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Week 30: Shot, in the Dark

Epidural.

In the Childbirth Universe, no four syllables have more power as an argument-starter. The word provokes defensiveness in some and smugness in others. There’s hand-wringing. Rationalizing. Pontificating. Innocently ask a new mother, “Did you get an epidural?” and you’re likely to get a complicated answer, like: “I didn’t want to, but I was pushing for 17 hours and the hospital has a policy…” or “My cervix was fully dilated and they were threatening to give me an episiotomy…”

Epidural.

In the Childbirth Universe, no four syllables have more power as an argument-starter. The word provokes defensiveness in some and smugness in others. There’s hand-wringing. Rationalizing. Pontificating. Innocently ask a new mother, “Did you get an epidural?” and you’re likely to get a complicated answer, like: “I didn’t want to, but I was pushing for 17 hours and the hospital has a policy . . . ” or “My cervix was fully dilated and they were threatening to give me an episiotomy . . . ”

An epidural is a local anesthetic injected near the spine meant to ease the pain of childbirth, and it is so common that some doctors say we are in the midst of an epidemic. How does it work? A needle is placed between the woman’s vertebrae and essentially shoots medication in there, then a catheter is threaded into the space and the needle withdrawn. This way the woman can be given meds when she feels pain, which will hopefully relax her pelvic muscles and desensitize her nerves. All she will feel is the pressure of the contractions and the urge to push. Simple enough, right?

Wrong. That syringe is full of more than simple anesthetic. For many women, it’s a shot of undiluted shame, an admission that they couldn’t take the heat. Others embrace the existence of such a panacea from the start. One friend told me his daughter wanted the epidural so badly, she walked into the delivery room backwards. At the other end of the spectrum are those who refuse the shot outright, claiming that it obliterates muscle control and memory—and diminishes the possibility of a vaginal birth.

Who’s right? I don’t know. But pragmatist (and weenie) that I am, I came out in favor of the epidural, if for no other reason than I don’t want to watch my wife scream in agony. If there were a way to avoid the most painful voluntary event of one’s life, what kind of masochist wouldn’t want it?

My wife, that’s who.

“No epidural,” Sarah said this week. “It’s going to be the most glorious moment of my life, and I want to remember it.”

I was dumbfounded. “But it’s going to hurt like hell.”

“Says who?”

“Everyone.”

“I guess we’ll see.”

“Can’t we talk about this? I don’t know if I can see you like that.”

“Then you get the shot.”

From there, it followed the path of every other big decision we make: 1) we argued; 2) my wife decided; 3) I dragged my feet; 4) I realized that it took more energy to resist than accept; 5) I got with the program.

The sudden anti-epidural sentiment in our home set off a chain of events. I was given the task of finding an appropriate natural childbirth class, which I considered suitable punishment for my New York jaunt. I learned that in the 1960s, classes were all about natural childbirth, i.e., no meds, and now it’s more about getting educated on the biology of the delivery. Makes sense to me. I want to know what’s going on in the delivery room.

There appear to be four types of childbirth classes from which to choose:

1. Lamaze gets the woman through the pain by focusing on breathing.
2. Bradley encourages mothers to relax and “trust their bodies” by breathing naturally.
3. Dick-Read believes that if you eliminate the fear and tension of pregnancy—often through hypnosis—you will eliminate pain.
4. LeBoyer says that the room must be calm, dark, and quiet. Submerging the mother in water might be in order.

There were others, too, like Kitzinger, Gamper, Simkins, and Noble, which, in addition to sounding like a high-priced law firm, were variations on one or more of the above. We ruled them out, plus Dick-Read and LeBoyer, which sounded vaguely new-agey.

That left Lamaze and Bradley. I was universally told that the Lamaze our parents had done has now evolved into something else, though no one could explain what exactly. Seems the only “Lamaze” classes now are three-hour workshops, which seemed OK to me. Not to Sarah. “My body is preparing for the most dramatic thing a body can do,” she said. “We can’t possibly learn everything we need to know in three hours.”

Duff and Sukoshi took one of these three-hour dealies a few months back, so I asked Duff for his impressions. Turns out they’d barely made it through that:

I laughed non-stop at the horrendous videos of 1980s vaginas and breasts. My wife didn’t help matters by asking if I was turned on. Our classmates asked questions like, “Can you rewind the tape? I don’t know what I saw there.” In the end, we had an epidural and a c-section, which wasn’t a bad way to go. But Sukoshi will never be a bikini model again.

I stupidly passed on this story to Sarah.

Which leaves the Bradley Method, named for a forward-thinking Canadian doctor who believed that a human’s birthing process should be no different from any other animal’s. That means no drugs, no fetal monitor, and sometimes, no bed at all. Sounds like a funky adventure. I signed us up and started reading Bradley’s book, Husband-Coached Childbirth. My first impression: It sounds like a cult; one in which hospitals and technology are the enemy; post-epidural babies come out blue and misshapen; and women who accept epidurals are not interested in their babies but rather in themselves. I think that’s hogwash. (Of course, I base all this on the first 11 pages.)

Another unfortunate strike against Dr. Bradley: Classes meet on Sunday afternoons for nine weeks, which means I’ll miss half the NFL season. And beyond that, I told Sarah, every other couple in the class is bound to be wiccans and hippies and flakes, and the whole thing will be one big Patchouli-fest.

“Glad you’re entering into this with an open mind,” Sarah said.

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