Surprise of all surprises, C-section birth has become a topic I am passionate about. It has been almost three months since Joey was born (has it really been that long?) and even now new feelings and emotions and memories come up.
I also know of several expecting mothers who are facing the possibility of a surgical birth for one reason or another. This is an incredibly personal experience and, like all incredibly personal experiences, everyone and their brother has a deeply-held opinion about it. I most definitely do not want to presume upon someone else’s experience, but I do want to offer my own experience, a little advice (which may be taken or left), and an empathetic ear. I hope you find this encouraging and helpful.
The biggest thing for me was not knowing quite what to expect. Hopefully sharing some of my experience will help.
For me, anticipating a surgical birth was by far the hardest part of the whole thing. Phrases like “major abdominal surgery” and “higher risk of ____” whispered in the back of my head. I also dealt with the emotions of feeling like a victim of Murphy’s law and feeling like a “failure” if I couldn’t manage to have a vaginal birth.
I had an emergency C-section, but I had a week to prepare for the idea. I know other people will have different time-frames: everything from a planned caesarean with weeks or months to deal with the anticipation to a completely unexpected emergency surgery with only minutes or, at most, hours of time to contemplate what will happen.
Remember, though, that you are not a failure if you do have to have a C-section!!! I know for some women the idea of a surgical birth is traumatic. It does not have to be. I know one of the hardest thoughts for me was, “Now I’m just another statistic,” because I had heard so many times how awful it is that 1/3 of all births in the U.S. these days are surgical. Yes, if you have a C-section you are in that category. But you and your baby are not just some statistic. You are a brave mother doing what you need to for the health and safety of your baby, and that makes you strong, loving, unique, special, and beautiful.
Also know, and repeat this to yourself over and over, that having a C-section does not mean you are somehow less of a woman or less of a mother. Your body is not broken and your baby is not less of a baby. You still grew a baby inside your body for nine months (unless you had her 2 months early like I did… heh) and you will still love that baby like the true mother you are. You will still be getting up in the middle of the night to feed your baby. You will still worry when he has a fever. You’ll still read to and play with him, teach him, hug and kiss him. You will still be celebrated on Mother’s Day. Having a C-section still “counts” as giving birth.
I say these things because some ignorant people will tell you differently. Do not pay any attention to them. They have no idea what they are talking about. I also mention these things because even three months after Joey’s birth I wrestle with them. I have talked to some mothers who were perfectly satisfied with their caesarean experiences and never felt loss or negative emotions. I am so happy that they were able to celebrate the birth of their children that way. I know that for myself and many other C-section mamas, the joy is mingled with disappointment. If that is your experience, it is completely normal and healthy. Acknowledge the disappointment along with the joy, and find someone with whom you can talk it through.
Remember too that the circumstances of this birth are not a surprise to God. He knew in advance every detail of the birth of your child. In His love and wisdom and goodness, He orchestrated the specifics of your baby’s entrance into the world. You may wonder why God called you to this, but know that this is a beautiful expression of His love and grace and goodness to you and to your baby – the baby He knit together in your womb and whose every day is already written in His book. Let this experience be a grace-filled experience.
I also didn’t know what to expect in the surgery itself and immediately afterward in recovery.
First, there will be a lot of people involved. I was surrounded by dozens of nurses, the anesthesiologist, NICU personnel, and, of course, the doctor. The surgery happened very quickly. The spinal block I had only took a few minutes to work, and then I was on my back on a slab under theater lighting with a huge blue curtain blocking my view. I was wheeled into the OR at 11:40 pm and thought there was no way Joey would be born that day. I was saying to myself that her birthday would be January 4. She was born at 11:58… on the 3rd. This is not going to be some long, drawn-out experience. It will feel fast and exciting! Let that be fun!
It did not feel like what I imagined a “major abdominal surgery” to feel like. I was so excited about the idea that I would be seeing my daughter in a matter of minutes that my focus was not really on the surgery at all but on the anticipation of the moment of birth. If you’ve had other surgeries in your life, know that this is nothing like those. Yes, it is surgery. But even more importantly, this is giving birth. It will be a unique experience unlike anything else you ever experience.
I was very surprised by the size of the incision. I don’t know why, but I always pictured it being… smaller. Know that the incision is not small. Mine is about 6 inches long, from one hip to the other. However, if you have a low transverse incision, it will be easy to hide below the panty or bikini line. It also will be fairly thin and the color will fade with time. I also struggled with feeling like I was no longer sexy. Don’t think of this scar as an “ugly” scar. This is not some accident that left you marred. This scar is a beautiful battle wound, a permanent mark on your body that you can point to for the rest of your life and say with joy, “See, I’m a mother!”
Having said that, recovery was not nearly as bad as I imagined it would be. Yes, you will be sore for a while. Take what you need to manage the pain. Get up and move as much as you can as soon as you can. It will be difficult at first, but it is so important for your recovery. Heed your doctor’s instructions. Have someone come over for 3-4 hours per day for a couple of weeks to hold your baby so that you can get a solid block of uninterrupted sleep every day. Don’t be afraid or too proud to ask for help. You will need lots of it, and that’s ok! You just gave birth!
Finally, there is a lot of information out there about surgical birth and VBAC. Read plenty of it. However, keep in mind that much of it is aimed at preventing the need for a C-section. This is good information for a lot of women. If, however, you find yourself in a situation where a C-section is medically necessary and inevitable, this information can be quite unhelpful and downright discouraging. It is okay to disregard what doesn’t help!
Here are some questions to think through before your C-section that I found helpful:
- How many support people can I have with me in the Operating Room? Many hospitals only allow the husband. If possible, it is nice to have a second support person (like a doula or your mother or a close friend) in the OR with you, or at least waiting in the recovery room. If your baby needs to be taken to the nursery or NICU (even for a little bit) your husband can go with your baby and your second support person can stay with you while you are stitched up and in recovery.
- What kind of anesthesia will be used? I loved my spinal block – it was quick, temporary, and just the right amount of numb. It was also only minutes before the birth, so Joey was not groggy when she was born but was wide awake, alert, and taking everything in. Epidurals and full general anesthesia are also available. Think through what you are most comfortable with and also what your doctor recommends for your specific situation. With the spinal block, I was numb to any and all pain but I could feel the “pressure” of the birth – meaning that I experienced Joey’s birth, which was very special to me.
- When will your caesarean happen? Granted mine was an emergency and happened while I was in transition. Consider what you and your doctor are comfortable with – especially if yours will be planned. Also remember that labor is good for both the baby and the mother. You both need those contractions and the release of hormones. If you are comfortable with it, ask if you could be allowed to begin labor spontaneously and go through some labor before your surgery.
- Ask about options during the surgery. For example: Is there a mirror available so I can see the birth? Can you lower the curtain just enough so that I can see the birth without seeing the incision? Will pictures or video be allowed? Can I have skin-to-skin contact with my baby as soon as possible (if both the baby and mother are stable)? How soon after birth can we begin breastfeeding? Is delayed cord-clamping or gentle caesarean an option? What kind of incision will be used on my uterus (which may have an effect on your ability to VBAC)?
- If there is a possibility your baby may need to spend some time in NICU (because of premature birth or other health-related issues) make sure to take time to interview one of the NICU nurses! Ask about procedures in the NICU: What kinds of equipment will be used? Are babies given bottles and/or pacifiers? What shots are required in the hospital? Can we opt out of any of them? Will I be able to start breastfeeding right away? If my baby is stable can I hold him or her? Do you allow or encourage Kangaroo care (skin-to-skin)? How often and how long can we visit? Can we bring other visitors? How can I provide breast milk for her feedings when I am not able to be present? What kind of emotional support is there? Do you have private rooms? (I may write a similar post later about coping with having a baby in NICU.)
- It’s not too soon to start thinking about your next birth experience. There are tons of good resources for mothers who wish to attempt a VBAC (vaginal birth after a caesarean). Read read read. And then read some more. Talk to your doctor. If you don’t like what she says, find another one. Acknowledge any feelings you may have about it. (For example, I am working through a fear that if I have a successful VBAC next time it won’t be fair to Joey. This is simply not true. I love Joey with all my heart and she will never be “less of a real child” than any other children I may give birth to vaginally.)
Finally, you may need to just talk out your experience. Surgical birth is the kind of thing you only truly understand if you have been through it yourself. Find another C-section mama who will be able empathize with you. Find someone who is willing to just listen without giving their 2 cents about everything. You can always call or message me if you would like. And never underestimate your husband. He went through this with you too. He was there from conception to birth and now the process of raising this child with you. Let this be an experience that strengthens your relationship!
Dear brave mothers facing C-section, I hope you have a wonderful birth experience in spite of the circumstances! I would love to hear your thoughts as well in the comments below. If there is anything I did not address that you would like to pick my brain on, I am an open book. There is no question too personal! (For the sake of saving the general readership from TMI, I did not address topics like post-operation physiology or sex after a C-section, for example. I would, however, be more than willing to share thoughts about these things in a private message if you would find them helpful.)
In the meantime, I pray God blesses you with a beautiful birth experience and a perfect, healthy baby!