Have I told you about the time that I gave birth to a nine-pound baby without any pain medication whatsoever? I probably have. Well, since we're on the subject, I labored for 24 unmedicated hours, and a few years later I did it again. But that time it was only a few hours of labor and eight and a half pounds of baby, which is nothing really.
I know that boasting about natural birth experiences is frowned upon and not just because of the mental images it evokes. Check out any pregnancy and baby websites and you'll see that the debate between the epidural-users and the pain relief-shunners rages just as viciously as the wars between the cloth-diaperers and pampers-lovers, the formula-feeders and the breast-is-besters, and the stay-at-home moms and working mothers. But I don't brag about my natural birthing exploits to portray myself as a superior mother or to degrade anyone else's life choices. I do it purely out of necessity. I need to prove to the world that I am not an enormous wimp. . . despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The first time I pulled out the natural birthing defense was when Big E was a baby. Having spent the five months since her birth fretting over all the ways in which I could tragically screw up the enormous job of being her mother, calling her doctor at odd hours to inquire about imaginary symptoms (including, once, a lopsided head), and chewing my fingernails to nubs, I developed a raging infection on my left index finger. Because it was Memorial Day weekend and because my doctor was also my daughter's and he'd likely heard enough from me, I was referred to the ER where they told me that they'd have to rip open the abscess with a needle. As I begged the doctor to numb my hand before he lanced it, I told him about the heroic 24-hour labor that I'd endured mere months earlier as if this had earned me some pain relief. He smiled politely and told me that even young children manage this procedure without numbing. I didn't bother to point out that those kids likely hadn't pushed out a 9-pounder.
A few months after Little E's birth, I was conducting the elaborate flossing routine that I'd adopted in place of actually going to the dentist, which I'd been too afraid to do for the previous six years, when I dislodged a giant chunk of filling. I tried to convince myself that I could probably live with the gaping chasm in my molar, but that plan quickly proved ridiculous and I was forced to search out a new dental practice. I found a lovely new dentist whose office was in walking distance of my house and decorated as if it were where the people who live in the Pottery Barn catalog get their teeth drilled. Her exam room radio was tuned to the same station I listen to in my car and her tiny little hands fit comfortably in my mouth without triggering my very active gag reflex. Naturally, I wanted to impress her and so as I sat shaking in the chair, trying to explain that I was pretty sure the Novocaine wasn't working, I said "I just had a baby a few months ago and I didn't have an epidural or anything, so, you know, it's not that I can't handle some pain." She smiled politely and handed me a copy of Real Simple to read while I waited to feel sufficiently numb.
Last month that same tooth flared up and required a root canal, four years after that original appointment. When my students scoffed at my pleas for kindness in the face of my toothache, I managed to stop myself from baring my badge of birthing honor before I put an unspeakable image in the minds of a roomful of 16-year-old boys. I did, however, mention it a few times to my husband in trying impress upon him the immensity of the pain. To his credit, he just nodded reverently.
A couple weeks ago as I was walking into Target with the girls, Little E stopped short in front of me and I stubbed my flip flop clad little toe against the foam rubber block of her Croc, wrenching my toe at an excruciating angle. I limped heavily and short-temperedly through the store but managed not to tell any of the horrified onlookers about my previous pain-management feats. When I got home, though, I spent days speculating to my husband about whether I'd broken my toe, showing off the deep purple bruise that spanned my foot, describing the exact sensation of trying to jog on it (every step as painful as jolt of slamming your finger with a hammer), and, of course, brandishing my birthing badge of honor as proof that I was not being a wimp.
My husband's own pain tolerance resume includes checking back into a soccer game minutes after tearing ligaments in his ankle and staying on the field in another game when he took a hit hard enough to chip the bone in the other ankle, and so I have a grudging respect for him. When he told me that it could take a few months before it felt all the way better, I asked how he knew this. When he told me that he was pretty sure he'd broken his toe playing indoor soccer this past winter, an injury that he apparently didn't feel merited mention, I felt a little wimpy about the minute-by-minute updates I'd provided about my own toe pain. I tried to remind myself of my superhuman tolerance for pain, but I was unconvinced. What is the statute of limitations on the valor of natural childbirth, anyway? I wondered. At four-and-a-half years, I fear I may be running out of mileage.
Not that the thought crossed my mind, but I decided that disproving my obvious wimpiness is a selfish reason to bring a child into the world, and besides our house is pretty full as it is. Also, there's no guarantee I'd be able to pull off another drug-free labor. I am, after all, kind of a wimp.