Labor scenes in movies make birth seem like a wholly terrifying event. There’s lots of animal grunting, shouting expletives, and screaming. “Labor causes severe pain for many women,” writes the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) in what we can probably call the biggest understatement ever. They note, “There is no other circumstance where it is considered acceptable for an individual to experience untreated severe pain…” And that brings us to the women who opt to forgo anesthesia and have a natural birth. One word: WHY?!
First: Let’s be clear that giving birth in any shape or form is totally ballsy and heroic. That said, just over 60 percent of women who give birth vaginally opt for an epidural or spinal anesthesia, according to a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The benefits of an epidural are obvious—you’re almost guaranteed to feel more comfortable during labor and delivery—though there are a few risks. For example, you’re more likely to need forceps or a vacuum to assist with the birth or labor may be longer during some points, the report points out.
Those risks go away with a natural birth, hence why some women extoll its virtues. But there’s also one big problem associated with going au natural: The disappointment or feelings of failure if your birth doesn’t go as planned and you wind up getting an epidural (or C-section, for which you absolutely need anesthesia), points out Alyssa Dweck, MD, assistant clinical professor ob-gyn at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who says her patients primarily opt for anesthesia. “While giving birth naturally can be rewarding, it’s important not to set your expectations in stone. Obstetrics is very unpredictable, and it’s difficult to anticipate the pain or emergencies that may arise,” she says.
For many women, things do go as planned and they get the natural birth experience they hoped for. We tapped three of them to share their stories—and yep, they get into the nitty-gritty.
I used to call it ‘pooping out a bowling ball’.
Callie Corless, 30, of The Swaying Doula, gave birth with an epidural with her first child, and has since had two natural births.
“I wanted a natural birth with my first baby, but didn’t know how to have one. When I learned about water birth and how some women called it ‘natural pain relief,’ my interest was piqued. I loved taking hot baths, so it made sense to me to use warm water to relieve pain during labor too.
With my first water birth, getting in the water was immediate relief. It soothed the cramping intensity of the contractions, as well as providing buoyancy that took away some of the pressure from gravity. It was lovely. I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly pain-tolerant—in fact, I’m the type to beg you to put me out of my misery when I come down with a stomach bug. Yet I’ve given birth without medication, twice!
Pushing was one of the things I was most scared/worried about since before I had my second baby I’d never felt it before. What I found was that for me it felt very much like what you might imagine pushing out a baby feels like. I used to say it felt like trying to poop a bowling ball, but I’ve since realized that isn’t really true. It definitely felt very intense for me [with] a lot of pressure.
[After giving birth naturally] I felt an immediate rush of joy and elation. The oxytocin rush that occurs when there is no medication disrupting the natural flow of it is incredible. It’s overwhelming. I felt a huge sense of triumph [and] empowerment.” –Corless
Getting an epidural never crossed my mind.
Hailie Wolfe, 34, a certified childbirth educator and doula, gave birth to her first three babies with an epidural, and her fourth and fifth children naturally. You can watch the video of her fifth baby’s birth here.
“I decided to change things up and go for a natural birth after my third child. I had this idea in my head that I would try to go natural with him, but was completely unprepared. When labor became too much, I asked for an epidural. Next time with my fourth, the thought [of getting an epidural] never really crossed my mind. I had a doula there supporting and encouraging me. When things got really hard, she was there to encourage me that I could do [it]. I honestly don’t think I could have done it without her support.
Also, staying home as long as you can is very helpful. I went to the hospital a little earlier than needed and my doula suggested we hang out in the lobby for a while. We walked around the lobby and took periodic breaks. Then, when things got super difficult, I knew it was time to head up to the Labor and Delivery floor. I was only in the delivery room for about 30 minutes before my baby was born. [My advice is to] have a good support team—i.e. only the people who are confident and on board with your plan of a natural birth.” –Wolfe
I have never felt more capable or overwhelmed by my insane ability.
Registered nurse Bethany Melton, 27, has had two natural births.
“I’ve always had a bent towards the natural. I believe the body was designed to grow and birth humans. My first child was born at home after almost 24 hours of labor on our bed. I spent 90 percent of my labor in my bedroom and small bathroom. I felt safe and protected there.
I begged for an epidural at one point and told the midwives I was done. Every mom hits that point; there’s always at least one moment in labor where you just feel like you can’t go on. Being at home, I asked them to take me to the hospital—and at that point the midwife checked me and I was [fully dilated], [and] that was all I needed to gather the strength to finish. I also find that often women say that they need an epidural, when the bottom line of what they’re saying is, “This sucks, I want this to end.” They just need the encouragement to finish it.
My second child was born at a Birth Center down the road. Her labor was [only] six hours. I felt like I got run over by a freight train and never had time to catch up. I said I wanted an epidural with her, although knew I was just afraid of what I knew was coming. Once I had a good cry, I was ready to get into the zone to birth my baby. I had a doula. There’s nothing as effective as having someone to constantly verbally and physically support you makes you feel like it’s worth it and you can do it. I only got overwhelmed when I got into my head instead of letting my body do what it needed to.
There’s nothing to describe the feeling of birthing a baby completely naturally, all on your own. I’ve never felt more capable or overwhelmed by my insane physical ability. I still think about it mechanically and think, “How did I do that?” but I did. I was so overcome with emotions, triumph, and joy. I was so thankful that because I’d chosen the right care providers to support me, I felt empowered to do it.” –Melton