Epidurals: to have or have not?

Rosie Millard is offered advice from a Woman Who Knows. But does she know best?
  • @Rosiemillard
They say that during pregnancy your brain does all sorts of odd gymnastics, so the other day when I came across an unfamiliar name on my voicemail I simply thought I'd forgotten who it was, and called her back.

"Hello Rosie," said the voice, which I still didn't recognise. "I'd like to know how much longer you have to go with your pregnancy," she continued. Oh, God. Was I meant to call someone important today? The midwife? My antenatal-class instructor? Or is this just some spectre from the NCT inquiring whether I have purchased any zip-up feeding bras yet? "Erm, yes," I say, noncommittally. "Well, I suppose about two months. Have I forgotten to go to one of your classes?" "Oooh no, no no," continues the voice, in a friendly, advisory, sort of older-womanish manner. "I just rang to ensure you weren't still considering having an epidural when you are in labour."

Silence while I tried to comprehend just what has been said to me. The voice continued. "You don't remember, do you? When we met, you said you wouldn't rule out pain relief. Well, I'm just calling to discuss this with you. I hope you've changed your mind."

At last I remembered. About three months ago, I bumped into a middle- aged woman during the coffee break at the women's conference held by Demos. She seemed very keen to discuss the whys and wherefores of my pregnancy. And I must have let slip some innocent remark about being open to options. "Well, I don't know," I falter. "It's a long way off. It's up to me, and my husband, and, erm, the midwife, I guess. I suppose I'll see what happens. When the time comes. Which is not until August, actually."

She changed tack. This is a Woman Who Knows. And I'm an innocent; I've never been pregnant before. "Oh, it'll be too late by then, far too late. And you won't have been told," she said, ominously. Told what? Told what? "About the side-effects. They never tell you. About the side-effects of epidurals." What, other than they stop you from going through agony? That if you have to have a forceps delivery, or other such unspeakables, an epidural might be jolly useful?

"They never tell you about the effects on you and the baby. And the dangers. They were only invented for Caesars, you know. In fact, they're not meant to be used for normal deliveries at all, but they never tell you that." But I thought epidurals were very safe. If this is some gross cover-up, it's been remarkably well stage-managed, I said. Lots of mothers have enthused to me about the joy of the epidural. (It's true, they have. And so have their partners.) "Those were the lucky ones," said the voice.

I pondered the situation. A complete stranger, with whom I exchanged about 20 words four months ago while queueing for a cup of coffee, was now offering me quasi-medical advice over the phone for an event at which she will not be present and is not medically qualified to discuss. Buzz off, you silly old bag, I felt like saying; but mesmerised, I hung on.

"Where are you having your baby?" she continued. I mentioned a central London teaching hospital. "Oh goody," she said, "I run a special Non-Interventionist Group there." Oh goody, I thought. More chances for brainwashing. "We meet up with expectant mums and talk them out of epidurals. And pethidine too, come to think of it." "Who is on this group?" Apart from middle-class busybodies like you, I felt like adding. "Oooh, a whole lot of people like me, and midwives." Any "Interventionist" types? Such as doctors? "No, not at the moment." I'll bet there aren't.

Of course, I should have expected this sort of doorstep behaviour. When you have a lump the size of a healthy beach ball attached to your stomach, people assume you are in fact toting around a huge sign, which says Please Come And Talk To Me About Labour. Yet apart from the women who whisper dreadful things in your ear such as "I had 48 stitches", most people are rather nice about it. It even happens with those you think would be far too self-important to care. I was at a festival launch the other day and one Bob Geldof (whom I have never met before) came up, inquired as to the due date and gave me a thumbs-up.

But the epidural thing has become a real issue. People who have had a ghastly time in labour swear by them - people who have had a happy time in labour (well, sort of) also say they're good news. But I have discovered that those who chose to go it alone tend to expiate their hours of agony in the delivery suite by climbing up on to a pedestal and making everyone else feel completely lily-livered afterwards. Having a "natural" delivery has become a sort of postnatal brownie point in martyrdom.

But why? My mother (who had four of us) says if they had been around in her day, she'd have gone for the option like a shot. But then she's a doctor.

Of course, it's good to be informed, and have the option to make choices; and, even better, that much of the "empowerment" (maternity buzz-word) surrounding childbirth has been handed back to midwives and the mothers themselves. But it seems as if any medical advances in obstetrics are now spurned by right-thinking non-medical women marching under an anti- interventionist banner. And although it's easy enough to say you can shrug it off, the pervasiveness of the anti-pain relief lobby is such that it has left me with a sneaking dread of having to have anything at all. Just in case I have to admit to it after the event.

Anyway, I retorted to my cold-caller, it doesn't matter. Labour is one thing, but surely having a healthy baby at the end of it all is the important issue. "I've never heard of anyone putting on their CV, `I was born without pain relief,' " I told the voice. To which, I am happy to relate, she had no reply.

Rosie Millard is the BBC's arts correspondent.