Navigating the Epidural Dilemma Before and During Childbirth

What’s the Epidural Dilemma?

Pregnancy and childbirth are the most profound experiences in human lives. It is the utmost transformation. However, in our culture, the conversation about these meaningful experiences has been reduced to one topic: labor pain – the fear of it, coping with it, and praising or cheering those who succeeded to avoid it and had a ‘Natural Birth’. The cultural idealization of those who gave birth using no pain medications has had its emotional toll on birth givers.  A 2018 study found relationships between an increased chance to develop postpartum depression when birth givers took epidural to alleviate pain in childbirth and did not meet their goal to avoid it. These birth givers experienced negative emotions related to unmet expectations or a sense of personal failure”. These findings suggest that decisions about coping with labor pain have social and personal values attached to them, presenting individuals with ‘The Epidural Dilemma’. This dilemma is fervent and can be navigated with coaching strategies. 

The decision about coping with labor pain has social and personal values attached to it

For many decades, maternal care agents are addressing the topic of labor pain mainly in two ways – informing and supporting. Informing usually takes place prenatally. Childbirth educators and doulas are informing expectant individuals about the benefits of unmedicated birth and the potential risks of getting an epidural. On the other hand, medical caregivers are leaning toward providing proof that epidural analgesia is safe for both the birthing individual and the baby. Therefore, there is no gain or benefit for being with labor pain. For their part, labor pain is pathological as any other pain. In correlation, during the birth process, medical caregivers are promoting the use of epidural as a coping strategy, while doulas are providing labor support that relies on natural pain control techniques, such as breathwork, visualizations, hydrotherapy, positioning, acupressure, and more. Neither the birth support practitioners nor the medical agents have tried using coaching strategies prenatally to help expectant individuals navigate the epidural dilemma, as I’m about to suggest here. 

The Limitations of Informing about the Potential Risks

The context of the epidural conversation is not ‘pain medications’, nor is it ‘possible medical interventions in childbirth. The context of the epidural conversation is the fear of labor pain. For most birthing individuals, the fear outweighs the risks, hence the dilemma. When childbirth educators and doulas inform individuals about the possible complications and risks of having an epidural, their students and clients are left in a pickle. “What scares me more, labor pain or the potential risks of epidural?” They can be led to believe that their choice is between bad and evil. Whatever their decision will be, it is based on fear. The motivation for their actions, in this case, is negative – running away from something, rather than a positive one – an aspiration or a goal.  A decision to avoid an epidural that is based on a negative motivation is weaker than a motivation based on will and aspiration. 

Individuals are left in a pickle: what scares me more, labor pain or the potential risks of epidural?

What should the coaching conversation around the epidural entail?

  1. Clarifying individuals’ perception of labor pain and their ability to cope with it.
  2. Inquiring about the sources of their beliefs – how did they get to adopt this perspective? Any birth stories of relatives, evidence-based resources? Past trauma that included pain?
  3. Checking the alignment between individuals’ concept of labor pain and coping with it, and their desired birth experience. If there is a lack of alignment – meaning that their perception is not serving them well in achieving their desired birth, then you’ll have to reflect on it and suggest exploring their concept of labor pain. (The next step) 
  4. Exploring new ideas, such as distinguishing truth from myth about labor pain in a way that will help them adopt a better perspective.  A perspective that will support and serve their desired experience. 
  5. Designing a call for action – what do they need to do in order to own this new perception? What actions can they take that will bring them closer to achieving their goal? Some possible examples are writing an affirmation and reciting it, enrolling in a childbirth education class that emphasizes labor support techniques or writing a birth plan, and communicating it with their medical care provider.
  6. Once the beliefs and perceptions are aligned with their goals and wishes around labor pain, design an action plan for achieving the desired decision. 
  7. Assessing your client’s commitment level by holding them accountable to follow the action plan.  

“I want to avoid taking an epidural, but I leave myself open to…”

Yes, I know. This is the most common scenario that you come across when you conduct the epidural conversation. And if you ask me, rightful so. How can anyone commit to not getting an epidural before they get to experience labor contractions and see if they can handle them or not? 

Why do we cheer for those who went ‘naturally’ and subject those who change their mind during childbirth to self-criticism or judgment?

In coaching, we have a saying – be accountable to the process, regardless of the outcomes. I often wonder how birth professionals became so rigid, and sometimes even judgemental when holding birth givers accountable to avoid getting an epidural. In all other life situations, a change of mind when facing reality would be considered pragmatic. How is it different when we experience labor pain? Why do we cheer for those who went  ‘naturally’ all the way and subject those who had a change of heart to self-criticism or judgment?

In terms of the coaching process, it is essential to clarify what is this opening about? Ask them: Do you know what makes you leave it open? What scenarios is it open for? Be curious about this imaginary scenario that your client fears will lead them to deviate from their decision and ask for an epidural. Go back to the coaching steps above and try to align the beliefs with their desires and actions. And always model flexibility and pragmatism, inspiring them to strive for an optimal decision and performance, regardless of the outcomes. 

How do you clarify your clients’ context around labor pain?

Since clarifying your clients’ beliefs about labor pain is crucial to their ability to optimally navigate the epidural dilemma, it is only fair that I give you some tools to accomplish it. One strategy is to ask your client to write 3 to 5 statements that begin with ‘ Labor pain is …” while looking together at these statements, be curious and ask:

  • How did you reach this conclusion? 
  • What proof do you have?
  • Does this perspective serve you? (alignment) 
  • Is there a chance that your perception of labor pain is partially based on myths and false beliefs?
  • How does your current perspective on labor pain impact the choices you make?  

The value of Coaching when Resolving the Epidural  Dilemma  

Does your perspective on labor pain serve you in achieving your desired birth experience?

Can you feel the lack of expectation or judgment of this type of conversation? Can you appreciate the intentional avoidance of any standard or expectations? Can you also appreciate the partnership position of the coach who doesn’t perceive themself as an expert, knowing what is best for the client or what an ‘ideal birth’ is, but rather see the client as an expert in their own lives, their truths, and their desires? This is the biggest value that I find in integrating coaching principles and strategies into birth support. 

This blog post manifests core concepts and terms of transformational coaching. Coaching invites a change of perspective. Clients are led to form a new concept, clarify belief systems, goals, and motivations. In coaching sessions, clients adopt and practice new skills. They learn how to align their beliefs, goals, and actions.  The coach in turn assesses the client’s level of commitment and strength of their convictions and accountability to the process rather than the outcomes. If you’re intrigued to learn how to provide transformational coaching for expectant and birthing individuals, visit my website.

Matrescence: Coaching During a Time of Life Transition

What is Matrescence?

(pronounced ma tres ens).

The psychological birth of a mother, similar to adolescence, involves hormonal and identity shifting.

Listen to my interview with Maureen McGrath where we discuss Matrescence
January 24, 2021

Throughout this profound identity transition, an expectant individual undergoes an average of about 13 doctors’ appointments during pregnancy, 3 urine tests, 4-5 blood tests, 4 ultrasound tests, 2-3 vaginal exams/swabs, and 2 monitor exams. That is if they are healthy, give birth before or on their EDD, and do not need further diagnostic or screening exams. Then, they will go through the childbirth experience.  An experience in which the transparent fabric of one’s routine is disturbed by pain, fear of death, and temporary loss of control.  Their body expels a new human being while they are under the care of medical caregivers – most of them practice from an “expert” position. This abundance of encounters with medical maternal healthcare providers amplifies the neglect of expectant individuals’ emotional state and mindset during this profound transformation. Not even one behavioral assessment is routinely recommended for this individual. Instead of focusing on individuals’ well-being and mental health as they transition to parenthood and prepare for the profound transformation of childbirth, maternal caregivers and researchers tend to focus on how the baby is doing.

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Facilitating Alignment of Expectant Individuals’ Visions, Beliefs, and Actions

When doulas provide prenatal coaching sessions they can help clients be better prepared for the birth of their child and demonstrate a higher level of accountability for their childbirth experience. This is not done by means of education. Prenatal coaching goes beyond teaching and delivering evidence-based knowledge. Its purpose is to help couples discover hidden gaps, resistances, or inner conflicts, and work together as a team to resolve them.

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Transformational Postpartum Coaching: Promoting New Parents’ Self-Confidence and Well-Being

Just like prenatal coaching, transformational postpartum coaching shifts the focus from helping or informing to elevating new-parents’ performance level, self-confidence, and well-being.

Most of my writing has been dedicated to pregnancy and childbirth support. During the pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges of new parents or parents who have expanded their family recently. I want to share how transformational coaching during the parents’ postpartum period can enhance their experience.

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Becoming a Doula: A Good Career Choice or a Community Service?

Twenty years ago, when I was nearing the end of the yearlong doula training program in Jerusalem, my trainer advised us all not to quit our jobs in favor of establishing a doula practice. Regardless of the fact that we enrolled in a yearlong program with a commitment to give 100 hours in hospital shifts, Shoshannah guided us to view the doula role in terms of community service rather than a career path.

A doula for every woman is not just right; it’s a valuable asset

This perspective is reflected in the well-known saying “A doula for every woman, a motto I trust was carved with noble intentions but prioritizes the welfare and empowerment of only one woman – the birthing woman, at the cost of disempowering another woman – the doula. It should be noted that the topic of doulas’ monetary compensation, just like the other two dilemmas I addressed before it, has also caused some turbulences within the doula community. This can be read in Penny Simkins’ Real Talk from Penny Simkin, in which she responded to the disagreement with this motto as expressed by a ProDoula member.

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Is the Doula Profession at Risk?

Doulas’ Dilemma #2: The Doula Scope of Practice

This is the second blog in a series of three that I began writing in November. I am very passionate about the doula profession. That’s why I feel called to write this series before it is too late.  And by “too late” I mean that I think our profession is in danger. Being a doula trainer and at the same time an approved continuing education provider for obstetric nurses, allows me to be connected and empathetic to both sides of the conflict – doula and medical caregivers. On top of listening to nurses’ pain points in their relationships with doulas, I recently have been invited to speak at a few OBGYN and midwives’ practices and heard that they are on the verge of banning doulas

Additionally, recent events confirm what I have been fearing – the current practice of doulas’ who share evidence-based information that supports better obstetric practice (while not being medically trained and bearing no liability for their clients’ health) is going to hurt us.

  • It puts our relationships with medical caregivers at risk.
  • It will lead more cities to follow New York in attempts to license doulas.
  • It will lead our best friends – hospital-based midwives – to ban doulas or have blacklists of unwanted doulas that they don’t trust.
  • It might also make it harder for us to find paying clients because they hear more and more stories about doulas who break the trust and rapport that couples have established with their medical providers.

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Doulas’ Professional Status: Peers, Companions, Lay Women, or Birth Support Professionals?

I wanted to quit, but I discovered coaching and got excited again about being a doula.

After a decade of practicing as a doula and childbirth educator, I was about to quit. I was burnt-out. The rising rate of medical interventions led me to doubt my ability to fulfill my role and facilitate healthy and positive birth experiences. Additionally, the growing gap between doulas’ approach to childbirth and the approach held by the medical caregivers that our clients trust for their journey, triggered a lot of tension in me. These circumstances, in addition to the given hardship of the doula practice, made me reconsider my career path.

Ten years have passed since I felt under-resourced and I still enjoy practicing as a doula and training doulas. How did this happen? I discovered coaching!

In the last couple of years, I have come to learn that I am not the only one to have gone through this professional struggle. In spite of  ACOG’s recognition of doulas’  benefits and some big headlines reporting the many celebrities who hire doulas for their birth,  doulas experience a few major dilemmas that cause great hardship.

This uneasiness reflects in social media and doulas’ blog posts, and I can sense the confusion, frustration, and disputes that percolate within the doula community. Being passionate about doulas and our valuable stewardship position,  I’d like to share my  personal path that helped me resolve the three major dilemmas doulas face: 

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Does Birth Activism Lead Expectant Individuals to Demand Better Maternal Care?

Recently I watched the movie ‘Trial of Labor’, and listened to the stories of three women who wished for a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean). It made doubt the approach we, birth activists, take in our efforts to improve maternal care. Especially our continuous attempts to educate and empower expectant individuals by pointing out the flaws of the medical system and its representatives.

What did birth activism look like in the 90s?

I gave birth to my oldest child in 1995. I often say that she was my muse since my first pregnancy and birth experience led me to pursue a career in the field of birth support. I was lucky to go through this journey in the 1990s, as it seems that these years offered women a wealth of information about natural childbirth: Barbara Harper first published Gentle Birth Choices in 1994, the same exact year that Michel Odent published his book – Birth Reborn. Janet Balaskas published Active Birth in 1992, and Marshal H. Klaus published Mothering the Mother in 1993. Henci Goer closed the 1990s by publishing The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth in 1999. All of these authors were, and still, are my teachers and mentors, not to mention idols.

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