Federal employee health insurance is a good, good thing. I keep waiting for my Wounded Knee Incident to cost me any actual money, but so far my insurance has covered everything — the stitches and splinting, the emergency prenatal exams, and apparently even the ambulance ride. (Seriously. I got a bill from the fire department this morning, called the insurance company to ask about it, and they replied “Oh, they haven’t filed a claim with us yet. They just need to do that.” Then I called the fire department to tell them, and they happily took my information and promised to submit the claim promptly. I was impressed.)

Nearly four weeks later, the injury itself is down to a meshwork of purple scars with one or two vestigial scabs, which are easily covered by ordinary bandaids. (Or just as easily left uncovered, if I don’t feel like wasting bandaids.) My personal-injury lawsuit prospects are looking fairly grim: other than the four hours of sick leave I had to take that afternoon, and the “pain and suffering” of two weeks of impeded mobility while heavily pregnant, I’m not sure what real compensable loss I’ve sustained.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to the concept of “pain and suffering” as a compensable injury anyway. At a basic level, it’s not something I believe you can hit with a price tag, pace all the tort lawyers who do so for a living. By and large, I think they’re blowing smoke. If you’ve got huge medical bills, that’s one thing; you know how much those cost. Theoretically my four hours of sick leave have an equivalent cash value, and if I did the math I could figure out what it was. But “pain and suffering”? How can you rationally measure this, let alone assign it a monetary value?

It bothers me even more that “pain and suffering” is so selectively compensable. A neck brace has a price tag; a war crime does not. A broken leg from a car accident may get you a nice recovery, but what about a broken leg from a skiing accident? And even this arbitrary scale stops short, excluding any pain and suffering voluntarily undertaken toward a positive end. I have firsthand experience with hammering caffeine-withdrawal headaches, the bleary weakness of a thousand calories a day, postoperative misery after elective surgery, and the most horrible Brazilian wax ever, which singlehandedly sold me on laser hair removal. I did all these things of my own free will and have never been disappointed in any of the results, but I won’t lie, that shit HURT. And no third party subsidized a dime of it.

& and I are taking a Bradley childbirth class, which hasn’t yet taught us a whole lot, other than that Bradley-method adherents dislike painkillers. (And hospitals. And doctors. We have politely refrained from professing our intention to resort to all three.) From the sound of things, childbirth without pain relief is one of the most excruciating experiences available to humans. Yet there’s this entire counterculture, including but not limited to Bradley, whose goal seems to be to convince women to stay away from any sort of anesthesia during labor.

This strikes me as perversely anti-feminist — the insinuation that you are somehow less of a woman if you elect to mitigate your pain and suffering, rather than embrace the agony our foremothers could not avoid. But I’ll bet that the same people who favor unmedicated childbirth would gladly encourage you to Assert Your Legal Rights if you slipped and fell and mashed up your knee on a public sidewalk. Some pain and suffering is noble; some pain and suffering is actionable; and apparently it’s up to the sufferer to distinguish the two.

It’s an interesting thought experiment. If you forswear the epidural, as your Bradley instructor believes you should, who is at fault for your pain and suffering? Where drugs are available on demand, should labor without pain relief count as “voluntary” P&S — a risk you assume, the equivalent of elective surgery or extreme sports? Does it magically become compensable as soon as you decide that you would like some drugs, such that any failure to administer them effectively entitles you to recovery? Or have you walked into the contributory negligence trap by seeking to avoid anesthesia in the first place?

Our tentative plan, incidentally, is to labor at home (hence the need for basic training) until it sucks. Then we’ll go to the hospital and the nice people there will make it stop sucking. At least that’s how we’re hoping things will go; if they go otherwise, ah well, we’ll play the hand we’re dealt. The point is not to flaunt my fortitude, nor to flee the looming specter of pain and suffering. The point is to have a baby. At some point it will almost certainly be a damn lousy experience, but as with any nasty grueling goal-oriented ordeal (bar exam, anyone?), I wager it’ll all be fine so long as nothing is at stake other than the outcome itself. This isn’t something we can do wrong. If we can manage to avoid setting expectations, then no good result (healthy baby, healthy mom) should hurt.

The trick, I guess, is to keep it just that simple.

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