I had an epi and only had two stitches (one on top and one on bottom). My tear healed quickly and didn't hurt at all after the epi wore off. I'm pretty lucky I didn't tear more. My mom had 11 stitches with my sister (her last). She tore like this (X). I couldn't imagine tearing like that!
With Brooklyn I had an epi and I did not tear...but I HATED the experience.
With Hunter I went natural and I did tear a little...but I didn't even know until after when the doctor told me. I loooooved the experience of not having an epi. The only pain I had with the tear was the first hour or so it was uncomfortable to sit. But it didn't last long.
I really recommend using water as a natural way to help you stretch better. I had a pretty big baby vaginally and my midwife compared it to a knee scrape. It hurt so bad after awards though. Like to go pee, I had to use a perry bottle. (I think they are called that)
<blockquote><b>Quoting kthx.:</b>" I've been telling myself I want to go natural... the thought of having a needle in my back and limiting ... [snip!] ... kind of tell when to push, without forcing it. But... tearing is sometimes just inevitable. So.. what was your experience?"</blockquote>
Ive had 4 natural births and tore with all but 1, and I honestly didn't feel the tear. I'm a small person and my biggest baby was 9lbs 8.5oz (she caused the biggest tear) and she was honestly the easiest to push out! Luckily, I've never had to push longer than 10 minutes though.