This month is Caesarean awareness month.
First time round, I had that blissful naivety that as long as you “planned” your birth, in the organised and methodical manner that you planned other stuff in your life, and you were “relaxed enough”, everything would be great. I hadn’t yet learnt the very fundamental motherhood lesson that, from the moment you see those lines on the pregnancy test, this is a ride on the rapids. You can research everything about rapids riding before you get in that canoe, but essentially most of the time you’ll just have to cling on and get swept along. My first birth was my first, indelible, lesson in this fact.
I wanted a “beautiful”, calm birth, where the baby arrived when it chose to, emerging with a hearty wail as it took its first breath and was delivered straight to mummy’s breast. Doesn’t everyone…? While we’re fantasising, it would have been great to have looked instagrammably radiant to pose for pictures afterwards too…
My reality was slightly different. Maurice didn’t seem to want to come out, he was quite happy slumbering inside…it turned out my placenta was failing and he wasn’t thriving, so probably simply didn’t have the oomph to try to push and squiggle his way out.
Induction at nearly 42 weeks preggers was followed by a 2-day labour, and Maurice’s heartrate slowed dangerously – a sound that is imprinted in my soul. Nothing in my mental preparation had imagined my birthing room being suddenly rushed by medical staff with such a sense of urgency, being sped down a corridor on a trolley so that you can be prepped for surgery and have your baby pulled out within 15 minutes of the call being made. He wasn’t breathing when he was born, and the following minutes of waiting to see how the dice rolled remain pretty much the worst of my life.
He was very tiny due to my grumpy placenta’s failure – everyone thought he was a premmie at a scrawny 5lb 12. I was also very ill, and couldn’t touch him for the first 8 hours of his life, which meant that his first days were fraught and filled with fear and tears which set the tone for our breastfeeding journey and first challenging months.
Hello, ripeness for PND and PTSD anyone?
Quite apart from the physical, there is a huge mountain of emotional issues that confront you after a caesarean, particularly if it’s been an emergency and you maybe hadn’t allowed yourself to contemplate it as an option prior to the event – a c-section would be a cop out, a failure, right? We set our expectations on each other and ourselves unbearably high throughout this birth and motherhood party.
I talked to many caesarean mamas in the aftermath and there was a common theme, that with emergency C-sections particularly, you have a sense that, although you have a baby, you didn’t actually give birth to him. Like your body has let you down completely, and that you’re a bit of a failure, you didn’t do it “right”. Particularly if you allow yourself to feel jealous/envious of other friends who can recount “perfect” birth stories involving steady progression and dilation, birth pools and no drugs (albeit also a lot of screaming, swearing and threatening to jump out the window no doubt…), where the natural order is preserved and things are as they should be.
For me, my frightening and shocking caesarean birth laid the foundations for the spectrum of PND and PTSD which influenced and framed the early months/year of motherhood. Heightened anxiety, painful feelings of bitterness and anger when hearing of better birth experiences, that everything was a barb intended towards me and my failure to get any of this right. Feeling like suddenly I had been stripped of a protective top layer and was exposed and sensitive to anything thrown at me. Thrown in with an unhappy (similarly traumatised?) colicky baby who cried all the time and didn’t sleep at all like “newborns are supposed to”, there are potential dangers of feeling more than a little bit of the “baby blues” in this time.
The wound heals and the scars eventually fade: it’s the emotional healing that is the challenge in the long term. This kind of experience tends to be locked down into your fibres and lead to physical aches and tensions even if you no longer acknowledge it as a current influence. If not addressed, it gets packed down under many layers, but distantly, constantly remembered in your muscular and emotional tissue. That pain in your neck, the dull ache you have in your pelvis.
If you’ve had a difficult birth experience, you can be left thinking, “I wish I’d done this instead”, and this can lead to ruminating over the same parts of the birth that you are unhappy with. “I wish I’d said this…”, “I could have done more”, “I could have tried harder”. Underneath these thoughts can be the core belief, “I’m weak”. It can be helpful to think about the birth in a different way. Were there times during the birth when you showed warrior strength, no matter how small? Some women describe trying to move or speak (even if they couldn’t due to medication) or trying to control their own minds – by taking it out of the situation, shifting their focus or telling themselves, “It’ll be over soon.”
Accepting the birth story that you had is essential, and reconciling yourself to the way it turned out, not comparing it to other “better” experiences, and embracing it as a legitimate birth as any other. Letting go of any fear, anger and disappointment that might have unfurled from the experience, and living in the present, the success.
I personally decided to take it day by day, practise mindfulness, offer myself time to breathe regularly (as much as having children allows that…), to try and soothe the emotional wound as the physical was also gradually healing. It’s often only in retrospect that you fully understand the depth of an experience and can appreciate how much of a warrior you were to get through it all.
I powerfully believe in the remedial magic of Pilates – for strengthening after abdominal surgery it’s unrivalled but particularly post caesarean. But not to be underestimated is the emotional power of reconnecting to your body through movement and breathing, and rediscovering a faith in it which may have been lost.
The Supermum Myth is out now.
You can buy a copy of my book Pregnancy: the Naked Truth here