What Labor Feels like When the Epidural Fails

The second trimester is often called the honeymoon trimester because the worst of the barfy symptoms are over with, and the worst of the “carrying a bowling ball in your uterus” symptoms haven’t yet arrived. For a first baby, the third trimester should be called the Freak Trimester because as soon as it hits, women freak out! Nearly to the millisecond when I entered my 27th week of pregnancy, I started to panic. I talked a good game. People asked me if I was nervous about labor, and I said, “No. All I have to do is go to the hospital and get this baby from the inside of my body to the outside of my body.” But that was just talk. That task seemed excruciatingly impossible. So I did what all women do when they hit the Freak Trimester.

I worked diligently on the birth plan that I was sure to follow to the letter. (Cue derisive giggles from anyone who has ever given birth.) The biggest decision in any birth plan is “are cameras allowed in the delivery room?” That was a resounding “NO!” for me, so I moved on to the second most important decision: epidural or no epidural. I did my research. I bought a copy of “What to Expect When Expecting” and flipped to the section of what labor feels like. I kept seeing the same phrase over and over: ring of fire. Rings of fire are only good in circuses and Johnny Cash songs. That sealed it. Epidural. It seemed like an easy decision at the time.

15 You Feel Curious

For the rest of my Freak Trimester, I did more research. I read books, scoured the Internet and took birthing classes so I would know exactly what was going to happen to me during zero hour. (Again, cue riotous laughter from anyone who has ever given birth.) I read about tears, complications, horrors and crowning. I learned new and even more terrifying ways to describe the ring of fire. I watched videos of natural birth that were described using words like “empowering” and “life-affirming,” but all I kept thinking about was the death scene in Braveheart. I read blog posts about the lighter side of labor, but reading about the lighter side of labor was like reading about the lighter side of motorcycle accidents. My confidence in my decision to get an epidural was solidified. Totally solidified. It didn’t waver when I read that some epidurals fail because surely that would not happen to me.

14 You Feel Unprepared

About three and half weeks before my due date, something deep inside my pre-maternal self told me that the baby was on her way a little earlier than expected, and my Freak Trimester accelerated into my Oh Holy Mother of God trimester. I sprang into action. Or more accurately, waddled into action. I nested like a bat out of hell. I crossed things off my to-do list in record time. After the first contraction, I placed my hand on my stomach, turned to my beloved husband, looked in his eyes and said, “Go put together the crib.”

Once that was done, my contractions were lasting nearly a minute, were sort of five minutes apart, and had been going on for maybe an hour…close enough. This baby was one her way, and I knew it. The L&D nurse smiled and said, “Let’s check you, but you’re three weeks early. I’m sure we’ll end up sending you home.” But I was already dilated four centimeters, and the nurse told me that I would need to request the epidural because it would not be offered. I nodded. Of course not. That would be entrapment…or something like that. I did not, however, request it at that time. I waited. Why? Because as much as the ring of fire terrified me, the epidural scared me as well.

13 You Feel Fear

Everything had gone too fast. I hadn’t had my full Freak Trimester, and I felt under-freaked. I tried to remember everything I had learned in all those blogs, books, and classes. I came up with nothing. I tried again. I remembered one single sentence of what I’d learned about the epidural. It felt weird. Of course it felt weird; it was a needle in your spine, the place where all weird feelings are born. It shouldn’t have scared me so much, but after reading labor pain described as “discomfort,” I couldn’t help wonder what “weird” was a euphemism for.

For one horrible moment, I imagined the torture scene from Princess Bride. In my mind, my anesthesiologist was Christopher Guest in a medieval costume, saying “I just sucked one year of your life away.” I pushed the image out of my brain. Damn it! I spent 300 dollars on labor classes. I must have retained something. I closed my eyes. I breathed in and out. I counted to four on each breath. Slowly something came back to me, a tiny, two-word sentence from one of the labor and birthing classes I had paid so much money to forget: “stay calm.” So I did that. I worked very hard on breathing in and out, telling myself that all I had to do was stay calm and everything would be okay. I called the L&D nurse and requested my epidural.

12 You Feel Relief

The anesthesiologist arrived after a long wait. She told me about the procedure and then informed me of the risks. She rattled them off quickly, so quickly that I felt even calmer. She’d done this many, many times before. I felt assured, that is until she rattled off one particular risk: paralysis. She said it, and then quickly locked eyes with me and spoke very slowly, as though each word was extremely important. “It. Never. Happens.” I nodded. I told my husband he could leave the room if he wanted. It was not going to be pretty. He refused. He’d already put together a crib in less than an hour while timing contractions; he was on a roll. The anesthesiologist had me sit up and bend forward (a position I’d not gotten comfortably into since the honeymoon trimester). As uncomfortable as I was, I stayed calm. I breathed in and out. I counted to four and then to four again. She put the needle in, and to my surprise, the thing that had been described in the books, blogs and classes as feeling “weird” actually felt…well…weird. There was no pain, no years of my life being sucked away, just weirdness. And then relief, and then I felt something else: good. Very, very good. So good, I felt like I could go to sleep. Considering the task ahead of me, I figured I would need to get a good night’s sleep.

11 You Feel Doubt

What felt like ten seconds, but was probably more like twenty minutes, after I fell asleep, I had a dream that my baby learned to crawl, and she was crawling through the birth canal, on her way to the world outside. “Oh!” my dreaming brain said. “This is how babies are born? This is easy!” (God my dreaming brain is stupid.) I woke up, covered in wet blankets. What I’d felt as a crawling baby was actually my water breaking. This seemed normal. I’d seen it in any movie that has ever featured a pregnant woman, only it usually happened in the grocery store, or the shoe store, or the escalator at the mall or her ex’s wedding. Something was wrong, though. What was it, though? I was calm. The crib was ready. I had a cup of ice chips. I had an epidural. Wait. If I had an epidural why did I feel things like wetness and phantom dream babies in my birth canal…and pain? Actual pain, not discomfort, but good old, medieval life-sucking PAIN! I told the L&D nurse that I could feel pain. She asked if I wanted to call the anesthesiologist back. (Again, I would have to request it, otherwise: entrapment.) I breathed in and out. I counted to four. I thought about waiting a long time for her to come back. I thought about that weird feeling. I thought about sitting up and bending forward. Nah. Maybe I’d be okay. Maybe the pain wouldn’t be too bad. (Cue face palms from everyone who’s ever given birth without an epidural.)

10 Growing Concern

I laid on my back and felt, actively felt, what was happening in my body. I realized that I could only feel pain on the exact right side of my body. That’s when something from those blogs, books and classes came back to me. I remembered I’d read that if the needle is not perfectly centered, the epidural medication might only get into half of the spine and then only work on one side. But it sounded like something that only happened in science fiction, so I assumed it was, like paralysis, something that never happened. And yet here it was, happening. I was lying there feeling like a blissed-out club kid on one side of my body, and like a medieval dungeon victim on my right. I was a harlequin of pleasure and pain, and my calm was starting to run out. I took a deep breath. I held it for four seconds and let it out for one, two, three and four. I had an idea. Maybe I could get the medicine into the other side of my spine. What if I moved onto my right side? Could the medicine seep into the other half of my spine? It was a long shot, but I waited for a break in the contractions and then rolled over. There was no way this was going to work.

9 You Feel Pain

In all those blogs, books and classes, labor pains were often described as “the worst period pain you’ve ever experienced.” I’d always hated that description because I’ve had some seriously painful period pain in my life. Once the pain started coming in wave after wave, I found I couldn’t describe the pain any better than that. When it got even worse, I couldn’t describe it at all. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. I could only describe the unbelievable relief I felt between the contractions. I shut off my brain during the pain, and lived only during the calm, blissful moments between the contractions, and on the left side of my body. I closed my eyes, breathed and counted to four. Slowly, those moments became longer and longer. The left side of my body seemed to get bigger and bigger. I’d done it. The medicine had seeped to the other side of my spine like a salve covering a burn. This was going to work.

8 You Feel Hopeful

This was not going to work. It worked for a little while. For a brief time, I didn’t have to live through the pain. I didn’t have to actively breathe and count my way to calm. I was calm. I made a plan. A plan that was sure to work. I planned on going to sleep, sleeping for about four or five hours and then waking up and giving birth while laying on my right side. This was going to be easy. (I hear you laughing.) I fell asleep. The monitor beeped. My husband poked his head up from where he was sleeping on his cot. The nurse came in and pressed some buttons and left. As soon as she did, the monitor beeped again. This exact sequence happened again and again until my husband stopped poking up his head and just slept through the beeping, but I could not. I could only lay there, wide awake, listening to my husband snore, the monitors beep and the nurse’s footsteps over and over as I wondered what happened to my glorious plan. At least I still had my precious epidural, still seeping into my right side like liquid sunshine. As long as I had that, there would be no problem.

7 You Feel Maternal

“There’s a problem.” The L&D nurse said. “Let’s try you on your back.” That sentence sounded ominous and painful, but I was calm, so I rolled over. She left. I tried to fall asleep, but the pain woke me up. I breathed and counted my way through it, then I rolled over on my right side. The pain went away. I was calm again. I drifted off as my husband snored, but then the beeping happened…again. The nurse came in. “The baby doesn’t like it when you lie on your right side.” I looked at her. I wondered what she meant by “didn’t like.” I hoped that she meant “didn’t like it, but will totally get over it and pop out just fine after your nap.” She kept looking at me. “She goes into distress when you’re on your right side.” “Distress” sounded as bad as “discomfort.” I breathed in and out. I rolled onto my back.(That one act It remained the most selfless thing I’d done for my kid until I took her to the American Girl Doll store for her eighth birthday.) I breathed again and counted through the pain. The nurse came in. “The baby likes this position much better.” Of course she does. I bet she’ll also like very expensive dolls and doll accessories. I knew what I had to do. I had another plan, and it was going to work.

“Can you call the anesthesiologist, please?” I said, hopefully.

6 You Feel Foiled

“Sure,” She said, and I breathed easy. It was going to work. “Let me just check you first.” “Check you” is another one of those deceiving labor phrases. Instead of “check you” it would be more accurate to say “pry open your cervix like I’m trying to break into a bank vault with a can opener.” She shook her head. “Sorry, you’re at 10 cm.” I could tell that was bad, but I didn’t know why because I couldn’t remember anything but “stay calm.” I breathed and counted to four. I looked calmly but blankly at her. “It’s time to push,” she said and sprung into actioon

The room was readied for pushing. My husband was woken up. Pillows were propped. Ice chips brought in. Monitors moved out. Outwardly, I was calm, but inside I was screaming, “Will someone please fix my epidural for the love of God! I can’t push without an epidural! This was not my plan! MY PLAN!” (Cue smiling and nodding from anyone who’s ever given birth.)

5 You Feel Exhausted

The nurse looked me in the eye before my first push and told me that the pushing part of labor can last anywhere from fifteen minutes to three hours. I nodded, and hoped that I would be one of those fifteen minute pushers. I was not. I watched the clock as it t ticked along. I counted, breathed and pushed. My Push Mix played the Stevie Wonder and Britney Spears I’d put on there. It ended with Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger: twice (just in case). I breathed, counted, pushed and stayed calm. My husband held my hand. He ordered pancakes, so he wouldn’t faint from hunger. I ordered more ice chips. He ate the pancakes. I counted to four. Then it was announced that I was crowning. The baby has hair! I nodded. “I was born with hair.”

I was still counting and breathing even though the ring of fire had ignited. (Although, with my half-epidural, it wasn’t so much a ring of fire as it was a C of fire.) I pushed as hard as I could. I was almost there. But the Stevie Wonder turned to Britney which turned to Eye of the Tiger: twice. I told my husband to play it again. I kept pushing and pushing and pushing. A cafeteria worker came to get the money for the pancakes. I kept pushing and breathing and counting. (One.) I was still calm. (Two.) I’d only got twenty minutes of sleep all night. (Three.) I’d been pushing for three hours. I could see the clock. (Four.) I’d fallen into a C of fire.

4 You Feel Pushed to the Limit

The doctor came in and they turned my music off. I had to somehow push out a baby with only half an epidural, no sleep, no pancakes and no Eye of the Tiger. I breathed. I counted. I barfed into a little paper basket. I pushed again. I stopped counting and sang the lyrics of Eye of the Tiger in my head. Rising up/back on the streets/took my time/ took my chances. I pushed. Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet/ Just a man with the will to…. Holy Moses! The ring of fire had been nothing compared to the napalm bomb that just went off. There was no epidural side and non-epidural side anymore. My entire body was united in a forest fire of pain. I lost my calm. I stopped counting and singing Survivor. I screamed. I heard a voice say, “Look down.” And there she was. Clean. Perfect. Beautiful. Exhausted. I knew how she felt. I lay back, hoping it was finally over.

3 You Feel Done

It was not over. The contractions kept coming and coming. I did not breathe. I did not count. I wondered if I could get another epidural. I craned my neck to look at my baby who was on the little table in the corner with the nurse and my husband. I pushed the placenta out. I hoped it would be over. It was not over. The contractions kept coming. I stopped waiting for them to stop. I just hoped it would be over. The doctor said, “I’m going to stitch you up.”

Sure that sounds good. Only it wasn’t. “Stitch up” was such an innocuous term for what it felt like. I think a more descriptive phrase would have been “tattoo a portrait of Justin Timberlake on your perineum with a rusty needle.” It hurt with every stitch. A little needle, some thread, seems like nothing compared to childbirth, but I screamed and screamed. The nurse looked at the doctor and said, “Didn’t you use the numbing cream.”

“She got an epidural.” The doctor said.

“It didn’t work.” The nurse said.

I hoped it was over. They put my baby on my chest, and it was. There was no more pain.

2 You Feel Relieved

I had come out on the other side, and so had my baby. I had stayed calm through most of it, so the few moments where I wasn’t didn’t matter. The brain does a funny thing right after going through labor. It glosses over the bad stuff. It’s almost like the baby has kidnapped your brain, and your brain has Stockholm syndrome. When people asked how the delivery was, I said that everything went fine even though I’d pushed for three hours on a bum epidural and no sleep. When they asked how my recovery was going, I said, “Just fine” even though it felt like a bomb had gone off in my nether region, and I needed a coalition of charitable do-gooders to tour the war zone and look for survivors. When the anesthesiologist bill came, I didn’t call them up and offer to pay for half of it, I just paid it. When I asked myself if I had any regrets, I only had one: not yelling at the cafeteria guy who busted into my labor room asking for payment for the pancakes (Screw your bill! I’m trying to bring life into the world, buddy!). For a very long time, when people asked me if I’d had natural birth or not, I would tell them I had an epidural, but now I just look them in the eye and say, “both.”

1 You Feel Responsible

While all the blogs, books and classes talk freely about the horrors of the ring of fire and labor discomfort, there seems to be collusion among women who’d given birth not to tell pregnant women how bad it is. Something about managing to get a baby who’d grown very large and comfortable on the inside of our bodies to the outside of our bodies turns us all into FDR, and we tell every pregnant woman we see that the only thing she has to fear is fear itself. I did the same thing, except once the Stockholm syndrome wore off, I did mention that my epidural had only worked on one side of my body because, although it wasn’t something that never happened, it was a weird thing that almost never happened. A year or so later, I was lucky enough to be in the L&D room of a good friend. She had decided not to do an epidural. She was fine until the real pain arrived. The medieval life-sucking pain. She said she didn’t think she could deal with it. I said, “You have to ask for your epidural, otherwise it’s like not telling the drug dealer that you’re a cop. It’s entrapment.”

I gave the L&D nurse a look and he gave me a nod that said “eh…close enough.”

“I’m afraid it won’t work on both sides.”

“That won’t happen.” The L&D nurse said.

I told her, with much authority, that half an epidural was better than none. Then, I told her to breathe and count to four because whether she got the epidural or not, everything was going fine as long as she stayed calm.

Sources: Pregnancy.org 



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