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Mind Your Own Birth Plan

Photograph by Twenty20

I was nodding along and cheering on author Jessi Klein in her recent New York Times essay, “Get the Epidural,” until her last line.

Klein shares a story of a stranger rudely asking her whether she planned to have a “natural” birth, and the stranger slinking away after Klein tells her she plans to get an epidural. Klein goes on to make valid points about how women often feel like we need to prove ourselves by refusing pain medication during labor and delivery, and the unreasonable expectations placed on women in a myriad of ways, particularly when it comes to parenting.

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But she lost me with her last line: “So really, get the epidural.”

Um, no thanks?

By suggesting that all women should opt for unmedicated births because parenthood will bring along plenty of pain down the road, isn’t Klein heaving unsolicited advice at us, just as the impolite stranger did to her?

Though we may be judged for any (all?) of these choices, they are ours to make.

Here’s the thing that’s amazing and completely freaking overwhelming about being a woman and parent today: We have choices. So many choices that frankly, it’s paralyzing much of the time. We can work for pay or stay home with our kids—or, like many, stitch together something in between. We can breastfeed, bottle-feed or both. We can vaccinate, sleep train, lean in, lean out or do the hokey pokey, and though we may be judged for any (all?) of these choices, they are ours to make.

The way we give birth is one of the first looming choices we make as parents. And as if to prepare us for all the ways parenting is not what we thought it'd be, each birth has its own unpredictable trajectory. You can plan on getting an epidural only to arrive at the hospital fully dilated and too late for meds. You can be adamant about having an unmedicated birth, but be so torn apart by the pain of contractions that you beg for relief.

And, like many parenting choices, we can choose something in between the obvious options of going med-free or getting an epidural. For instance, during my first labor, which was nothing like I’d imagined it would be, a shot of the opioid Nubain allowed me to get some much-needed rest between Pitocin-induced contractions. Nitrous, a drug often used during dental work, is commonly used in Canada and the UK during labor.

In retrospect, whether we have a medicated or unmedicated birth really doesn’t matter that much. Like so many aspects of parenting, what seems like a crucial decision at the time often seems laughable further down the road. On my son’s second night at home, when he wouldn’t stop screeching and refusing to sleep, my husband innocently suggested we try a pacifier.

“But what about nipple confusion?” I asked, glaring at my husband, who was clearly trying to sabotage my breastfeeding relationship with our newborn. After a heated, several minute exchange about whether or not to stick a small, plastic nipple in our son’s wailing mouth, I surrendered. My son went on to breastfeed until he was 2—the dude wouldn’t have suffered from nipple confusion if he’d been in a room full of nipples. It had seemed like a life or death decision at the time, but looking back at ourselves as brand-spanking new, clueless parents, it seems almost cute.

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Get an epidural or don’t. Give birth in a hospital or your bedroom. Do what makes the most sense for you. Stick to your “birth plan” or toss it out the window—none of this makes you a better mother, woman or human than the other. It might make you feel strong or relieved, disappointed or empowered, but mostly, it’s just one of the first of a zillion choices we will make as mothers. And most of these decisions, despite the litany of loaded opinions out there, will turn out just fine.

But please, don’t tell me what choice I should make.

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