My first child was born two years ago, and what a life-changing experience it was. After we got (somewhat) acclimated to life with a newborn and I resurfaced on social media, it seemed like everyone wanted to hear about my birth story. They wanted the nitty-gritty. I felt no reason to share. In fact, I was ashamed to share.
For months before delivering my daughter, I had researched childbirth incessantly, reading countless stories of babies who had come out vaginally despite hours of scary labor. I wanted to be totally prepared for every possible crazy thing that could go on in there. As a control freak by nature, my semi-obsession with labor and delivery felt pretty natural. But I avoided one avenue of research. My husband and I totally tuned out any lesson plan that covered C-Section in our childbirth class. “I’m delivering vaginally,” I told him. “We don’t need to worry about this.” But, hearing that induction can lead to a higher probability of C-Sections, I did take a moment to scribble in our notebook: Avoid Pitocin at all costs.
My pregnancy was considered high-risk because I have lupus. All along, it just meant extra checkups and sonograms, and that I needed to be a little more careful about medications, sleep, and exercise than a lot of other moms-to-be. During the last four weeks of my pregnancy, it also meant going in on Monday afternoons to watch my baby’s heart on a monitor for an hour. Kind of a bonus, in a way.
At my 39-week appointment, my daughter measured around nine pounds (she ended up 8 lb. 15 oz. at birth!). Because of her size combined with my high-risk status and frequent, on-off contractions, my team of doctors felt that the most prudent thing to do would be induce me on my due date. Forget avoiding Pitocin at all costs — I was tired, huge, and in pain. I felt like I was finally being put out of my misery. Mostly, I was excited to get the show on the road. We were going to meet our daughter in 48 hours or less!
I’ll save you the whole “birth story,” but here’s the gist: When we arrived at the hospital for induction at 7 p.m., I was three centimeters dilated and contracting at random intervals. They hooked me up to the Pitocin drip and a mild painkiller at 8 p.m. At 3 a.m., I had an epidural which helped the pain but not my racing thoughts. I was still only four centimeters at 1:30 the following afternoon, and my baby’s oxygen had reached dangerous levels. We made the mutual decision to go with a C-Section. I tried to be strong in front of my doctor, whom I adore and trust. But when he left the room, I let a few tears escape as I asked my husband to fork over my makeup bag. If I wasn’t delivering vaginally, you’d better believe I was going to at least look cute. (Priorities!)
I tried to make it funny, but we both knew I was hurting. As they wheeled me in, and for hours after the operation had produced my beautiful baby girl, I felt a hole inside. I went through the motions, I snuggled her in. I loved her too deeply for words, and yet I felt something was missing. A piece of our relationship would always be missing because I had had a C-Section.
Ten days later I was sitting on my neighbor’s floor. Our friendship had started when I was 7-months-pregnant and it had progressed quickly as we both tore through the cool fall and then winter months as first-time moms who were trying to juggle newborns and deadlines. My daughter’s weight was not where her pediatrician wanted it to be, and we were scheduled for another weigh-in the following morning. I was terrified that they were going advise me to supplement breastfeeding with formula, taking away the one thing I felt I was doing “right.”
My friend talked me off the ledge while trying to help me find the root of my upset. I now understand that supplementing with formula, if that’s what was best for my baby, would’ve been fine. But at the time I felt the hot tears rolling down my cheeks as I managed to get out, “I just feel… like I’m not a mom all the way.”
This wouldn’t be the last time I would have those thoughts. Often, I’d lie awake at night and ponder what I could have, should have, done differently. Refused the induction, waited it out? Rejected the medical advice for the C-Section and trusted my body (and hers) to do things the “right” way? Was my body a total failure? Were people feeling sorry for me about it, or worse, judging me? I’ve always had such tender respect for other moms and their journeys. I would never in a hundred million years feel that another mother hadn’t done her part if she’d ended up with a C-Section. But when it came to my own, I felt like a massive failure.
Eventually, I started to read the words of other women who had been there. I researched VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Caesarian) stories. I started throw myself into accepting my C-Section as part of my identity, and (wrongly) thought that starting to prepare now to get the next one “right” would help. (Note: My husband and I are not planning to have another baby any time soon.) But these thoughts would inevitably always circle back to those secret, awful words I’d shared with my friend when my daughter was just ten days old. I continued to feel like I wasn’t a mom “all the way.”
Then the weeks turned into months and the months brought us even closer together. My daughter has always lit up when I’ve entered her room to fetch her after a nap, but soon she started reaching for me lovingly and intentionally. She now cracks up when I make faces at her or dance around in front of her high chair, and hides her face behind my hair when strangers say hello. And the other day, she looked me square in the face and said, “Mama” for the first time. I feed her, bathe her, comfort her, and love her. I work furiously when she sleeps so that we can afford for me to stay home and take care of her myself. And if I do go back to work full-time, it will be to secure a better future for her. That’s what you do as a mom.
I’ve started to realize that my body didn’t fail me, and I am not weak for having had a C-Section. Instead, I count myself as strong for having overcome my vanity and personal preference to get her out safely. I never thought a C-section would be part of my story. Never pictured the line across my lower abdomen, the daily reminder of how children don’t fit their lives into our plans. It’s taken me some hard work and lots of reflective, careful thinking. But I’ve finally realized that, C-Section and all, I’m definitely a mom… all the way.
Photos: Jenny Studenroth