Natural Childbirth is Not a Magic Bullet: My First Baby Story

This week we’re sharing our (baby) stories here on Modern Mrs Darcy. This week is devoted to childbirth, but like so much I talk about here, it’s not just about childbirth: it’s about our hopes and our dreams, our beliefs and our fears. It’s about focusing on what’s truly important. I’ll be sharing a little bit of my own story each day this week. Thanks for joining me! You can read all posts in this series here.

Me and my little guy bonding after delivery

The spring I was 23, I started running. For the first time, I became the kind of person who could fall out the door on a Saturday morning and knock off 8 miles. I put in hundreds of training miles that spring and felt great after a few short races, so I signed up for a 10-miler.

The race went okay, but I felt way too tired the week after. Every time I started a run, I threw up 3 blocks in. (Ew.) I was tired all the time. I wondered if I had overdone it in the race, or if I’d trained too hard.

But I soon figured out it wasn’t the running: I was pregnant.

I was health-conscious, and thought a natural birth might be the best option for me. But mostly I was terrified of the risk of an epidural: my parents’ dear friend had been paralyzed years ago from an epidural-gone-wrong. My doctor assured me the odds were a million-to-one, but that one was an old family friend. I decided to go for a drug-free birth.

I chose a group obstetric practice, where I’d deliver with whoever was on call when I went into labor. When I was 5 months along, I found out several doctors had extremely high c-section rates, and I panicked. I was squeamish about the medical world–I already fainted when the nurses drew my blood–so I hated the thought of a (potentially unnecessary) c-section. (Never mind there was a good reason their rates were so high–those doctors specialized in high risk pregnancies. I was not a terribly rational pregnant woman.)

I decided to make some changes to our pregnancy plan. We found a Bradley instructor and a doula. We switched to a hospital across the state line where I could deliver with a midwife. I read all I could and felt as prepared as I could be for a first-timer.

My due date came and went, but still no baby. I finally went into labor halfway through week 41, two days before my scheduled induction.

My labor progressed steadily, but it wasn’t at all what I expected:

I’d thought my doula would make things easier, but she just got on my nerves.

I’d thought I’d want to move around a lot during labor, but I just wanted to lie down.

I’d thought pushing would be a relief, but it was agony.

I made it through, with the help of my excellent midwife, who used hypnobirthing techniques to help me relax: she had me close my eyes and visualize the contractions washing over me like waves. It worked so well my husband said it almost looked like I was asleep.

When the contractions got so bad I didn’t think I could take anymore I asked for an epidural, but since I was already in transition she assured me they wouldn’t get any worse. She broke my water–to hopefully speed things along–and I was soon ready to push.

After pushing for 20 horrible minutes, our beautiful baby boy was here.

But I felt like I’d been hit by a truck.

This is a typical post-delivery feeling, and it typically fades. But that’s not how it happened for me.  I was still weak and shaky that night, and the next day, and could still barely walk two days later when we headed home. I’d expected an easy recovery from my natural birth, but that’s not what I got.

Medically, my birth was fine and I was healthy. Because I didn’t get an epidural, I was congratulated on having a “successful” natural birth. But I felt awful, and I entered motherhood exhausted and limping.

****          ****         ****          ****          ****

From the birth of Baby #1, I learned that natural childbirth is not a magic bullet. You can do everything “right” and still have a rough birth experience. Women are unique, and things don’t always happen the way they’re “supposed” to. Before delivering my first child, I’d convinced myself that natural childbirth was the best choice–not just for me, but probably for every woman.

And as it so often goes in life, I was humbled by reality. After experiencing natural birth, I understood why so many women opted for an epidural, and wondered if I would have had a smoother recovery–and entry into motherhood–if I’d had one, too. (Natural birth advocates will cry “sacrilege!” here, but this is how it was.)

I had a successful natural birth, but to my surprise, that wasn’t the same thing as a good birth experience, and it definitely wasn’t enough to ensure a good recovery. Natural childbirth is just one factor of many. With the benefit of hindsight, I can spot some things I could have done differently to make things easier on myself:

  • I could have taken better care of myself during pregnancy. I’m a health nut, but I got lax towards the end of pregnancy (read: I ate a ton of ice cream and brie.) My total weight gain was 53 pounds (including a pound a day for the last 2 weeks, which they assured me was water weight–but it didn’t come off like water weight!)
  • I could have taken better care of my second degree perineal tear. I didn’t think a second-degree tear was that big a deal, but I was wrong. At the time, I didn’t understand how much of my discomfort that first month was caused by that tear, and I didn’t expect it to take a whole month to heal. In light of the tear, my own expectations for my recovery were too high.
  • I could have been quicker to ask for help. My new baby was sweet and precious, but he had a hard time adjusting to life outside the womb–which means he cried a lot and hardly ever slept. I would have recovered faster if I’d had a chance to get some sleep.

I’m an advocate of natural childbirth, but it’s not a magic bullet–and we do women a disservice when we make it out to be one. (On the other hand, some of you think that an epidural is the real magic bullet, and I’d encourage you to at least consider the alternatives before delivery day arrives.).

For further reading, I recommend:

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Leave A Comment
  1. Aubry Smith says:

    Oh, I’m so glad you posted this. I really resonated with the humility you experienced after childbirth – that was totally me, too.

    I had my first without any drugs, and at one point I panicked and started hyperventilating, which caused the nurse to yell at me (making me hyperventilate MORE for making her angry…it makes me laugh now to picture a woman in the throws of labor, apologizing to others for how they feel about the whole thing…but labor does weird things to you). I tore b/c I didn’t trust my doctor when he told me to breathe through one contraction – I just wanted that baby OUT – and he came too fast. It was just a bad experience.

    I meant to have a natural birth the second time, thinking that I did it the first time so I knew I could handle it, but I had horrible back labor. I wasn’t prepared for how seriously painful it was – like my body was going to split in half. I went as long as I could and tried different techniques to manage the pain, but I gave in to the epidural. It was actually a pleasant experience (minus the needle in my spine…yuck). My husband and I were joking with the nurses right through transition, and in between pushes. It was so much more calm and relaxed, and I was able to enjoy my sweet newborn more in those first moments. And I didn’t tear, so recovery was much faster. My blood pressure did drop quite a bit, and mine is already low, so that made me nervous.

    I will still try to go natural for #3, but I’ve long ago ditched my attitudes about women who either go natural (saints!) or those who choose epidurals (shameful!). Childbirth is FREAKING hard. I almost can’t believe we’re thinking of doing it again someday. I guess it’s worth it 🙂

    I’m pretty sure a doula would be a paid irritant to me, too. 🙂

    • Anne says:

      Oh, Aubry. Thanks for this. And that last full paragraph? YES. This: “I’ve long ago ditched my attitudes about women who either go natural (saints!) or those who choose epidurals (shameful!). Childbirth is FREAKING hard.”

  2. Excellent post Anne. I too was humbled by reality. An epidural was never an option in my mind until I had one on my third baby. It was a pivotal moment of change in my life. I have never felt so grateful for anything as I did from that relief. I refer to it as my “epidural moment”, because I believe it changed the way I view life in general. I no longer consider myself a super-woman. I no longer think I have all the answers. Sometimes, I need help. And it’s OK.

    I’m glad you addressed this because motherhood is tough. We need to encourage each other.

    • Anne says:

      Thanks for this, Adriana. An “epidural moment”? What an excellent way to sum up SO many things.

      Motherhood is tough, and we do need to encourage each other. Thanks so much for sharing about your epidural moment!

  3. Amy F says:

    The tearing is the worst! I had homebirths with my first 2 and the midwife didn’t routinely stitch up tears. I bathed often and aired it out as suggested, but still retore it 4 weeks postpartum and pretty much couldn’t sit comfortably until my son was 2 months old. I can deal with labor and delivery but recovery scares me.

    I tore again with my second but at least didn’t retear that time.

    With my third, I had a barely-there 1st degree tear and recuperation was SO MUCH EASIER.

    • Anne says:

      Amy, I know! I felt like I was thoroughly prepared for delivery, but learned pretty much nothing about recovery. *sigh*

      I had the exact same experience with my fourth–a next-to-nothing tear that made me realize how much of my previous difficulties in recovery were due to the tear, and not to childbirth in general.

  4. Heather says:

    I delivered at a birth center with midwives. Most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but by the end I was completely without pain (although along the way I was occasionally in agony). I also had a really, really rough recovery, though. I’d rather give birth again than go through that recovery. It took me a month to walk, sit, or use the bathroom without pain, and I’m highly considering surgery to have some things fixed.

    The thing is that my midwives (certified professional midwives, NOT nurse midwives) said that I only bruised and didn’t need stitches, but looking back I think it’s obvious that I tore in an abnormal way, and should have been either stitched or referred to an OB. I think that they simply hadn’t seen enough abnormal birth injuries and believed too blindingly in the body’s ability to heal itself, and I believed, because I didn’t know any better, that my pain was normal-ish and that I could power through the pains and difficulties with my peri bottle and frozen witch hazel pads.

    I learned that some types of pain aren’t normal, and that it’s not disloyal (or whatever) to the “natural birth community” to get a second opinion. Next time around I’m going with better-educated nurse-midwives who’ve seen a lot more and have a back-up doctor to check on any injuries they’re unsure of (that’s mainly because I moved away from the first birth center. If I had stayed in the area I’d use them again but check in with an OB if I had another major concern).

    Thanks for sharing, Anne!

    • Anne says:

      Heather, thanks for sharing this. Women don’t often talk about difficult recoveries, and I’m honestly surprised how much company I have with this one.

      Thanks so much for sharing your personal experience. I think it’s so helpful to women to give an honest and accurate perspective on what childbirth can be like, and I’m so grateful for women who share about their own experience. For a long time I was hesitant to really be up front about how things went for me for the same reason you mentioned–I didn’t want to be “disloyal” to the natural birth community. It’s time to get over it, I think. There’s too much at stake!

  5. Annie says:

    I thought I wanted a natural birth experience because of all the statistics about C-sections and complications. Well, good thing I waited too long and it became a hassle to change hospitals.

    I had a wonderful birth experience with an epidural. I waited until I was 5 cm dilated before getting the epidural. I pushed when the nurse told me to and rested in between. 20 minutes later, she was out. No tearing. I even starting walking with the baby stroller 4 weeks postpartum.

    There are horror stories on both sides. I went into the birthing room telling the nurses that I want labor as long as possible without an epidural using the breathing techniques I learned in the birthing classes, but I kept an open mind about the epidural. Once I got to the point when tears started rolling down my eyes uncontrollably even though I was not crying, I knew at that point, my body needed a little help.

    I have to admit though, the breathing techniques I learned from the natural birthing class I took helped delay getting the epidural too early. I think some of birth complications come from getting an epidural too early.

    • Anne says:

      Annie, I really appreciate you sharing how things went for you. Too many natural childbirth class consider “giving in” to the epidural a sign of failure. I wish it wasn’t like this! I’m also grateful for what I learned in my natural childbirth classes! (More on that tomorrow….)

  6. Thanks for this post, Anne. What you and the others have written just gave me a lot to think about. It’ll be a while before my husband and I start having children (barring any surprises of course!), but I really appreciate hearing all this now! 🙂

    • Anne says:

      Jaimie, I wish I had learned about some of this stuff BEFORE I was surprised by a positive pregnancy test. I hope this is good information for you to mull over for a little while 🙂

  7. Salixbabylonica says:

    It’s interesting to see other people’s reactions to their births – natural or otherwise. It really goes to prove how much your attitude and expectations change the perceived experience of pain.

    I look back on my natural childbirth (and its aftermath) was the worst physical experience of my entire life, but if I ever have a another child, I’d do it natural again. Like you, my decision to forgo the epidural was initially made mostly because of fear of the epidural. Since my research has convinced me that epidurals do increase the odds of having an episiotomy or a c-section, the only choice I feel I have is when I’d like my pain: now or later? Having been through an episiotomy with my first child, I can’t imagine any amount of pain I would not endure to avoid having another episiotomy. Personally, I’ll never trade 24 hours of labor pain for 3 months of constant pain followed by a year and a half (or more) of chronic pain.

    Of course, the real lesson is that we may not have a choice. I prepared, I chose a certain form of care (midwife-attended homebirth), I refused all painkillers, all to avoid the episiotomy in the first place, and still was unable to do so. Natural childbirth is, indeed, not a magic bullet. And it’s good for all of us to go into childbirth realizing that. When we do, we can see what real value that natural childbirth has for us individually, not some illusory one.

    My personal opinion, now that I’ve been through birth, is that it is best to go into birth accepting that you will have pain one way or another. There can be no escape, but ultimately, I find that knowledge liberating. When you know something is inevitable, you can have a very different attitude towards accepting it, and that can make all the difference in how you experience it.

    • Anne says:

      Oh, this breaks my heart. I’d been told in my natural childbirth classes to decline an episiotomy, and warned of the risks, but I had no idea it could mean a year and a half of constant pain. I’m so sorry.

      I love your last paragraph. Well said: “it is best to go into birth accepting that you will have pain one way or another. There can be no escape, but ultimately, I find that knowledge liberating. When you know something is inevitable, you can have a very different attitude towards accepting it, and that can make all the difference in how you experience it.”

  8. Love the truth in this, Anne. I went into my first with the same fears and expectations. Fortunately, my experience was really great, so I expected to same for my second. Not the case. She came so fast that I was in complete shock after she came out. I had such a difficult time bonding with her and felt so fearful about having to go natural if we had more babies. Somewhere along the way, I’d gotten my identity wrapped up in “giving birth naturally”. I thought that if I didn’t, I wasn’t quite the best mom I could be. Then I had my next two babies with epidurals (they were both induced for various reasons) and I really loved it. I felt I was really able to be “there” for the experience rather than my mental cocoon like when I was birthing naturally. All that to say, we are all great mothers no matter how our babies come out. Again, thanks for you honesty in this post!

    • Anne says:

      Oh my goodness, Maile, just wait till tomorrow! My second was also a whirlwind, but a good one. And I had an epidural with my third!

      I’m having to stop and remind myself that it’s not MY family that’s driving the big blue bus, otherwise I might have a case of mistaken identify going on here. I’m so glad we have such a delightful twin family!

      (I just finished Shawn’s ebook last night. I enjoyed it so much, and was really impressed by the portrait he painted of his wife throughout.)

  9. I had all three of my kids naturally, and I loved it. For myself. But at some point after my second child, I had a friend tell me how she felt like a lesser mom because she had taken the “easy” way out with an epidural. And let me tell you, that conversation broke my heart. Never in a million years did I want to make another mom feel less than her best because of my choices. So, after that, I said every women for themselves. When I talk with moms about natural vs epidural, I encourage them to read as much as they can and then make the decision for themselves and to not back down. How I feel about natural birth is how *I* feel about it. And while I think that it is the natural way things were meant to be done, I also know that medicine is here for a good reason, and should be used when needed. In the end, a baby is born, and if that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

  10. Laura Ziesel says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It JUST occurred to me a couple of days ago while reading (the final chapters of) my childbirth book that the worst part for me might be the hours after I’m done with the “work”. When I’m working out or exerting myself, I tend to stay focused and do pretty well, but my recovery time is less pleasant. I’ve frequently passed out or thrown up after finally coming down from my adrenaline high, and have even shaked uncontrollably, which is scary. I tend to have bp on the low side and I have had problems with my blood not clotting quickly enough as well. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that once I’ve delivered, I might have some serious negative side effects like I do when I work out. I’m glad I’m starting to be aware of this possibility now so that I don’t romanticize those “first hours” too much. I might be completely out of it, especially if I go natural.

    Excited to read the future posts as well!

  11. Lacey says:

    Thanks for this – it articulates a lot of what I felt after my first time giving birth. I, too, had a natural child birth, one that ‘ticked all the boxes’. Yet, I found myself in shock afterwards and totally traumatised at how truly awful it was. I (naively) thought that if you gave birth without drugs, using water, with no intervention, you would have a great experience …. all the natural childbirth stories I’d read on the web seemed to suggest this.

    I was humbled by my own limitations and frailty, by the arrogance that I had assumed towards women who used drugs or had interventions. I am currently pregnant with our second child, and while I am opting to go through the same program, I hope to be much better prepared for dealing with the pain and sacrifice I know will be a part of giving life. I believe that I have better expectations and understanding of how hard it is to recover afterwards, and that that mental adjustment will be helpful, although I know there’s no shortcuts when it comes to post-partum 🙁

  12. Jenny says:

    Hi Anne! I’m finally getting over here to comment. I’m really glad that you posted this honest reflection on your experiences. In teaching childbirth, I am very aware of not making it out to be the easy option. My fear is in giving someone the feeling that natural birth will be easy, only to have them have an experience like yours and feel like they weren’t prepared for the possibility that it might not be a heavenly experience. Each woman’s experience is different. I happened to have easy recoveries, but I have friends who have gone the natural route and have horrible experiences with doctors and/or tearing/recovery. I truly believe that a lot of that has to do with the doctor/midwife, realistic/non-realistic expectations, and the luck of the draw, honestly. I would never berate a woman for using an epidural. In fact, I can totally understand why a woman would choose one… for sure! But the thing is that they come with higher risks for interventions and ultimately a c-section, which can be dangerous for mother and baby. Women don’t choose natural birth because they want to be super women, they choose it either because they are afraid of needles or they have been educated about the cascade of interventions and the problems that they can cause. In my mind, any decision that a woman makes regarding her labor choices is a good one for her as long as she is making an informed decision.

    It’s obvious that you have a lot of support here, and that makes me so happy to see! I’m not hearing judgement or condemnation, just women who care and are willing to share vulnerably, and I think that’s wonderful! Thanks again for supporting Unbound Birth, I appreciate it even more knowing your experience! 🙂

    • Anne says:

      Jenny, I’m so glad Unbound Birth is now out there as a resource for expectant mothers who want to make a truly informed decision!

      Thanks for your input on this one. These are excellent points and very well said. Thanks!

  13. Emily says:

    This was a wonderful read. I’m pregnant with #1 and have been considering natural childbirth… largely because I’ve had friends report they “felt much better much faster” and I’m the type that will put up with a lot if there’s a good chance I can get past it quicker. But your story is definitely something to consider.

    • Anne says:

      Emily, congratulations and good luck! I’m so glad I was prepared for natural childbirth, and I think it’s likely I would have come out feeling pretty well if my labor was shorter. But it’s not a panacea–having babies is hard work, no matter what the level of medical intervention is!

  14. Sandi says:

    Wow, thank you so much for this post. I felt like I had been hit by a truck and raped afterwards with a blunt instrument (sorry) during my natural waterbirth homebirth. Definitely ticked all those boxes (squatting, mother-directed pushing, in water) and had the world’s worst recovery in the history of natural birth. I started walking well around 8 weeks. My midwife (who had been very caring up until that point) was downright negligent in not sewing my third degree tear or following up more with my pain, and I had a huge hemmorhage. Suffice it to say, natural birth sucked for us. I am 3 months pregnant with my second, and have a lot of confusion about what to do. I know that I hate natural birth. The problem for me is, I (perhaps like you) give birth really quickly, pushing (in absolutely agony) only 20 minutes or less. So . . . I know I want an epidural . . . that question is, is it worth the (small) risks associated, if I only really need it for like, 45 minutes? Do you have an opinion? I’m just very confused. I still feel a lot of pressure to go “all natural”. I wish it wasnt that way. It’s such a mistaken view on the whole experience. We had a “natural birth” and it was a very bad experience for all involved. Thank you so much for sharing. Very interested in your third birth experience!

  15. Victoria Wilson says:

    Obviously, I am creeping WAY into the recesses of MMD. But I really loved finding this series. I did a lot of reading from natural birth ‘gurus’ to prep for my first birth, and couldn’t get over how HAUGHTY so much of the rhetoric was. Then I started hearing stories of friends who did have a ‘successful’ natural birth like you described (no drugs were used) but who didn’t have positive birth memories. There is such an array of experiences women have during childbirth, and each one needs to be honored. Thanks for sharing your story. Can’t wait to read the others.

    • Anne says:

      This made me chuckle. I’m happy to hear you’re hearing an array of experiences, and that not all the women sharing their stories are insufferable!

  16. Eva says:

    I’m 41 years old, and almost 41 weeks pregnant with our first baby. I fully intend to have an epidural. My mother had all 5 of us without epidural and published a book about her first birth experience. It sounded awful and she felt hoodwinked by the Lamaze romanticization she’d bought into hook, line, and sinker. I find the entire subject bizarre. Almost nobody has “natural cavities filled” or “natural root canals” people use pain medication for everything, yet women are given “grasp at straw” reasons why epidural is so bad (if you read the medical literature they are so much safer than they were in decades past) and all kinds of rhetorical reasons why “natural” is best. My nieces labor stalled for 30 hours until she “caved in” as they put it, and had the epidural. She relaxed, dilated, and voila, birthed in an hour. Epidural can prevent traumatic experiences. Epidural is humane. I have nothing to prove. I’ve always been a strong, healthy, brave woman. I suffered a tough life for decades until I finally got to my happy life now, with my loving home & husband. I’ve had my ass kicked many times. I’ve “proven” I’m a “real woman” and don’t need to suffer more to prove it. As the labor & delivery nurses at the hospital said “we don’t give out medals for natural childbirth” and they’re right. I hope to give birth today, or soon thereafter. And I ask nothing more than good medical staff, my loving husband’s support, a wonderful epidural, and a healthy birth for me & our baby.

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