“Do you want to talk about anything else?” she asks, looking up from her clipboard as I squirm on the paper sheet. I am 32 weeks pregnant.
“Nope—just want to make sure it’s in my file that I want the drugs,” I say with a smile.
She offers a half-hearted laugh along with a promise: “Ash, mark my words, I’ll make sure you get the epidural this time around.”
Three weeks later, she authorizes an epidural over the phone within the same hour I check into labor and delivery. An hour before I push my baby girl into the world, I tell her I can’t believe how calm and quiet the room feels … it’s almost like giving birth in a library. At one point I make a joke about the epidural being my new best friend. Seriously—you can put my face on the billboards! I tell the nurses. Ashlee Gadd: Official Epidural Ambassador.
My doctor, somewhat amused, shrugs her shoulders and says very matter-of-factly, “There’s no trophy for doing this without medicine.”
Once upon a time, I gave birth without drugs. Without going into all the nitty gritty details, this is what you need to know: 1) an unmedicated birth was not my birth plan, and 2) it was horrible.
Ever since then, I’ve noticed a trend whenever someone asks about my birth stories. The scheduled c-section never raises an eyebrow, but once the phrase “drug-free VBAC” leaves my lips, their eyes widen in newfound respect as if I’d just nonchalantly confirmed I’d climbed Mount Everest.
I am always quick to admit my second birth was less than ideal—and, if we’re all being honest here—that it was actually a bit traumatizing in hindsight.
“Still—” they persist with a twinkle in their eye, “Aren’t you so glad you can say you did it?”
I never know how to answer this question.
If you found out a woman had unintentionally run a marathon because a lion was chasing her, would you congratulate her on that feat? Would you say, “Way to survive, girlfriend! Aren’t you so glad you can finally get one of those 26.2 stickers for your bumper?”
I don’t know what it feels like to run a marathon any more than I know what it feels like to be chased by a lion. But if you could scream during the latter, I’d imagine it would sound similar to the noise escaping a certain hospital room on October 4, 2014 around 6 in the morning.
My son Everett is almost seven and while he is gifted in many areas, athletics is not his strong suit. I might even go so far as to say at this age, he is mostly ambivalent to the idea of sports. He’s all in for the end-of-game snacks, the flashy uniforms, and the friendships, but that actual making-contact-with-the-ball thing? Not so much. Regardless, last year during tee-ball and soccer, he showed up to every game with a smile stretched across his face and his good sportsmanship in check.
At the end of the season, when the coach placed a participation trophy in his hands, Everett’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. He held it so carefully you’d think it was made of real gold.
Did you know participation trophies are actually quite ... controversial?
All you have to do is google “participation trophies” and you’ll see a collection of articles, op-ed pieces, and detailed lists of pros and cons. Some argue participation trophies ruin the beauty of competition and do not prepare children for the real world. Others insist rewarding everyone shifts the focus to the effort, which is sometimes more important.
I didn’t really have a strong opinion about this until I watched my own kid show up to soccer practice and tee-ball games three times a week, running around grinning ear to ear in the 97-degree weather, eagerly listening to his coaches and attempting to follow their directions.
He didn’t make much contact with the ball in either sport, but I can’t help but feel like he earned that trophy just as much as the MVPs.
Here’s a confession. Those people looking at me in awe after I admit to the drug-free birth?
I used to be one of them.
By that I mean—I used to think giving birth without drugs was better than the alternative. I never said it out loud, but before I had kids, in the back of my mind, I used to put natural birth on a secret pedestal, right up there with moms who made their own organic baby food and breastfed for twelve months. If there was a trophy reserved for birth experiences, I used to believe doing it au naturale would earn you the biggest one.
My turning point, of course, was being forced into a scheduled c-section from the very get-go when my first baby turned out to be breech. The day I got the news, I bawled my eyes out. A drug-free birth was the cream of the crop, and I wasn’t even going to get a chance to try it.
A few weeks later, though, that didn’t matter. Because at 11:32 on a sunny Monday morning, a seven-pound baby appeared over the top of a bright blue curtain in a perfectly sterile room, and I was changed forever.
Seven years later, I have three kids now and it feels like I should know better. There are no trophies in this work. Yet I find myself silently assigning them all the time. She does Scripture memory with her kids over breakfast. Her children always look clean and put together. She takes her son to every extracurricular activity and never complains.
I was four weeks postpartum this past Valentine’s Day. My Instagram feed that morning showcased a highlight reel of thoughtful mothers who had gone to great lengths to make the day special for their kids. Red waffles for breakfast. Elaborate gift baskets. Glitter, balloons, tiny pouches of pink popcorn adorned with “You make my heart pop” gift tags. I kept scrolling and scrolling, feeling like garbage, silently handing virtual trophies to all the moms who had the forethought to turn their precious children’s waffles red.
Sometimes I wonder about the trophies people have assigned to me. Her house is always clean. She lost the baby weight so fast. Her boys never fight. Her life looks perfect on social media.
Why do we do this to ourselves? We have to know by now there is no gold, no silver, no bronze in this work. In fact: if ever there was a case for the participation trophy, I believe motherhood is it.
And yet—it took lying on a metal table while my body was sliced open to reassess the trophy I had assigned women who gave birth without drugs. I needed drugs to safely get my baby out. What difference had it made? Had I not birthed him? Had I not fully participated?
Whether you give birth without drugs, with all the drugs, or do it completely numb in a c-section—birth is birth.
Having now done it all three ways, I can assure you: bringing a baby into the world is challenging and beautiful and miraculous no matter how it takes place.
A few weeks ago, my friend and I sat side-by-side in massage chairs getting pedicures. We recently had babies four weeks apart—my third and her first. She confessed breastfeeding wasn’t going well, and that her body wasn’t making enough milk. She despised pumping. Every time she tried to nurse, the baby screamed and cried until a bottle of formula appeared. The simple act of feeding their child was causing her and her husband a great deal of stress and despair as first-time parents.
I sat quietly, listening, taking it all in. As someone who has breastfed three babies, for a split second I contemplated encouraging her to keep trying, to keep going, to not give up. But the more I listened, the more abundantly clear it became that she was still trying to breastfeed out of guilt, not because she actually wanted to.
I told her I thought she should quit.
She looked relieved, nodded, and said, “I think I’m going to.”
And just like that—we smashed the breastfeeding trophy on the floor together. Us. Just two moms in the middle of the nail salon, one who breastfeeds and one who formula feeds, one still tender from a c-section, and one still basking in the glory of that magnificent epidural. Both of us equally sleep-deprived and holding cell phones with 5,000 baby pictures in our camera rolls as we wiggled and admired our freshly painted toes.
Both full of love and joy and wonder and gratitude that the Creator of the universe ever saw us fit to participate at all.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our birth-story podcast episode, Due Dates, Doulas, and Drugs, Oh My!