November 23, 2022

Training for Labor

 One of the most consistent pieces of advice I’ve been given during my pregnancy is to get an epidural. “Why have pain if you don’t have to?” “It makes it so much easier to rest and do other things during labor.” “You won’t feel anything.” Or people just assume that I will be getting an epidural, “right?” I know that this comes from a good place, from the desire to encourage women not to suffer, and empower them to seek the comfort they deserve. Personally, I think the empowerment comes from making the choice.

I think it’s interesting how much assumption and how little investigation comes with this advice to get an epidural. There are the assumptions that I would want to feel fewer labor sensations, or that if I don’t want an epidural it’s because I want to feel more pain, neither of which is true. It’s hard for me to see how anyone could make this decision for me without first knowing what I want to get out of childbirth.

While we always acknowledge that every person is different, no one ever asks me about my individual reasons for wanting to have a natural birth. And very few of the people who opt for an epidural have done any research on the benefits of not getting one, or it would seem that way when they ask “why not get an epidural” assuming that this question is rhetorical. There are actually many benefits to a natural childbirth: potential decreased time in labor, decreased time for postpartum healing, decreased incidence of vaginal tearing, and what is most important to me - a different experience of labor. 

I want to go into labor wanting the experience, not hoping to numb it. In the plethora of advice and spreadsheets I’ve been given during pregnancy, there is so much about how to prepare for caring for the baby, and pretty much nothing about how to care for myself through labor. I received a lot of resources on breastfeeding, diapering, sleep schedules, and all the supplies we need for the baby (all very valuable insights), but nothing about how to prepare mentally and physically for childbirth itself.  Many of my friends reported never being told anything about what to expect in labor. I think that many people see labor as something to get through. For me, I chose this deliberately -- if I were a man, I would’ve adopted a child. In most things I want from and can give to parenthood, I feel like adoption would have been preferable. But I wanted this human experience, and I want to approach it as something to experience and not to avoid.

I also think that when we prepare for having an epidural, we lose an opportunity to look into how to train our bodies to go without one. I’ve heard from several people that they know a person who tried an unmedicated birth and it was horrible. I think that if you go into it unprepared, it probably will be horrible, and honestly early on I didn’t realize just how much preparation it would take to attempt an unmedicated birth. I think people who assume that it will be horrible, also don’t realize what you can do to train for it.

Just as I wish that others wouldn’t assume their reasons for having an epidural apply to me, I’m not saying that this process of preparing for not having an epidural is a necessity for anyone else. If you have no desire to “train” for childbirth, that is the power you have to choose your way. I’m only explaining that it is one of the reasons I wanted to have a biological child over other options. To experience this capacity of my body, and to train it to do something hard. Some of the most satisfying parts of my life have to do with training for endurance. I love things that take long term commitment, a slow buildup of strength and learning. In having the goal not to have an epidural, I’ve engaged so much more with my body than I would have otherwise. I’ve learned how to contract muscles that I previously neglected, because childbirth is such different labor than other physical endeavors I’ve pursued. I’ve learned to support different areas of my body that never bore such weight before. I really believe that it’s for those reasons that I’ve been able to avoid the back pain normally associated with pregnancy, and to decrease the amount I have to pee (at baseline I have to pee more than most people and during pregnancy it got terrible, but with the right exercises these days I only go once or twice during the night, which is the same or less than my pre-pregnancy self).

And I’ve learned a lot about tapping into different mental states, which is another element I enjoy about what others might call suffering. There are many situations (cold weather sports) in which I don’t think suffering is worth it for me personally, and I respect each person’s boundaries around what is challenging in a fulfilling way and what is just miserable. For me, I want to approach labor as the former, while being open to the possibility that it may actually be the latter. The daily meditation I’ve been practicing for use in labor has been very helpful for me in other parts of my life. I find myself more calm and able to face frustrating situations at work, and I sleep well.

I’m writing this before I go into labor because I want to acknowledge that it can all turn it very differently. I’m not opposed to getting an epidural if I’m not as prepared as I anticipated, or if other circumstances arise. But in the meantime, I want to enjoy the process of pushing myself to train, physically and mentally, for the biggest challenge of my life.

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