Penelope and I took a childbirth preparation class on Saturday. We took the same class when she was pregnant with Hank, but that was more than two years ago, and since she never actually had a labor, we figured we’d better do it again. That’s right: I said Penelope never had a labor. She developed severe pre-eclampsia and so at 36 weeks the doctor ordered an induction, but even over the course of 24 hours of ever-increasing doses of pitocin, her cervix never softened, dilated, or effaced, and she never really even started having contractions. Her blood pressure was still dangerously high, even with magnesium sulfate in an IV drip, so she had a C-section.
Not to minimize her experience, because she was really, really sick and miserable for that last month or so of pregnancy, and it took her weeks afterward before she felt human again, but the fact that Penelope didn’t labor is sort of a sore spot with us. You see, I’m pretty terrified of labor. Everyone’s afraid of labor to some degree, but I think my fear goes a little beyond the norm and skirts the line between healthy and debilitating. Back when we decided to have a family, part of the plan was that Penelope would have the first baby, in part so that when my own turn for labor came, I’d have seen it before, know what to expect, and therefore (hopefully) be more prepared and at peace with the process.
That didn’t happen, so I’m trying to prepare and educate myself through research. We’ve now taken the childbirth prep course twice. I’ve done a ton of reading. I’ve tried to watch videos, but mostly I “watch” with my hands over my eyes, squinting through a crack between my fingers, cringing and queasy (and I have to say, the videos don’t help me feel any better about the process). I’ve been speaking to friends and family who have been through it. I’ve been doing prenatal yoga, practicing positions that will hopefully be helpful in labor. I’ve been building a “toolbox” of breathing and visualization and meditation techniques intended to help me focus and deal with pain. I guess at this point, I’m about as “prepared” as possible.
Sometimes, I feel optimistic: I think I will do this, my body is made to do this, and like women have done all over the world since the dawn of humankind, I will come through labor just fine. (Only, unlike other women birthing throughout history, I can give birth in a clean, homey birthing suite with access to indoor plumbing and medical intervention if necessary, and not in a hut under a sweltering desert sun or in the back of a covered wagon traversing the Oregon Trail in January.) At other times, I remain terrified that I am the world’s biggest wimp, and evolution be damned, I cannot do this.
Here’s the thing: I can read all I want, and talk to every mother I know about labor, but the bottom line is that every labor is different and every woman handles labor differently, and so there’s really no way for me to know what to expect or how things will turn out. So I have to be prepared for everything.
Knowing that, we have what must be the world’s most flexible birth plan. Other couples write reams about what music they want playing, what comfort items they want in the room, what the lighting should be like, what labor positions or aids they intend to use, what photographs they want to take, etc. Not us. Our birth plan consists of just three goals for the big day:
1. Healthy baby
2. Healthy mama
3. Medical staff to treat Penelope/our relationship/our family with respect
If we come through labor and delivery with those three goals accomplished, we will be sublimely satisfied, no matter how we get there.
That said, I remain pretty anxious about pain and pain management. I’ve been lucky enough so far in my life not to have experienced much by way of pain. I suffer from debilitating migraines, but labor pain is not at all the same thing. I’ve never broken a bone or even suffered a major muscle injury. (Knocking on wood.) I had a bad grease burn on New Year’s Day that nearly made me pass out, and I hate getting slivers more than just about anything, both of which make me afraid that my pain tolerance must be pretty low, but again, I’m told labor is a totally different kind of pain.
Knowing that I’m afraid of pain, friends have told me there’s no shame in an epidural. Surely not, but I don’t want to be so afraid of pain that I request an epidural before I really need one, because epidurals can lengthen labor, make it harder to push, and make childbirth seem a detached and out-of-body experience. I don’t have much experience with prolonged pain, but I do have experience with myself on pain meds: I had my wisdom teeth out a few years ago and I was loopy for days. I’m not a glutton for punishment by any stretch, and I’m not philosophically opposed to medical intervention (including pain meds), but since childbirth is something I expect to do only this once, I’d like to fully experience it to the extent that I can.
Ideally, pain management will be a game day decision, and I will be able to make a moment-to-moment assessment of where I am and how I’m doing with the pain, and be able to request medications as necessary. You hear and read about those poor women who wait too long to request the epidural and then can’t have it, though, and sometimes their birth experiences are more frightening, painful, and exhausting than necessary. I keep going back and forth on the natural vs. medicated debate in my mind (such that sometimes I hope circumstances evolve in such a way as to take the decision out of my hands), and not coming up with a satisfying, reassuring plan.
I suspect that I have long since given in to my tendency to over-think things. I need to go back to our birth plan (healthy baby, healthy mama, respectful treatment), and remind myself that the goal is simple, and that the details are out of my hands: baby will come when he comes, and how he comes, and he is in charge (and He is in charge), but I am not in charge.