The Pros and Cons of a Natural and an Epidural Birth, From Someone Who's Done Both

I've Googled the phrase "epidural vs. natural childbirth" so many times that the letters on my keyboard have practically worn off. I couldn't read enough stories, binge enough YouTube videos, or skim through enough books to ease my anxiety about either decision. Knowledge is power, but an endless stream of unique experiences and anonymous mommy-shaming made it tricky to find the right fit. Now — after opting into an epidural for my first delivery and experiencing a natural delivery for the birth of my second — I know what path I'll take with my third, and weighing these factors helped me get there.

What are the pros of having an epidural?

Some of the best parts of my epidural delivery were totally textbook, but others were less expected and more than I could have hoped for.

  • The pain management was practically magic: This is the moment that I fell in love with my anesthesiologist. The intense pain of laboring melted away after about three contractions, and my body felt totally and evenly relaxed. I still felt just enough pressure to know when I was experiencing a contraction, which was a game changer when it came to pushing.
  • The catheter was . . . nice: Said no one ever about a catheter, so of course it sounds like I'm kidding. I'm not. It was the first time in nearly nine months that I didn't have to pee, and it was pure bliss.
  • I hardly felt the needle: I know, they look terrifying. Perhaps the pain of the shot paled in comparison to the intensity of my contractions, so that's why I hardly noticed it, but it was a welcome surprise.
  • I could bond more immediately with my baby: Once our son was in my arms, it all felt over for me. The midwife and nurses carried on with stitching my second-degree tear and pressing on my stomach, all while my husband and I gushed over this tiny person we made. My physical numbness freed me to focus everything I had on our little boy.

What are the cons of getting an epidural?

I seemed to fly under the radar of nearly every potential risk of an epidural. It was administered evenly, I had no residual headache or spinal soreness, and my beautiful baby was alert and happy; but nothing is perfect.

  • Epidurals wear off . . . and it freaking hurts: After an hour or two, my body became well aware of everything it had just been through as I weaned off of the medication. It sucked to feel my pain increasing after the long journey of delivery seemed like it should be over.
  • The recovery was more difficult: The physical trauma to my nether regions in the days following delivery was substantially more distracting than with my natural delivery, and made everything from rolling over in bed to going to the bathroom a bit more difficult.
  • Sometimes laboring felt boring: I went from feeling like an active participant with my baby to more of a bystander as my numb body and my baby did the work. It put a damper on the excitement I thought I'd experience when laboring, and seemed to drag on for ages.

What are the pros of a natural labor?

My expectations for the benefits of natural labor were low as labor drew closer. I knew I wanted to try it at least once, but I wasn't prepared for how deeply the experience would impact the rest of my life.

  • The sense of unity and intensity in the room felt like a Hallmark movie: My natural labor took every ounce of emotional, mental, and physical energy I had, and plenty that I didn't have. Every support person and staff member in the room lent all of themselves to helping me carry on, which left me feeling uniquely connected to everyone that was part of our daughter's birth.
  • The fight made me stronger: You know that crazy story you just know you'll want to tell everyone for the rest of your life? For me, this is that story. Every excruciating contraction and body-splitting burst of pain culminated in one of the most mentally, emotionally, and spiritually paramount experiences of my life. I came away feeling so much more empowered to handle whatever life throws my way.
  • I feel uniquely bonded to my daughter: Rather than feeling like a bystander in the laboring process, I felt like my baby and I were in the fight to bring her into the world together, and I can't help but think of that feat of teamwork each time I look at her.
  • The recovery was a breeze: Hours after delivery, I felt ready to Forrest Gump my way across the country (more or less). Despite the same tear I experienced with my epidural delivery, walking, standing, sitting, and rolling over were next to effortless.

What are the cons of a natural labor?

Beyond the obvious, laboring naturally presented some unique challenges in the dynamic between focusing on my baby and simply making it through.

  • "I can't do this" played on repeat in my head: The mental and emotional toll of knowing another painful contraction was just around the corner seemed daunting and insurmountable, leading me in and out of hopelessness throughout my labor. Not fun.
  • I was more focused on making the pain stop than meeting my baby: It felt like I'd entered survival mode, and all that mattered was getting it over with. The feelings of anticipation and excitement I experienced while awaiting my first baby were buried beneath a mountain of expletives.
  • I wasn't able to bond with my baby right away: I wanted to gush and kiss my baby and cry those big ugly tears of joy when they put her on my chest, but some hazy state of shock and shaking stole the show for about 10 minutes after the final push, and I could hardly hold on to my slippery newborn.

As my husband and I rev up for baby number three, I'm leaning towards delivering my future mini-me with the help of an epidural. I cherish my experience with natural delivery more than any other singular experience in my life, and wouldn't take it back for all of the chocolate and bacon in the world (which is how you know I'm serious). But really what I've discovered is that there's no wrong answer. You have to choose what makes the most sense for you, your baby, and your body. In the end, pain management made it easier for me to keep the focus of my labor and delivery on meeting and getting to know my former tenant, and for me, that priority wins the day.