I'm glad you posted this .... since this is something I've been struggling with, too.
I mentioned to my OB that I'd prefer for my labor to go similar to what I did with Rachel. Labored at home, showed up at 9 cm, delivered Rachel 20 min later.
She 'highly recommended' an epidural, even if both babies are vertex, 'in case' something happens, and I'd have to revert to a C section. She told me the same thing your OB told you .... if I don't have an epidural in, it means general anesthesia (something I DO NOT want), and that my husband would not be able to be in the room.
It makes sense to me that you could have an epidural catheter placed, but get no meds. I do think they have to give you some sort of 'test dose', in order to ensure that it's working properly. In other words, what if they put it in, didn't give you anything at all, then in the event that you needed it, gave you meds, that didn't work??
I used to work at the hospital I am going to deliver. I'm going to call one of my friends, who works in Recovery Room, and ask her how to be able to talk to one of the anesthestiologists. I want to hear it straight from the horses' mouth, about what I will, and won't be able to do, when I get there.
I struggle with this a bit here, because if I mention it to anyone who is ultra birth friendly around here, the FIRST thing I hear is "you need to switch OBs.", or, "you need to switch and deliver at a different hospital". Neither of those are viable solutions for me. First, I LIKE my OB .... I have a good relationship with her, and I respect her opinion. Second, the hospital where I am delivering has a Level III NICU ... in case we need that, my babies will be down the hall, not in a totally different hospital. Last, the hospital that is touted as being 'natural birth friendly' by all the granola moms and doulas around here is another 10 minutes away from me (20-25 min to my hospital, 30-35 min to the 'birth friendly' hospital.)
I just want things the way I want, at my hospital of choice! I don't think that's too much to ask.