It’s hard to believe that less than three months ago I was lying prone and naked on a metal operating table. What I remember most vividly is the makeshift partition someone had erected to separate my upper and lower hemispheres. On the torso side of the bleach-stained blue sheet was my head and chest, an anesthesiologist, and my husband, looking far too serious to be wearing a shower cap. On the other side of the sheet was anyone’s guess. Because I’d already received an epidural, the only physical sensation I could identify was the sickly tugging as doctors removed my bladder, my intestines, and, finally, the baby who had refused to come out of my body any other way.
After the nurses took my son to be cleaned up, I lay there quietly as the doctors put all my parts back in place—an experts-only game of Operation. Though the whole thing seemed rather civilized, my husband, who is very tall and for whom the chest-high sheet was merely a formality, later told me that south of that flimsy equator was a sea of blood and gore. At one point my insides, he said, were piled perilously on my upper abdomen. The sight may have made him nauseous, but the only thing I could feel was heartbreak.
Bald, bleak, inexplicable heartbreak.
“ALL OF A SUDDEN I WAS OBSESSED WITH HAVING A VAGINAL BIRTH.”
My disappointment at having to have an emergency C-section, surgery a reported 32% of American women undergo for one reason or another, came as a surprise to me. (After all, I was pretty ambivalent toward pregnancy.) I often told expectant moms that I was looking forward to “all the drugs” utilized in childbirth. I never considered working with a midwife or even bothered to write up a birthing plan. I thought The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy was unforgivably silly. But when, a week before my due date, a sonogram suggested my son might be too big to fit through my pelvis and my OB/GYN said a cesarean might be necessary, I became my own DIY doula. All of a sudden I was obsessed with having a vaginal birth. I practically morphed into one of the deranged women out of Amy Schumer’s “Better for the Baby” skit. (Sample joke: “My doula is a three-month-old baby so she, like, gets it.”) I attempted challenging inversions meant to get the baby to drop further down in my pelvis, underwent back-to-back acupuncture sessions, and rammed cervix-ripening primrose tablets up my crotch.
Three days after my due date, my body finally went into labor. After about 12 hours of punishing contractions—the first six hours or so endured at home—I had progressed enough for an epidural. (The spinal anesthesia is widely thought to prolong labor and, ironically, increase the likelihood of a C-section). I felt vindicated—here I was, the prime example of dedication and self-abnegation. And then, after two-and-a-half hours of pushing, I was told my son’s head was swelling from the inflexibility of my own stupid skeleton; a C-section was no longer optional. I collapsed into tears, nearly hyperventilating with disappointment. I was a failure. I was lazy. I was an embarrassment. I vowed not to tell anyone what happened.
YOU’D BE SURPRISED HOW OFTEN YOU HAVE TO TELL PEOPLE WHAT KIND OF BIRTH YOU HAD.
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But you’d be surprised how often you have to tell people what kind of birth you had. The query almost always comes from other moms, mostly out of conspiratorial curiosity. And even if you don’t expressly tell them, people will find out. There are clues, of course. No picture of Mom, pink in the cheeks, cradling Baby ‘neath a big clock boasting his time of birth (I didn’t first hold my newborn until well after I was sewn up); no “peri bottle” in the bathroom; the telltale extended hospital stay. There’s also additional paperwork ranging from condescending literature about “seeding,” the practice of swabbing a section-born newborn’s mouth with vaginal fluids, to the countless medical bills, effectively charging you for two births.
Weirder yet is when other moms pry about your ravaged vagina—trust me, they do this—and you’re forced to admit that yours is still pristine, a perfect little pistachio. “You had a C-section?” they will ask, their voice implying you found yourself a Voodoo doctor on Craigslist. “Oh, honey.” Then there’s the stigma you stumble into when you find yourself inadvertently aligned with the “too posh to push” cohort. In Bravo’s Odd Mom Out, women who elect to have the procedure rather than experience the pain of child birth, are portrayed as divas. Or the preconception that a strong-enough mother can handle a heftier baby: Many birthing classes, like the one I attended, tell us that unless a baby topples the scale at 11 pounds, we should be able to deliver him or her naturally.
“I FELT AS IF I DIDN’T DESERVE TO SAY I HAD ACTUALLY GIVEN BIRTH.”
I don’t know what to tell you. My baby was big: eight pounds, 13 ounces big. As in, the exact weight that earns a newborn the medical distinction of being “macrosomic,” or “larger than average.” Refusing to believe his size was incompatible with my petite frame, I pushed so hard that my baby’s head was conical for the first few days of his life. Regardless of the Herculean effort, my failure to deliver the “right” way made me feel as if I didn’t deserve to say that I had actually given birth. I was so warped by my perceived failure that I couldn’t believe it when my son latched onto my breast moments after being placed on my naked chest. I was convinced that he would be so disoriented, so lacking in natural microbes, that he would be ill-equipped to navigate life as a proper newborn. Like, what?
It took weeks for the shame I felt to subside. I watched like a hawk for signs of putative side effects such as diminished attachment or compromised breathing in my infant, and lack of empathy on my end. None surfaced. Even if we weren’t a legitimate mom-baby couple, we sure as hell felt like the real deal. All I could see, all I could feel—above all else—was love.
Robust, radiant, incomprehensible love.
Nearly 12 weeks have passed since my son’s inaugural birthday. I can tell you with 100% certitude that I no longer give a shit that I had a C-section. If I have another child, I very well may schedule one instead of going through the rigors of an attempted VBAC. And, because I am uniquely positioned to speak to both methods, let me say this: Going through all of the misery of a “natural” labor of a nearly-nine-pound baby did not make me a better, more formidable person. It did not make me a better, more deserving mom. And having a C-section did not make the baby less healthy—or less awesome. He’s the man. For the record, I also no longer care what anyone else says about breastfeeding, pacifiers, sleep-training, tummy time, strollers, or baby fashions. When it comes to these hotly debated topics, I will spare you on the decisions my husband and I have made. (Not about baby Peter Pan collars, though. Those are non-starters.)
Of the many lessons I’ve learned as a new parent, the most valuable one is perhaps the simplest: I have the right to make any choice I want when it comes to my body and my family. It is, as they say, much better for the baby. And the mommy.