I have been thinking about epidural anesthesia for childbirth. Birth is almost universally described by women as a painful experience. Who wouldn’t want a drug or procedure that takes away the pain? Clearly, most women in America want this. It is by far the mainstream way to give birth.
What I’m wondering about is how this all got started…
Epidurals began to gain popularity around the time that we invited women’s intimate partners (usually men) into hospital delivery rooms. Is there a connection?
While the natural childbirth movement had been steadily chugging along since the 1940’s, the 70’s ushered in a new era. Robert Bradley, author of Husband Coached Childbirth became the new guru of the movement. Dr. Bradley advanced the idea that women could give birth without drugs if they had a coach. Enter the men…
Embracing Dr. Bradley’s ideals, we invited our men (actually demanded their presence) into the hospital delivery room, but we didn’t stop at that. We also expected them to assume a new role – coach – of a sport they had never played.
Ill prepared for this new (impossible) role, men began to attend childbirth preparation classes where they learned to massage, relax and coach the patterned breathing techniques that promised to deliver a pain-free birth. The problem is that the techniques don’t really work. At best they help women cope with the pain, but they don’t take it away.
Prior to the epidural era the dads went home, went to work, went to the bar or waited in a waiting room for a glimpse of the new baby through a window. Women’s female partners were marginalized into obscurity.
When women experience pain in labor they usually look for a way out. When women experience pain in labor their partners usually experience emotional distress. Doctors and nurses are eager to fix the pain and the emotional distress with epidurals. When women ask for an epidural, their partners usually agree that it’s a good idea, regardless of their prior plans. When women’s partners suggest an epidural, women often agree – again, in spite of what they had planned before the labor began. This is one reason why most women in a childbirth preparation class say they would like an unmedicated birth, but only a small fraction of them actually succeed.
Now on to THE RULES that we women are expected to follow in our daily lives (also known as cultural norms):
1. Don’t have sex in front of strangers – hospital rooms are chock full of strangers, by the way (here is what I have written about birth and sex)
2. Put other people’s needs ahead of our own – like the emotional needs of our partners who are distressed to see us in pain
3. Don’t scream or shout indoors (duh)
4. Look good – as in combed hair, not sweaty, bloody or poopy, nice make-up, etc.
Epidurals are the perfect solution to the problem of how women can give birth assisted by their male partners and still follow THE RULES.
If women were assisted in birth by other experienced women and their male partners waited elsewhere, would the epidural rate drop? Would some men be relieved to let women tend to women’s work? Would more women be satisfied by their birth experiences? Is Robert Bradley (now deceased) partially responsible for the meteoric rise in the epidural rate?