I think about the worst things I went through after my c-section.
The intense physical pain for weeks – much worse than unmedicated back labor – not being able to hold and comfort my child, feeling like I didn’t really give birth, not feeling like my baby was really mine, knowing my liver was overloaded with drugs I had never intended to be on, knowing my daughter had been overloaded with drugs before even being born and knowing these drugs affected her (even though the OBs and nurses waved their hands like it was no big deal).
Not being able to go to the bathroom by myself and feeling shame and embarrassment while my husband helped me pull up my underwear, supported me while I lowered to the toilet, and changed my pads. Feeling bad that he had to wake up every time my daughter woke up to bring her to me to feed, since I couldn’t turn side to side, bend, or sit up by myself or without extreme pain, even on Percocet.
The flashbacks that had me crying in the shower, waking up crying, slinking to the kitchen floor, my lowest of lows. The nightly nightmares of being on the operating table, reliving the moments before and during my surgery again and again.
The invalidating people that I interacted with right after delivery. People implying I got off easy in the scheme of birth, since I didn’t deliver “naturally” or vaginally. People telling me at least my vagina was still the same. That natural birth would have been so much harder and I was being a big baby for complaining about “just a c-section.” People telling me at least my baby was healthy, essentially telling me they didn’t care about me.
Feeling like I had failed, like I had missed out on the one life event that united all mothers, the rite of passage into “the club.” Feeling disrespected and misunderstood by women who had vaginally delivered. Feeling like I had missed the bliss, the joy, the triumph, that comes with birthing another human being. All because I didn’t ultimately push her into the world. A doctor who did not care about me or my child’s well being pulled her out of me. Feeling like I had done all the extremely hard and painful work of unmedicated labor for nothing – for no reward or triumph, but to feel like I had been running a race and then pushed down right before the finish line while some stranger claimed my prize and joy.
To feel like instead of giving birth, that I had labored and then been met with a horrific car accident, complete with my organs pulled out of my body, shivering and cold on the operating table, the sheer terror of death ringing in my ears and coursing through my veins. Also, plain acceptance of my potential death sitting in the pit of my stomach like a stale fact. Telling myself my baby was probably going to die to eliminate the shock I might feel if it came to that. The guilt over this acceptance – what had I done to deserve this? Why me? I questioned God and gave up right there on the table. Whatever will be, will be.
Watching my husband holding my hand tight, with tears falling fast down his face. Wondering if our baby was dead and he knew it. Wondering if I was dying and he was watching it. Thinking the worst of these tears and suddenly, realizing I no longer felt fear, but ultimately just sad and sorry for him, for how this all turned out. Feeling bad for my baby, who I had let down. Who might not remember me.
But even those moments weren’t the very worst.
The very worst, by far, was feeling every hour for months and months after, that it was all my fault.
Feeling selfish, foolish and naïve for wanting to have a vaginal, unmedicated birth. For paying for a doula, going to birthing classes, communicating with my husband. For trying.
I had believed and really taken to heart my nurse’s words before I was wheeled into the OR. She had leaned over my bed, close to my face, and yelled, so I could feel her breath and hear the hiss in her throat, “This is about your baby now, Sara! Don’t you care about your baby?!”
She said it with disgust and contempt for me. How dare I. How dare I come into that hospital and try to deliver a baby vaginally, unmedicated. How dare I try to deliver my own baby. I was not qualified. I was foolish. All of this I could sense were meant in her words.
Yet when she said it I thought, “No, no! You misunderstand me. Of course I care about my baby. I’ve always cared about my baby. Before we even conceived. I did everything to prevent her from having drugs shot into her unborn system. I want to bond with her and her with me, I want her to breastfeed easily, I want to feel joy and it when I look at her for the first time. I avoided alcohol, raw meat, turkey meat. Of course I care, you monster.” But none of this I could say to her, because she had drugged me with so much Fentanyl. Because I had labored for hours to 9 centimeters and I was exhausted from fighting every minute for hours. So instead, I blocked it out. I went somewhere else in my mind. I tried to see my body from above, as someone else. Not me. I could not be in this experience.
Then, my doctor approached the detachable laboring bed and looked at me a bit regretfully and hesitated before saying quietly, “Her heart rate went back up. But we need to do this.”
This would later assure me that my instincts and observations were correct – this c-section was not about me or the health of my baby. This was about something else that had nothing to do with me. Yet I had to be sacrificed for it. Me and my daughter. Why? was the question that rang out in my head as I was pulled down the hallway. My husband ran after me, and stopped in the hallway, and locked eyes with me, looking so sorry, as I looked back at him, sadly, with sardonic laughter close in my throat.
In the operating room, it was silent except for my OB, who exclaimed smugly, with an I-told-you-so tone in her triumphant voice, “You can’t control everything, Sara” She said my name with malice. “Sometimes you have to let go and let God.” Then she cut into me, jagged, to prove her fucking point.
Who was she implying God was in this scenario? I thought as I started shaking violently. Does she understand how ironic that statement is? I wondered. Does she realize she is the one who is trying to ultimately control this situation? To act as God? To teach me a lesson? Does she realize how sick and wrong that is?
The one word that I did not label her with until later, one that I could not find, that had been buried in me since my sexual abuse decades before, bubbled up finally one night. Abuse. Abuser. She took advantage of me; she tried to punish me, to teach me a lesson.
The nurse’s and OB’s words sank into my heart and did a number on me in those first few months after that horrific surgery, my daughter’s birth day. This was all my fault, I felt. I felt it so deeply that it didn’t even present as a thought, it was so ingrained, so fully believed.
I went over every scenario I could imagine. If I had said this, questioned that. If my husband had done this, if my doula had done that. If anyone had just said something, anything, maybe none of this would have happened. Maybe I would be happy right now, in some alternate universe. Healthy, the happiest of my life, knowing I could do anything life threw at me. Instead I was here, in this awful pit. And no one even knew how far down I was. No one offered to lift me out. Not my OB, who I told of the flashbacks and nightmares and depression. She said it was probably just “Baby Blues.” You know, from hormones and sleep deprivation. Surely the trauma couldn’t have affected me that much. She was clueless, and unqualified about postpartum and birth experiences, and yet I blamed myself hardest.
I blamed myself harder when I Googled “c-section” with keywords like awful, angry, traumatizing and was met with articles on “How to avoid a c-section.” You know, the unbirth experience. The thing no one wants. The thing you can prevent if only you’re witty enough, quick enough, educated enough, confident enough. The experience that can only be yours if you understand your rights – and that the hospital is going to try to take them away from you. “Take them back!” these articles say. Know your options. Know the truth. Know that they’re going to try to trick you. That’s when you employ your team of defenders! Your husband, perhaps your out-of-pocket $5,000 hired midwife, and if you’re lucky, maybe even your doula will step up to the plate to protect you – although likely not.
And then, the hospital staff will supposedly throw up their hands and listen to you. You’ve got us, they’ll say, with mischievous, guilty smiles.
Only, they won’t. They absolutely won’t.
In reality, they will ignore you and your family, your team. They will bully you, and lie to you and push your family out of the way as your family tries to talk to you.
The reality is, if your doctor or nurse, or as in my case, both, want you to give birth a certain way, it’s going to be hard to fight for your way and your rights. It might even be impossible. If they are truly strong willed enough and have their minds made up about how things will go down, their way will ultimately win.
Why? Because the power differential is huge.
When you are in hard, active labor or transition, you are probably not standing up. You are probably hunched over and sitting, or kneeling, or like me, on your hands and knees. Or, you have had the epidural or drugs and you are paralyzed from the waist down, almost flat on your back. In that case you can’t even see what the doctor and nurse are doing to your body over your belly. And in my case, they weren’t even telling me. In most cases, they will not describe what they are doing – before, during, or after. If I was lucky, they turned to my husband and spoke to him quietly, over my body, as if I wasn’t even there, and that’s how I figured out what they were doing to me, where in my body their hands were.
Intellectually, your energy is being used elsewhere. You are in a LOT of pain. It takes energy, concentration, breath – your entire body and most of your mind to fight through each second, one by one. Hours are easily broken into seconds – one at time, you must pace yourself. You can only be present. There is nowhere else to go.
Or, you could have been given an IV drug that actually does affect your mind. In my case, I went from being out of my mind in pain to out of my mind high. I was so high on Fentanyl, that I felt the room spin. I felt just about to pass out, and I couldn’t really move myself. I could hear and observe everything, but I was unable to contribute quickly enough. My words got stuck in the back of my throat, like one of those terrible dreams where you’re in danger and you need to scream, but you can’t – it’s caught just in the back of your throat. That’s how I felt the minutes before and during almost my entire c-section. Before I was given an epidural, in addition to this inability to participate actively in my and my daughter’s birth, I could also physically feel all the pain. But I couldn’t move with it, breath with it, think with it. I was only separated from it, which confused my body and my mind. In that way, it made my ability to cope with the pain much worse. Like going from running in pain to just lying there at night, alone, concentrating on it. It was so much worse.
So imagine you are in this state, and an OB or nurse, down between your legs, hidden from your view, is touching your body, cutting your body, stretching your body. She isn’t addressing you.
I’m not saying it’s impossible, and I’m not saying you’re helpless. But I’m saying it’s very hard. I’m saying the odds are against a person. The power differential is huge and the odds are not stacked in a woman’s favor at this point to fight and win. The fight is not fair.
This idea was what caused me so much anguish for months.
It was so unfair. How could I have fought for myself? All these articles, all these smug people, mothers and not, telling me if only I had been more educated about my options, if only I had had more courage. I told myself, if only I had been stronger and hadn’t felt the need to ask for assistance in pain relief. If only, if only. If only my doula had given me a pep talk, had sad anything to help me hold on and say no to pain medication. If only she or my husband or nurse or OB had told me, you’re at 8 centimeters – you are almost there! You are through half of the hardest part! You are so strong! You can DO this! But they said none of this, nor implied it. My doula and husband both seemed scared, like me. My doula and husband and I had met multiple times for hours, filling out worksheets of what I would love to hear in my labor, what I needed, where. They didn’t do any of it. They held my hands. They kissed my head. They looked worried and frightened for me. This scared me. Perhaps they also had no faith in me.
I felt betrayed by my OB, my nurse, my workplace (yes, I was an employee of that hospital at the time), my doula and my husband. I felt let down and disappointed. I kept thinking, but we prepared for this. Where was my team? Everyone in that room had done this labor and birth thing before but me and my husband. We were the newbies. And my OB and nurse took full advantage of this knowledge. Of course we were scared. Because until it is happening, how can you truly know how you will behave and think in that much pain? In that much fear? In a new situation that you know is life altering?
But then, thankfully, a few months later, around 6 months postpartum, another thought bubbled up that seemed to lay a lot of this at peace. And that was: I was not at fault.
My team could have done better, but they were also not truly at fault. The abuse came from the hands of my abusers, the people who were supposed to have my life and my baby’s life at the very top of their priorities: my OB and my nurse. My “care providers.” But these strangers did not provide good care. They were selfish, tired, and lazy. They didn’t care about me and my baby first. We were simply a part of their jobs, and they were going to do their jobs the way a lot of people in America do their jobs – by doing what benefited them most. What would take the least amount of time, allow them the most control of results, what would make them look best to their peers. They would put my baby and myself in a jeopardizing position, and then swoop in to look like they had “saved” us from the damage they had themselves done.
For some women, this gaslighting works like a charm. She believes them and feels grateful.
But I don’t feel grateful toward those who put my life and my baby’s life in jeopardy. Not even if they come in and save us in the end. I call that manipulative. I call putting us in jeopardy in the first place what it is – abuse. Malpractice. Doing harm.
I write this to try to provide solace for anyone who might have gone through a similar moment, or months or years of self-doubt.
This did not happen to me or you because we weren’t strong enough. It happened because our care providers abused their power and took advantage of us in one of the most physically and emotionally vulnerable moments of our lives – a very important, life changing series of moments. They took these moments and bent them to their rules. The emotional havoc that wreaks on a woman is heavy and cannot be understood by someone who has not given birth. Just like death, or a first love, birth is life changing, important and forever. And for some of us it has been twisted or taken. That is unfair. But find at least a moment of peace knowing that it is not your fault.