As epidurals became standard procedure in many hospital births, women's attitudes shifted to more readily accept some form of medical pain relief. Yet although 70 percent of all American women currently choose an epidural, (up from 20 percent in 1975), some feel hospitals are now pushing too hard, that women are once again being forced into becoming a ward of the medical state. "There are many who view the epidural option as yet another attempt by institutionalize medicine to gain control over women's bodies," explained Maushart, "to anesthetize (as it were) not only our pain but the power with which nature has endowed us to survive the pain and to emerge triumphant."
Although this is an impressive stand, I have to believe that just because I decide, "Screw the walking and breathing, give me the epidural," that I let down womankind and dissolve my innate feminine powers. Motherhood, in my opinion, provides ample proving ground without having to use pain endurance to win maternal points. Yet despite the clear evidence that most birthing women want medical pain relief, there is still an unspoken reverence for women who go natural. Until the medical intervention risks are virtually nil for the mother and the child however, and going drug-free during childbirth is viewed as merely another option rather than a badge of courage, women who ask for some form of medical pain relief will remain somewhat ambiguous about their choice.
By 1988 women were back in control when patient-controlled epidurals offered them the flexibility to adjust the timing and frequency of their anesthesia with the push of a button. Researchers soon discovered an interesting side effect. "Women use an average of thirty percent less anesthesia with this method than with the continuous infusion method where an anesthesiologist decides the dosage," explained Tina Cassidy in "Taking Great Pains." It seems when birthing women have a hand on their own steering wheel, they opt for less meds.
Now that's real choice feminism. If you want to grin and bear it you can. If you prefer to numb yourself just enough to stop screaming obscenities at your husband, you can go that route. I'm not against women going without anesthesia or drugs. In fact, I'm convinced the pharmaceutical companies are part of the axis of evil, and that natural medicine works beautifully to cure what ails us. But I will, however, take the hard stuff to dull any pain that hurts enough to make my eyes water.
But pain can serve a purpose. In the right doses it can be a highly effective positive or negative motivator. If we exercise and our muscles are sore the next day, this is solid proof that we did our best; that our efforts produced a result. A sharp pain however, tells us we over did it and we need to go easier next time. "There is this residual idea in the culture as seen through literature, religion and politics that maybe pain has meaning and has important social benefits," said Dr. Caton, "such as establishing family bonds, inspiring people to try harder or as a method of controlling criminals." By my reasoning however, anything that controls criminals can't be good. Sure, pain is a safeguard, a warning sign to halt! But when it comes to childbirth, a cease and desist signal defeats the purpose when the whole idea is to go further. While a contracting uterus forcefully nudging a baby through tight quarters makes sense, the accompanying pain seems about as useful as a vestigial organ.
Unfortunately evolution and society haven't decided there's simply no point for childbirth to hurt so damn much. Women continue to scream bloody hell in maternity rooms and birthing centers everywhere. We live in a super power nation with the best medical advances on the planet, yet in the year 2008 people still believe if a woman experiences childbirth pain that makes her feel like she's splitting in two, it is her heroic and primal rite of feminine passage. No one thinks twice when the dentist wipes a topical numbing agent on our gums and gives us Novocain, but birthing women are left to second guess whether it's okay to accept just one layer of anesthesia or drugs during an event that is arguably one of the most painful human experiences.
Obstetrics hasn't yet been able to deliver options that allow women, doctors and midwives to create mutual empowerment. Moreover, it's inevitable that interrelated and unforeseen forces play a part in every childbirth. Six months after my daughter was born, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, caused the doctor said, by my traumatic childbirth. I don't know if the Fibromyalgia was the result of my blood pressure meds or the ineffective dilation drug that led to my long and hard labor which in turn may have led to the epidural mistake, taking narcotics, and my difficult pushing. I only know that birthing women don't have one perfect solution for pain management. They can't dull the hard labor pain without taking on at least some medical risk and possibly slowing their labor. They can't be fully alert and 100 percent engaged in the experience without feeling the kind of pain, that for some, can become unbearable. Walking epidurals however, come pretty close to offering a compromise. A variation on the traditional epidural, these combine pain relievers and numb only the abdominal nerves. As a result, woman can move about more freely which helps progress labor; she can sense her contractions and push more readily.
Childbirth pain isn't something women should have to endure, revere, or view as a pass/fail performance. It's a side effect of delivering a baby. It's an experience women should be able to manage, by whatever natural or medical means they decide, without feeling guilty. Real feminine power comes when we can accept that once childbirth takes on a life of its own, and our pain begins to speak for us, we can choose whether to accept horrific pain or not. When the decision is based on our needs and wishes at the time, rather than on unrealistic or societal expectations, our voice becomes our own.
mmo : march 2008