*warning: graphic images follow. Links redirect to potentially disturbing art.
I mean, you, for the most part know how it goes, right? Right?
I've never written a "birth story" before. Why? Well, I've had three scheduled c-sections - who wants to hear about that? And besides, I've always been very hesitant to say "I've given birth" because I was actually quite passive in the whole "birth experience". Birthing my children was more something that happened to me, as opposed to something I did. If that makes sense. It's factually accurate even if it sounds sad or if the birth empowerists don't like hearing it. This post could become extremely bitter very fast, and trust me, as I sit here writing this out I'm constanty deleting, writing, deleting, writing, so that this doesn't sound like some jaded woman's sob story. Let me assure you, I'm not ashamed, and I don't consider myself a failure as a mother. I am, for the most part, a really good mother and that has absolutely nothing to do with birth. But birth stories are all the rage these days, and very, very few of them are cesarean births. And even fewer address the complex emotions that can accompany them. I'm trying very hard to simply be factual and share my feelings regarding three of the most important days of my life.
Let's back track.
My first cesarean was scheduled at 39 weeks because Ronan was persistently breech. I'm not even going to bother with trying to describe everything I did to try to get him to turn. Let me just say, if you can dream it up, I did it. Nada. There was, at that time and place, no option but for me to have a cesarean.
My second cesarean was not scheduled until after 40 weeks when at that time I had not shown any signs of going into labor on my own. By 42 weeks, three membrane sweeps, bottles of evening primrose oil, etc. etc. when I was still not showing any signs of labor, (oh, and we were two weeks away from moving to Wisconsin from Florida) I only had to hear "risk of stillbirth increasing" once and I scheduled c-section #2. Fear kept me from going into labor. Fear and pressure to get her out and pressure on myself to "do it right" and on and on and on. Fear won.
C-section number three - the one I'm still healing from - was basically the "we don't do vbacs, you've had two c-sections, you have no option (unless you come into the hospital pushing - which was my secret hope)". I visited a "vbac friendly" doctor in Orlando to see if he would be supportive of providing care for me. Sure. For 4K out of pocket, and a seriously bad attitude he'd "allow me" to labor, etc. etc. I never talked to him again. So, basically, my hopes of a normal birth hinged on me going into labor on my own. Which I did! But only two hours before my scheduled c-section. The difference this time? I had no fear about labor. I wanted it. I KNEW my body could do it. Unfortunately I was the only person who felt this way in my general vicinity. And once again - scheduled.
I get a lot of "all that matters is a healthy baby". Of course, of course. Why do you think I signed up for three scheduled c-sections? I was told I wouldn't have healthy outcomes if I did not. But the fact remains, there is sadness surrounding how my children were born. Feelings only I hold and know. In the world of modern medicine, though, I'm not supposed to feel sad, or lament the fact that I missed out on the active part of actually birthing my children. What matters is that they are here and we are all alive. And that's true. I've been shot down when I've expressed sadness (or any emotion other than absolute joy and thankfulness) and had the phrase "birth experience" sneered back at me.
"Why are you upset about how your children were born? Because you missed out on some so-called "birth experience"?
Well, kinda. Let me just be clear - I believe that the real emotions surrounding c-sections (especially in complication free pregnancies) very very frequently stem from the fact that for ten months you have grown, cared for and nurtured your baby - actively. Then, the c-section, and you are suddenly quite uninvolved in what is basically the "grand finale" of the pregnancy. It's hard to let go of the fact that you have gone from being the sole provider of the baby to suddenly being edited out of the birth and left on the cutting room floor.
I've been very selective with whom I personally share my feelings surrounding my children's births (until now?) because people tend to fall into three camps. 1) Sympathetic but don't really get it. 2) Think you're an asshole because you aren't only completely focused on the outcome (healthy baby) and don't get that you carry complicated emotions regarding the process (surgical birth). These people tend to believe that modern Western medicine is infallible and that every c-section is necessary because why else would a doctor perform one? 3) Have had a c-section themselves and loved the experience. Those people? I cannot relate to those feelings so I just don't talk to them about it because I definitely do not want to negate someone else's feelings about their birth experience. If they're happy, that's AWESOME and I wish I felt the same way.
Honestly, thank goodness for groups like ICAN (International Cesarean Awareness Network) - not only are they supportive to women who have had cesareans and don't have rainbows and unicorn dreams feelings about them, but they more importantly, support women who either have not had children yet, or those who are possibly facing cesareans, deal with them, or learn how to avoid having one that is not necessary (and living in a country with a cesarean rate of over 30%, there is no doubt that that number is quite high and that many many cesareans are not necessary). There's actually a reason why cesareans aren't the "preferred method" for giving birth (unless you're in Brazil) - there's a lot of risks involved. If you don't believe that then you're an idiot. Sorry.
But this post is not about all of that. This is about how I feel. What I experienced and what I'll carry with me. Asking me to "get past it" - which I've been told I need to do (and most often by me), is the same as asking some woman to "get over" or "forget about" the absolutely amazing birth experience she's had. Tell a woman who had an amazing, empowering birth that she needs to get over it and shut up about it and stop feeling so damn happy with herself. Um, okay...you probably would never say to that woman, "hey, that's great you had such a positive and healthy birth, now really though, all that matters is that you are both alive". Because, of course, all that suggests is that birth is scary, and deadly and those who had a happy home birth, or drug and intervention free birth at a hospital or birth center just got lucky.
Here's where my bitter pill comes in. I can't read happy birth stories right now. It's still a little too raw for me. I definitely am happy that people are embracing normal birth, and sharing their wonderful stories and I think sharing can cause a "butterfly effect" if you will, that may encourage women who otherwise might not have given how they'll give birth two thoughts other than, "when I go into labor I will go to the hospital and have a baby by whatever means my doctor tells me", to possibly look twice at their birthing options. But right now, I just need to stay away. While I was still pregnant with Stellan and had "hope" that I might have a different birth outcome, I revelled in reading these inspirational stories. I can do this! Maybe I'll have a three hour labor and this constant disappointment with myself will finally lift! Maybe when people see me walking around with my newborn this time, and ask me about the birth (people do this, you know) I won't have to quickly brush it off with, "Oh, I had a scheduled c-section". (You have to add the scheduled part in there, you know, because if you just say, 'I had a c-section', people ask why? What happened? And I'm not rude or confident enough, to simply blow them off). The last few weeks of my pregnancy when strangers would wish me an easy delivery it was hard not to say, "Well, I'm scheduled for the 19th, you know, surgery #3, I hope I don't bleed out on the table, or have a pulmonary embolism, or need a hystorectomy, or have a panic attack (thank God for the ativan, right?!)". I would answer with a chipper, "thank you! Me too!" and really hope in my heart that somehow, some way, something would be different this time and my body would decide to work right.
Moving forward to the 19th, my body woke me up at 4:44am. One minute exactly before the alarm was set to go off to get me up and ready to get to the hospital at 5:45 am for my check in. A non-dramatic *pop* was felt and my water had broken. Gush gush gush all over. My first ever actual labor signal in three pregnancies. I could look at this one of two ways. Or I could just look at it both ways, which I do. One part of me thinks, "that's so awesome - I would have had Stellan on the 19th either way. He chose his birthday". Or, "Yeah, thanks for that. Maybe you could have had the water break and labor start, oh, say, 12 hours earlier?". Because yeah, I still had the scheduled c-section. My hospital doesn't "do" VBAC's. So, I suppose I have the uncanny ability to look at it both ways. See the joy in the fact that labor started on it's own AND see the irony of being thisclose to normal birth (maybe).
So what's the big deal, you ask. What did you not get out of this whole thing? You carried three healthy babies to term. You only miscarried once (and it was early so really I'm not supposed to feel sad about that either). Charmed life, I'd say. You're right, I do feel lucky. I have three wonderful children. I'm alive and even though I'm still bruised, and sore and post partum hormonal and scarred, I'm fine. I don't live in a war torn country. I don't have cancer and I'm not starving and wondering when my next meal is coming. I never suffered the pain of infertility - and don't I know there are women who would edure anything to have what I've got? Things could be a lot worse and life could be a lot worse so shutupyouungratefulbitch. Have some perspective. But if moms out there can go on and on about their magical and empowering experiences, I can talk about MY experiences. In fact, I can pat myself on the back, because I signed up for it. THREE times. I can say that it is all worth it. I'd even do it again (maybe). I saw the outcome, the forest for the trees, if you will, but the trees were still fucking scary. Their leafless branches still scratched me and the owls hooted at me from their holes and the wind howled and the voices "chit chat, chit chat" about a funny story and the camera still "click clicked" and my body still lay drugged and numb and my mind drifted in and out preserving itself - listening. Listening for the best part. The only good part of the entire experience. That cry. I focus on that. I focus on the first sounds because I didn't get to feel anything except the occasional reassuring touch on my cheek by my husband. I focus on the sounds because I didn't get to see anything but blue masks and blue sheets and white lights. "You were kind of out of it", my doctor told me at my two week check up. That's a good way to describe it. I was out of it. I was there just enough to hear my children cry. Laughter - Stellan peed on them all. Hah hah hah! I do remember the first time I saw them. Each time, the masked neonatologist held them in front of me for a second before they were wisked away for apgars. Then it's stitch up time. Some comments about scar tissue - what does that mean for me? Where's my baby? Over there somewhere, being weighed, washed. I am being washed off of them. I'm being lifted onto my bed now. Once wrapped and hatted, I get to see the baby again. Isla was the only one I remember being put next to me all the way back to my room. I could see her, but I couldn't move to hold her or touch her. Inches from my face, I couldn't touch her. I have pictures showing this. Now I'm somehow in my recovery room and I think they've given me the baby. I have photos of them being put on me. Me holding them. I don't remember the first time I nursed any of them. I have pictures of it, though.
Eventually I come back to myself and eventually I can feel my legs again and eventually I'm told I can eat again and we're managing pain and I'm happy with my new babies. So happy with them. Of course I am. People pop in and out. I'm hooked up to things and then as the hours pass and the day flips to the next day I'm hooked up to less. Nurses congratulate me on how quickly I get up and around. Nurses wash me. Nurses help me put on underwear. I put on my own clothes. I swallow my own pain pills. Eventually I can change my own baby's diaper. Milk comes in. I can stand on my own. There's a lot of pain but it's managed. I can shower. Pain is managed until they forget to bring it to me after four hours have gone by. I feel so fragile - where is the Percocet? Finally it comes and I'm seething in anger for how badly I hurt and how slowly I can move. Setbacks. Eventually I convince my doctors I'm good enough to leave. There are no mentions of scented oils (because I didn't bring any) wafting through my birth room and dim lights and hypnotic breaths. No special birth music compilations (why would I do that). Once things settled back down, our Bose speaker played NPR for about 36 hours straight through the night. I did not encourage people to visit me in the hospital for I was a puffy, horrible mess. No one needs to see that.
There's absolutely no way to write that you are unhappy with how you gave birth without sounding ungrateful and horrible. If you ended up with a living baby, you have absolutely nothing to bitch about. Your feelings should ONLY be that of happiness and gratefulness. This is why most people do not write cesarean birth stories unless they are waxing on about the magic and beauty of it. Usually though, those types of stories come about after a long and arduous labor and mom is "making the decisions" and "in charge". You read that a lot. Mom can feel good about how things shook down then. Because it was "her choice". Okay, that's cool. You need to feel how you need to feel. I'm here to assure people that the act of birth is absolutely important. Children are not a product of their birth. In fact, they belong in two separate categories. Trust me, the mother with the amazing birth story does not love her child more than the mother with the crappy birth story. But she loves her birth more. She has the amazing memory while many of us with the bikini cut (mine is now 9 inches long) have strange, forbidden emotions mixed with love. How do you reconcile simultaneous awe in the fact that your body made the most important thing(s) in your life with the feeling of betrayal and brokenness when your body was unable or not "allowed" to bring that thing forth? Trust me, even women who have had very necessary c-sections struggle with this complicated dichotomy.
We congratulate the woman with the incredible birth and encourage her to share her tale to inspire others. Empower women. Birth is important! You are a warrior goddess! We tell them they are a strong powerful mama who trusted her body! HOW we birth is important, we say! But we sweep the broken feelings under the rug when birth becomes something it was not meant to be. "Oh, that didn't go so well for you? Well, shut up, you have a healthy baby". We tell the women with the traumatic birth and 4th degree tear how much we feel for her. How awful it must have been. But at least she has a healthy baby. We tell the woman with the c-section at least you have a healthy baby, and how lucky for you - your vagina is still intact. "Oh you, you c-section mama, you mama with baby pulled out by vacuum or forceps, emergency episiotomy, intervention intervention intervention - you would have been dead 100 years ago. (You were too weak to birth like a woman. You are not a warrior goddess. Your body is a failure.) " You cannot feel sad about what happened to you if you come out of it with a baby. You are often the loudest voice telling yourself how lucky you are - to let go of these feelings. Please believe me that you can fully appreciate your amazing fortune of becoming a mother and still quietly feel the confusion and loss and sadness surrounding how your baby was born. They are not one in the same. They. Are. Not. One. In. The. Same.
I wish I had a tidy way to wrap up this long and rambling post. C-sections will always happen, many will be life-saving and amazing and miraculous. Many women will choose repeat ceseareans over a VBAC attempt (hey, that's fine, too, but it should be a CHOICE in an otherwise healthy mother). Mom's will still feel gratefulness and joy mixed with sadness and confusion. There will still be too many unnecessary c-sections. "Elective" will always be on my surgical reports even though, not once, did I ever feel like I had a real choice. I was on the c-section train from the beginning.
My best advice for women who have not had children yet or don't have strong feelings about how they want to birth?
"Don't get cut the first time. You never know how you may feel about it later."
* I would really like to thank all the people that have commented both on the blog, facebook and privately emailed me, your comments mean so much. I am aware that there have been issues with Typepad commenting and I've contacted them, but it appears that it's rather random when it happens and to whom it happens. So if you tried to comment and were unable, I apologize and know that your thoughts are much appreciated. xx Cat