Friday, April 22, 2011

Why Should I "Go Natural"? And, a Meditation on Christ's Suffering


I address this post particularly to the issue of avoiding pain medication during childbirth. Because "natural childbirth" involves rejecting a lot of interventions, each one of which can be debated on its own merits, I'm going to start with the one that most people think of when someone talks about "going natural" during labor: the beloved (or dreaded) epidural (and a variety of other pain medications which are administered less frequently).

A long time ago, someone asked me the following question. "Do you think all women should try to go through labor without pain medication, or is it sufficient that it is a choice?" This set the wheels in my head spinning, because if personal choice is the only thing at stake, why even consider labor without an epidural? I mean, that's like saying, "Yes, please pull on my hair, even though there's no gum or peanut butter or anything else in it and you don't have a good reason to." That's just foolish.

So then, if I think childbirth without pain medication is a better way for me, I think it is, on the whole, good for other women, too. From a strictly medical point of view, there are some acknowledged physical benefits. One is that women laboring without an epidural (I'm not sure about other pain medications) have the option of walking, squatting, getting on their hands and knees, or otherwise changing their body position to facilitate the speed of labor or the baby's passage through the birth canal. Another is the experience of many women and doctors that labor tends to slow down when pain medication is administered. Another is that some pain medication might make the baby a little drowsy, which might make breastfeeding or breathing slightly more difficult (although I don't think the effects are so significant that you would say the mother is harming or neglecting the baby by choosing this course, as some may say).

OK, so those are the reasons you may have heard already. I mention them because in case you haven't heard about them, you need to know. But, in the end, the fear of pain may drive us to pain medication even if we know that our odds of a healthy, vaginal delivery and a healthy baby are not as good when we have an epidural. Also, how many of our friends, sisters, mothers, cousins, and so on have delivered healthy babies vaginally even with an epidural? It does happen all the time.

What I really want to address in this post is two other reasons (aside from the physical benefits) why I think avoiding pain medication adds something good and beautiful to your journey as a mother. One reason is secular and one reason is religious. I'm going to start with the secular, so if you just came here to read about diabetes in pregnancy, or if Christianity freaks you out, makes you roll your eyes, or makes your blood boil, you can stop reading after that.

The first reason comes from my days as a psychology major undergraduate at the good old University of Virginia. I took a social psychology class with Timothy Wilson (one of the best I took!) and learned about cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is what makes it hard to hate people that we go out of our way to do nice things for. It's what makes fraternity brothers so loyal to their fellows that hazed them. It's why it can be dangerous for sober alcoholics to have even one drink. It's what happens because our thoughts, our emotions, and our behaviors like to be in line with one another. It means that if you behave in a certain way, you will tend towards feeling positively about your behavior and you will thoughtfully dwell on reasons that justify your behavior. It's just part of the fabric of who we are as human beings. We like our heads, hearts, and hands to be in line with one another.

How does this impact childbirth? A woman who goes through childbirth continues to think on her choices after the baby is born. A woman who goes through childbirth without pain medication will have to supply ample reasons to explain why her baby was worth the pain that she chose, even when she was faced with other options. The happy result of this self-justification is that she is convinced that her child hung the moon, is the cutest baby on earth, and that she would die for said baby. Self-justification turns into good feelings towards the baby, and positive thoughts and feelings promote a strong, early mother-baby bond.

HOLD THE PHONES! I know what you are thinking. Women who deliver babies WITH pain medication feel the same way - they are convinced that their children hung the moon, are the cutest babies on earth, and that they would die for them. And yes, I have noticed the near-universality of the phenomenon and it is beautiful. Cognitive dissonance explains this, too. Since pregnancy is no cake-walk, and childbirth can be arduous even with pain medication, most women go through the process that justifies their choices and eventually leads to a full-flowered love and affection. Even if it doesn't, the early postpartum period probably will. And even if that's not enough, sticking it out with a 2-year old will surely forge a bond that lasts a lifetime.

So women who go through childbirth without pain medication are not the only ones who experience the amazing bond that a mother has with her child. But I think that women who experience pain in childbirth are more likely to experience this bond sooner (as in, immediately) and more strongly, which would make the early postpartum period more bearable. This includes feelings of elation and a desire to gaze at and nurse their baby in spite of their fatigue. Perhaps it makes one less likely to mind getting up in the middle of the night to feed said baby, change said baby's diaper, and rock said baby back to sleep. I think this has ramifications for women who are fearful of becoming mothers, women who feel ambivalent about their pregnancies, teen mothers, and first-time mothers, in particular. Perhaps these women need to be encouraged to love their children deeply enough to feel pain for them - because it's good for their baby's health, their own health, and the health of their relationship to their child.

Alright. For those of you who are curious about my meditations on Christ's suffering and the laboring woman, read on. See warning above for others.

Today, the Church celebrates Good Friday. It is the day commemorating Christ's arrest, "trial," crucifixion, and death. For the past 38 days of Lent, we have been reflecting on this greatest of sacrifices. I have dutifully dwelled on these themes for several weeks, though I far prefer the Joyful Mysteries.

As I meditated on the scourging of Christ - when Our Lord was whipped, beaten, spat upon, and then crowned with thorns and mocked - I recoiled in fear. I thought to myself, "if God gave me such a cross, to suffer whipping and beating, I don't think I would be able to bear it honorably. I would probably be tempted to disown Him as Peter did." For as many months as I have meditated on this theme, I have had the same reaction and thought the same thing.

But the other day, for some providential reason, I recalled having been in labor last October. When I thought I couldn't do it anymore, I recalled my husband whispering in my ear: "Offer it to God." I remember, while I was in labor, imagining Christ hanging on His cross, gasping for air and struggling against the nails which held Him there. I recall holding fast to the truth that God will never give me more than I can handle - even a painful labor, or a painful death. I left these details out of my birth story because I feared they might offend, but the truth is that Christ was my Rock during my second labor. And now, my meditation on His sufferings has profited from these memories of labor. In fact, my sympathy for Him in His suffering has increased, and my confidence in God's assistance to me in my suffering has been renewed.

So here is the benefit that I propose to childbearing women. By submitting yourself to the suffering of childbirth, as Christ submitted to His own suffering, you become closer to Christ! For a woman in labor, identification with Christ's suffering brings forth new life in so many ways: the life of her child, her own spiritual intimacy with Christ (which is life-giving), and perhaps even drawing your spouse, other children, or other people witnessing closer to Our Passionate Lord. Your perception of the benefit may be immediate (drawing on His strength during labor, as I did) or come later (as I did in my Lenten prayers).

Yes, Christ had the option of foregoing His pain, just as women in childbirth also do. In fact, He would still have been wholly good if He had chosen a different path. He owed us nothing. In the same way, nearly all women who choose pain medication will remain healthy, have healthy babies, and have loving, affectionate relationships with their babies. AND THEY ARE NOT TO BE JUDGED FOR IT. I repeat, choosing suffering in childbirth is not to be considered the only right or good way to have a baby.

Wait, are you sure you heard that? Because I really mean it. I know a lot of women who have spent their bodies in labor and had an epidural at the eleventh hour because their fatigue could not be overcome. And I think these women have identified with Christ, also. Furthermore, I know many a wise and loving mother who chose epidurals from the get-go. I would be ashamed if they read this and believed I thought of them with disdain. It is no sin to choose pain medication unless it directly harms you or your child, which I think it seldom does. Women will encounter the suffering Christ as mothers at some point or another - during pregnancy, childbirth, infancy, toddlerhood, and beyond. Even still, that is not a reason for them to avoid Him during labor. We should be eager at the chance to be united to Our Lord, even in physical pain.

My point in all this is that I believe there are benefits to "natural childbirth" (read: childbirth without pain medication) beyond the physical ones. Physical risks and benefits can be weighed and debated and scientifically researched. But additional benefits await for those who unite their suffering to Our Lord, Jesus.

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