Preparing for the arrival of my firstborn was like preparing for any other big event in my life–I dug into every book about pregnancy and babies I could get my hands on as if I were studying for the parenting SAT.
I spent hours scrolling the internet and making plans for exactly how long I would breastfeed (at least a year) and how I would have a drug-free birth.
My reasons for wanting a medication-free birth was simple: in my mind, a drug-free birth was somehow a “better” birth. And by default, then, I would be a “better” mother.
The people I surrounded myself with during pregnancy, the books I read and the advice I sought all told me declining pain medication during childbirth would result in a healthier baby and a quicker and easier recovery for me.
So, like a “good” mom would, I planned to welcome my baby into the world without pain medication.
And then I actually gave birth.
What My Unmedicated Birth Was Really Like
Unfortunately, my experience with unmedicated childbirth was far from the rosy, romanticized vision I had been sold and more like a grueling marathon.
My first birth experience with my son was fast-moving and intense (which, in the five years since, I’ve learned is much like his temperament and personality). I actually didn’t realize I was in early labor with him at first even as I grew more uncomfortable. Then, when active labor hit, it happened fast. We got to the hospital around 12:30 AM and he was born at 3:20 AM.
By the time he was born, I had been awake for nearly 24 hours and suffered some injuries that would take months to recover from.
“My experience with unmedicated childbirth was far from the rosy, romanticized vision I had been sold and more like a grueling marathon."
I could barely keep my eyes open as the nurses put my son on my chest and instead of soaking in the moment of looking at my baby’s face for the first time, all I felt was overwhelming pain and exhaustion. That feeling followed me home from the hospital, and with every night of broken sleep, my mental health continued to spiral into a dark pit of postpartum depression.
With medical attention and support from my loved ones, I was able to recover and find ways to manage my depression.
But when I became pregnant again two years later, I was terrified of experiencing the same darkness again. There were many factors that contributed to my declining mental health after the birth of my son, and my difficult birth experience was definitely one of them. So, I made the decision to opt for pain medication the second time around and it made all the difference.
A Second Birth, a Different Experience
Once I was in labor with my daughter, I opted for an epidural as soon as I could get one. And had a much more joyful experience than the first time around.
My labor with my daughter was also a fast experience, but we got to the hospital sooner and I was able to get an epidural before the pain became too intense.
I was happy, cognizant, and present when my daughter was born and not in such severe pain that I couldn’t take in her sweet face. I still get teary when I think back to the first moment I met her. I didn’t get to experience that joy in the same way when my son was born, and missing out on that is something I still grieve.
“I was happy, cognizant, and present when my daughter was born and not in such severe pain that I couldn’t take in her sweet face."
The difference in experience continued after I gave birth as well. In fact, everything about bringing home a baby the second time around was brighter.
I prioritized my sleep, took antidepressants to stabilize my mood and recovered from birth so much quicker. I was happy, and most importantly, I felt much more like myself.
A “Better” Way
Just as there were many factors that affected my mental health after the birth of my son, changing up my birth plan the second time isn’t the sole reason I had a better experience. But it is an important one.
I chose to honor myself and my need for pain relief instead of listening to everyone else. Tuning into myself and meeting my needs allows me to be more fully present for both of my kids.
“The stark differences between my two birth experiences taught me there is no such thing as a 'better' way when it comes to being a mom."
Many women have had wonderful unmedicated birth experiences—but I did not. And through the very real physical and emotional pain of bringing my first baby into the world, I learned a valuable lesson: suffering didn’t make me a “better” mom.
The stark differences between my two birth experiences taught me there is no such thing as a “better” way when it comes to being a mom.
Instead, the only way to become the best parent I can be is to honor myself and my kids’ needs more than others’ expectations.
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