I went into labor a week before my due date, early morning on Saturday, August 27, 2005. The day prior was my last day at work before my maternity leave. I'd spent the previous weeks dreaming about having time to wash and fold baby clothes and put the finishing touches on the nursery.
On the drive to the hospital, all I could think about was everything I'd left undone. I didn't give a thought to the pain of childbirth because the truth was, I didn't believe it would be all that bad.
I'd grown up in a house with little patience for complaining about minor illnesses or injuries. My father was a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who treated people with severe, life-threatening burns. My mother's side of the family has roots in Christian Science, which preaches sickness is an illusion and can be cured through prayer. While none of my family actively practiced Christian Science, the idea that positive thoughts influence health held through the generations and became part our ethos.
My parents held a deep respect for medicine but an even stronger belief in stoicism and the importance of physical toughness. When I was growing up, they woke up at 5:30 a.m. every day to go jogging. Their yearly adventures included helicopter skiing, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and trekking in Nepal. Whenever my mother started to come down with a cold she'd announce to the family, "I don't have time to be sick," and carried on with her day.
Following in their adventurous footsteps, I spent my late twenties training and competing as an amateur boxer. For years I spent Friday nights in a boxing ring, sparring with women who held nothing back. In the beginning, I'd finish almost every sparring session with a bloody nose, leaving the gym with paper towels shoved up my nostrils.
"You need to learn how to keep your guard up," my trainer told me matter-of-factly.
And so I did. I stopped getting bloody noses, but I did get an occasional black eye, and my knuckles were often swollen from hitting a bony elbow or an accidental punch to a hip bone.
When I got pregnant, I approached childbirth like another physical challenge and decided I wanted to give birth without pain medication.
My real motivation was competitiveness mixed with a desire to prove myself. I wanted to be as tough as the few women I knew who'd experienced natural childbirth. And since I'd already done something physical many people couldn't fathom, I went through my pregnancy in a cloud of denial and hubris.
"I'm tougher than most women," I thought. "How hard can this actually be?"
In the beginning, it was easy.
My husband and I arrived at the hospital and calmly checked in. It was only after we got settled into the labor and delivery room that I began to notice each contraction. They were strong enough to cause me to stop and fall silent for a moment as my belly tightened. Then I'd relax as the pain faded away.
"Is it worse than getting punched in the face?" my husband asked after each of those early contractions, trying to put the experience in a familiar context, to remind me what I was capable of, and make me laugh.
As the pain got worse, increasing in intensity and frequency, I realized I was in no way prepared for this ordeal. The two experiences—boxing and labor—occupied completely different worlds. A punch was straightforward and concise. Even when cornered against the ropes with punches stinging my face, I could still fight my way out. These contractions were mysterious. They came from deep within and didn't follow any rules I could understand.
The pain was amorphous, the end unknowable.
Just when I thought the pain reached its peak, the next contraction was even worse. I was in way over my head, lost in a wilderness of pain I never knew existed.
I finally gave in: When I was almost fully dilated and whimpering in between contractions that I needed a break, I said I'd take whatever they could give me.
"It's too late," the nurse told me, "it's time to start pushing."
Asking me to do something other than howl miserably seemed like an impossible request. My terror grew, but I knew there was no way out but through. Even with my husband, my mother, an inexperienced doula I'd found on Craigslist, and the nurse in the room, I felt fundamentally alone.
At this point, I'd completely forgotten about the reason for my pain, about the life inside of me. The pain blotted out every thought I could have and all I wanted was for it to end.
Finally, after close to an hour of pushing, my beautiful, healthy, 7 lb 12 oz daughter, Rosemary, was born at 8:44 p.m. The pain vanished instantly, and I snapped back to the world of the living, in love with the new life in front of me.
Natural childbirth allowed me to walk around right after my baby was born. It possibly prevented a C-section and medical intervention, but it also colored my memory of childbirth with streaks of dark fear. I wonder what it would have been like to look my husband in the eye, to enjoy each stage of the birth, and marvel at the miracle.
I had another baby in 2008, and while I wasn't sure what my birth plan would be when I entered the hospital, my son made the decision for me. My 9 lb 12 oz boy came so quickly after we got to the hospital, I didn't have time for an epidural. The experience was quicker but no less terrifying. I entered the wilderness again and crouched there alone every time a contraction took over.
They say you forget the pain, but I never did.
For years I had nightmares that I was nine months pregnant, filled with dread at the thought of experiencing that level of pain again.
How you decide to give birth is a profoundly personal choice. While I'm grateful I had two healthy babies with no complications—deciding to go without an epidural was mostly about my ego. I do wonder what a calmer, more present delivery would have been like.
Now that my kids are 13 and 10, I understand how you deliver your baby—in a hospital, at home, via C-section, with or without an epidural—is inconsequential in the marathon that is motherhood, a journey filled with pain, heartache, wonder, and joy deeper than the longest labor.