Why a great birth is actually one you feel comfortable with, no matter how it goes down.
Cesarean sections often symbolize some kind of failure or unhappy ending of a story. My first c-section was the scary emergency kind, but my second was planned. Both times, they felt like a relief.
I’m one of those strange people who enjoys being fussed over, especially by doctors. One of my secret wishes (before I had children) was to have something very serious but not life threatening happen to me that would cause everyone to be concerned and require that I be nursed back to health in a very luxurious, spa-like rehabilitation center. I blame the children’s book, Madeline – particularly the part where Madeline gets her appendix removed and receives a beautiful dollhouse and becomes the envy of all 11 of her schoolmates.
And then, in college, my Madeline fantasy came true when I had an emergency appendectomy. It was certainly not the spa experience I had been hoping for, but it gave me some insight as to what abdominal surgery is like. So the possibility of a c-section was kind of like “the devil you know” scenario while a vaginal birth remained a horrifying and foreign concept.
My water had broken at 5am on a Monday, and by 8am on Tuesday I still had not fully dilated. The doctor explained that after a woman’s water breaks, it leaves the baby more vulnerable to risk – especially with all the foreign bodies being put into my vaginal canal to check the baby’s heart rate after a scare the night before, and to check my cervix. Even with Pitocin, my stubborn cervix hovered at 9 cm for hours without budging. My doctor felt that my body would not dilate further if it hadn’t dilated by then, and to wait would be too risky for the baby. The expert had made her decision. I was having a c-section. And I was secretly thrilled.
Seeing my baby after the surgery for the first time was mind-blowingly awesome, but the part after that -- after my husband and baby were escorted to another room and they began to close my incision -- was awful. To this day I hold fast to the idea that I was not drugged enough and that I could feel EVERYTHING. I still remember the feeling of my insides being cauterized, my arms shaking in their loose shackles in crucified Jesus position, and asking if anyone in the room wouldn’t mind holding my hand while I shook and cried.
I don’t know if it was the trauma of surgery, wacky hormones, not having been on any antidepressants during pregnancy, or something about giving birth in general, but from the moment they sewed me back up it was like a light had gone out inside of me.
For the week that I was in the hospital, I was horrified by and mainly obsessed with my post-surgery body and the way that my stomach didn’t shrink but got bigger and bigger from all the fluids and gasses. The fact that I was very constipated weighed heavily on me, literally and emotionally.
On one particularly low point, I spent an hour or two trying to force some movement in that department, and ended up with a ton of fluid accumulating under the surgery area from my efforts of bearing down. When I stood up in front of the enormous mirror in the bathroom, I realized that my vagina appeared to now be twenty times its original size. I ran around the room screaming wildly for a doctor. When one did not come immediately, I settled on the first person in a uniform to enter the room and asked if I could show him my vagina but then realized it was the guy who empties the trash cans. My husband tried to calm me down but I was not reachable. I flipped out so badly I refused to nurse my crying, hungry newborn, insisting irrationally that my husband nurse him (which he did figure out how to do, via a tiny tube hooked to some formula). I felt like a monster and was convinced I would never look like a normal person again. The Monster Vagina went away over the next few days, but the monster inside me was still there.
The short version is I had clinical postpartum depression and thought my baby was evil and trying to kill me. Thankfully Zoloft worked like a magic pill, and I emerged, finally, a normal person with normal mom feelings and a much more normal stomach.
Two years later, I was pregnant with my second son. My doctor felt very strongly that my body is the kind of body that would never dilate fully. If I had been born in the time of more crude medical practices, I would be the woman who had to have the baby ripped from her womb and bleed out on the table. We decided on another c-section. She explained that having an emergency c-section is extremely traumatic for the body, because the body has already been hard at work laboring and trying to squeeze out a baby, and then after it’s been working for hours, it gets opened up and its insides get messed with. An elective c-section would be much more civilized than my first horrific experience.
And it was. My Type A personality enjoyed knowing exactly what day I would be having my baby, being able to pack for the occasion, and making sure that we had care in place for our toddler son. I walked myself into the operating room and watched the entire medical team calmly prepare to bring my baby into the world. In the two years since I had had my first, the hospital had changed its policy about allowing the partner to stay in the room while the woman gets sewn back up, so I had my husband to hold my hand. My doctor made sure to pump me full of medicine and I didn’t feel a thing. I was so high off of how easy the whole thing was, and the drugs, that I was recommending c-sections to anyone I encountered in the hospital who was of childbearing age.
This time I did not obsess over my stomach, and calmly accepted that everything would go back to its normal place eventually. I did not get depressed this time – and I think that the combination of being more in control of my birth and also staying on anti depressants throughout the pregnancy had a lot to do with it.
I fell in love with my baby immediately and to this day am completely intoxicated by his smell and on some days feel I could run away to a desert island with him as my only companion and be happy.
When I talk about my c-sections to people, I find myself readying to say something along the lines of “yeah, I’m disappointed I’ll never get to experience a vaginal birth” but that would be a lie. I remind myself that not all things that can be humanly experienced must be endured. I also remind myself that in both cases, I got the births that I wanted. If I could do everything over again, I would still choose the same path. I am more than OK with my c-sections. I am grateful.
Image source: “Big Yawn” by Flickr user Björn Rixman under a Creative Commons license.