and I was not at all prepared to handle it.

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When I got pregnant with my twin sons four years ago, the drug-free birth movement was just starting to work its way into my circle of friends. Up to this point, everyone I knew who had given birth had received an epidural and had nothing but great things to say about how awesome it was to not be in pain during their labor. Once I was expecting, some of my girlfriends who were also pregnant started talking about using a midwife instead of having a traditional hospital birth and wanting to have a drug-free labor. While I supported their plans, they weren’t for me.

I’m a nervous person, and even without the increased risk of complications that came with having twins, I liked the idea of giving birth in a hospital just in case something went wrong. However, I was worried my friends would judge me for taking what they viewed as the “easy way out” by having an epidural during delivery. So when my OB-GYN said he would prefer that I got an epidural, I was stoked. My doctors wanted the epidural in place in the event that I required an emergency cesarean (which turned out to be a good call, because I did, in fact, need an emergency C-section). I now had a medically valid reason to have an epidural without feeling like I was failing as a mom right from the start by not having a drug-free delivery.

Even though my doctor happened to be on #TeamEpidural, the truth was that the thought of being in pain during labor terrified me. Once I decided on the epidural, I chose to ignore the painful aspects of childbirth altogether. I thumbed past the contraction pain management chapters in the pregnancy books because I didn’t need any of that — I was having an epidural. My health team did nothing to try to dissuade me of my fairy-tale notions. On the day my birthing class watched the live natural birth video, I started having moderate contractions and decided to go to the hospital to get checked out, just in case. “It’s fine,” the instructor told me. “This video isn’t all that useful to you anyway.”

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Over the course of my pregnancy, I was in and out of the hospital half a dozen times with various false alarms and close calls. I went to what felt like a trillion doctor’s appointments. But whenever any professional asked me what my plans were for pain management during labor and I answered, “I’ll have an epidural, please,” they simply smiled and said, “OK!”

Naturally the pain I felt during labor isn’t their fault, but seeing as how I was a clueless, first-time pregnant woman and they had far more experience in the business of giving birth than I, I admit I feel a bit duped. No one thought to clue me in on the fact that, epidural or not, there’s no way to completely escape the discomfort of labor 100 percent. These were the people I trusted to take care of me and my babies during labor and delivery, and it feels like they failed me a bit on the labor side of the equation.

I first understood I was in trouble when my water broke. My contractions started in earnest, and we left for the hospital. I realized that, even though I lived only 20 minutes away from the hospital, I had put all my pain management eggs in a basket that couldn’t be opened until I was 4 centimeters dilated. I spent the entire drive to the hospital with tears streaming down my face, sobbing from the pain of the contractions. And as much as they hurt, what made them so much harder to endure was how utterly unprepared for them I was. I hadn’t practiced any breathing techniques or calming mantras before going into labor, and my poor husband had no clue how to help me, so he alternated between letting me crush his hands, furiously texting my mom to come as fast as she could and trying to distract me by pulling up videos of the Property Brothers on his phone.

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The moment the anesthesiologist finally arrived in my room was one of the best moments of my life. Channing Tatum dressed in only a banana hammock could have galloped into my room on a rainbow-haired unicorn, and I still would have only had eyes for the angel with the giant-ass needle who could make the pain go away. My husband swears he walked in like a normal human being, but I swear he glided through that door on a cloud of white mist. My friends who were already moms were absolutely right — the epidural was amazing. I just wish they had mentioned to me some of the things I’d have to handle before the magical epidural moment.

I feel zero shame over my decision to have an epidural. I don’t feel like I failed my body’s natural process by getting one or that I “gave up.” Instead I felt intense relief at the absence of pain, and I could finally think clearly for the first time in hours. It allowed me to get some much-needed rest, which was great, because it turned out to be a very long night, filled with three hours of pushing followed by an emergency C-section and two babies in the NICU.

While I still stand by that decision, an epidural alone is not an effective game plan when it comes to pain management during labor. There’s a sense of panic that comes over me when I think about the part of my pregnancy before I got the epidural, and I wish I had been more prepared for the realities of labor. I wouldn’t change my decision to have an epidural, but I do think it’s important for expectant moms to know you can’t plan on an epidural alone to get you through your labor pains.