For those mothers who gave birth by non-elective Caesarean section, feelings of sadness – even of failure – can be overwhelming, writes Janice Sharan.
I’m sitting next to my 15-month-old. He’s sleeping peacefully, his mop of dark hair damp with sweat, lips pursed and his chest rising and falling as he takes calm breaths. He is perfect. Those are the three words that my husband said to me after I woke from general anesthetic and desperately asked “How is he?”. They are as true today as they were when he first said them. My boy is perfect.
And because he’s so perfect, it makes me feel even worse to say I grieve his birth. But I do. Fifteen months later I still feel sad about the day he was born. After days of trying very hard, we were left with no option but to head into theatre for an emergency c-section. My spinal anaesthetic acted upon my epidural, leaving me without feeling in my body anywhere below my head. I panicked because I could not breathe. My baby’s heart rate started to plummet and I was put under general anesthetic so doctors could get him out as fast as possible. My husband was kicked out of the room and I was knocked out. My son was born in a room full of strangers in scrubs with no one to kiss and cuddle him upon his entry into the world. My only small comfort is that our midwife remained in the room, despite being asked to leave so I feel there was someone there looking out for him even though I know in their professional capacity all the doctors in the room were acting with his best interests in mind.
I have spent countless hours trying to tamp down my feelings of failure around his birth. On my clinical notes the reason for our emergency c-section reads “failure to progress” – a phrase I’m sure many c-section mums are familiar with. Those three words feel like they define the start of my motherhood journey. It makes me feel uneasy about the term “natural parent.” I practise gentle parenting, use cloth nappies, cloth wipes, reusable everything; we eat a plant-based diet. But how can I ever see myself as a natural parent if the start of my motherhood journey required so much medical intervention?
Feelings of failure are all too common in motherhood, unfounded as they may be. What I’ve learned in the last 15 months is that everyone loves to judge mums. All of our choices are held under a microscope and scrutinised, even if your child is growing well, meeting all their milestones and overall a happy little human, in the opinion of so many others you could and should be doing something better. It is not helpful.
I was equal parts excited and anxious to give birth. My pregnancy stretched to 40 weeks and 5 days and I was so ready by the time early labour started. Our birth plan was a drug-free water birth. I could accept that things might not go to plan, but I really didn’t want a c-section. This was partially because I had heard that recovery was difficult, but also because of the stigma surrounding the procedure. The internet is riddled with criticism and you occasionally hear it in person, veiled under some snarky comment if not said explicitly. Phrases like “too posh to push” or implications that c-section mums aren’t real mums – they imply failure to birth your child the way it’s meant to be done, because we haven’t gone through the pain and labour of birthing our babies the “natural” way, sacrificing our vaginas, suffering incontinence or anxiety about going to the toilet.
There is a big misunderstanding here. Many c-section mums have laboured, some have pushed and teared, some do suffer incontinence and trust me, we are nervous about that first bowel movement too! The assumption that a c-section is the easy way also ignores that the recovery time is long and painful and that there can be further complications following this kind of major surgery. Seven layers of your body are sliced through and you are left with an incision scar inside and out, one big enough to have fit a baby through. Healing that many cuts is not quick or easy. You can barely move and at the same time you are trying to learn with and care for a newborn baby. I know this is true of some vaginal births too, and I’m not trying to suggest that c-section recovery is always worse, but even the best executed c-section is followed by a challenging recovery. Personally, I needed help getting in and out of the shower, getting off the toilet and getting out of bed; if I dropped something on the floor I either had to call for help or abandon it. I couldn’t drive for weeks let alone sit in a car comfortably and I couldn’t get my baby out of his bassinet. Sneezing, coughing, even laughing was all torture. And those are just the physical effects.
The decision to have an emergency c-section is not one made lightly. I’ve also not met anyone who had an elective c-section to avoid labour or vaginal birth; there’s been a medical reason. It is no less scary giving birth this way than it is any other way. We all feel fear no matter how excited we are or how well things go to plan. I suspect that only a very small minority of women have a c-section purely by choice – and even if they do, who are we to judge?
I’ve experienced several responses to my birth story ranging from empathy to thinly veiled judgement. There is one response that I think about more often than I’d like. A few weeks after my baby’s birth, I ventured out of the house. Still feeling tender at my incision site, I moved slowly through a baby store. A staff member approached and made the usual comments people make about a new baby, “He’s beautiful!” and “Look at that hair!”, one my son often receives. Then she asked “Did your birth go well?” I was a little surprised that this prying question was asked in such an innocent way, as though she was some old friend. I simply said “No.” Her eyes sought clarification – this was clearly not the answer she expected – so I told her things were long, painful and ended in an emergency c-section under general anesthetic so I didn’t even get to see the birth. “It’s better that way,” she replied, and I felt like my jaw could have thumped on the ground as I tried to process that I’d been told that my traumatic, surgical birth was the best case scenario. Her words hurt. I am still haunted by them, and I can only hope she doesn’t say the same thing to anyone else.
Experiences of birth vary but they are rarely easy and simple. Both vaginal births and c-section births have room for complications and trauma. Minimisation of others’ experiences, especially their trauma, is common. Phrases like “at least your baby is alive and well” don’t help anyone, and neither does comparing whose experience might have been better or worse. I know that things could have been worse for me. I am grateful that my son is alive and well – our c-section saved his life and probably mine – but that doesn’t mean I have to just let it go. Some women are in love with their birth stories and that’s great, but that doesn’t mean that everyone experienced birth as something beautiful, or that anyone describing how horrible birth was is exaggerating. How someone’s baby was born doesn’t make them less of a woman or less or a mum.
So, back to the question: how can I be a natural parent after my unnatural birth? At the end of the day, no matter how bad I feel about my baby’s very medical, surgical birth, I love him more than anything in this world. And I don’t know that there is anything more natural about parenting than just love.