Now I should state up front that I'm not one of those women who feel she failed as a "woman" because she underwent a c-section. At the time I didn't feel I had missed a self-actualizing experience by not going through labor "naturally." Sure, I felt like I had missed out on my own Lifetime movie-of-the-week labor scene that all women dream about. You know the one. I would be pushing and screaming, making jokes with my husband. Sweat would be pouring down my face but nevertheless I'd look gorgeous. The doctor would shout out, "You have a healthy baby girl." And then my husband and I would look adoringly at each other, he'd kiss me on the forehead, and in a day or so I'd be back in my size-4 pants. Yes I missed this la-la land fantasy. So does everyone. As long as I had a healthy baby, I didn't feel I had missed much else.
That was my first daughter. My c-section babe. My second daughter was a vaginal delivery. Like most things in life, both have their advantages and their disadvantages.
With my first daughter, after 16 hours of labor, I had dilated to only 4 centimeters. My daughter's heart rate was dropping. It turns out her 95th-percentile head was stuck. I could have been in labor till the entire week's nursing staff had turned over, and she still wouldn't have come out. At this point my Pollyanna drug-free labor plans had flown out the window. I awoke from an epidural-induced sleep to hear my doctor asking if an operating room were available. Fifteen minutes after they wheeled me down to the OR, my lovely daughter Ashley Rae was pulled out of my tummy looking around, my husband says, as if to say, "What the hell happened? I was sleeping." Afterward my doctor said the difficulty was caused by the angle the baby was at, and that the next time around I could try for a "normal" delivery. I got the message quickly: What had just occurred was not normal.
The recovery from my c-section was, to say it succinctly, a bitch. I couldn't get out of bed for two weeks without help. I could barely lift the baby to nurse her. I couldn't open a window. I could hardly walk down the street at first. And all those kegels I had done on the train commuting in to work (I would recite my mantra from my pregnancy book: "and the beauty is, no one knows you're doing them!") were for naught -- my only comfort was that at least I wasn't stretched out.
So when I was pregnant the second time, I thought anything had to be better than the c-section recovery. My roommate from college also had a c-section with her first child. But for Sally (name changed) her inability to have a vaginal birth was a seminal moment. To her, childbirth was a self-actualizing experience. It was a religious and spiritual event. Not for me. Sure, I stood in awe of the emergence of human life. But to be honest, I was more focused on the fact that soon I'd no longer have an excuse for being a few pounds overweight.
I liked the sound of VBAC. Not the idea behind it (I did, but more on that in a minute) but the acronym itself. It had a nice ring to it. It sounded cool. And with apologies to Eve Ensler and her Vagina Monologues, I've never been incredibly comfortable uttering the word "vaginal" in mixed -- or even all-female -- company. With VBAC the V-word was reduced to a very G-rated first letter in an acronym.
So I hopped aboard the VBAC train, and it wasn't for safety reasons. What could be safer than scheduling a second c-section and pulling that bun out of the oven before anything bad could happen? Avoid hours of pushing, the birth canal, episiotomies. At work, colleagues of mine, who had scheduled their second c-sections conveniently after business meetings, were incredulous that I hadn't, in fact, already scheduled my c-section. As every pregnant woman can attest to, they then went on to tell me the most horrifying stories that no one in their right mind should ever tell a pregnant woman. "Thank God I had a c-section the second time around," Pam (some names have been changed to protect the guilty) told me, "because it turns out his cord was wrapped around his neck and if I hadn't scheduled the c-section he would have died!" She then looked at me -- me, the bad mom who nevertheless continued to want to have a VBAC -- as if I had something to prove, even if it were at the expense of my unborn child.
Nope, it wasn't safety concerns, but having a 2-year-old who wouldn't understand the concept of "post-op recovery" that was the clincher for me. Another friend had her two kids rather close together (she said the way her husband found out she was pregnant the second time around was after she took a test, he heard her yell, "You've got to be kidding me!"). For her second child, she had to have a c-section. "Have you ever tried telling a 16-month-old that you can't pick him up for six weeks?" she asked me. Turns out her older child kicked her stitches out. Ouch!
I decided to try for a VBAC the way I tried for anything else I thought was unattainable. When I first started running, I couldn't run more than three miles. But eventually I finished the New York City marathon. (Yes, I walked along the way and finished with the octogenarians, but I did finish.) That's how I approached my VBAC. I probably wouldn't cross the finish line, but I wanted to at least give it a try and see what all the fuss was about.
With my first pregnancy, I was 41 weeks and never had a contraction or went into labor. I was finally induced because my fluid was low. Second time around, same story -- sort of. I went 41 weeks again. As someone who has done this twice, I feel that I should get some sort of dispensation -- a money-back guarantee or a "go 41 weeks, get three weeks off of colic season" deal.
But this time I went into labor on my own. I started having contractions at night. My husband and I took to the streets to walk. At first the contractions were every 20 minutes. After 20 blocks they were at seven minutes apart and my husband had us turn around, thinking that we'd have to get home in order to go to the hospital. But by the time we got back home, they were back to every 20 minutes. Where they stayed. All night.
Twenty minutes apart doesn't sound so bad. And as someone who had already had a baby with nary a contraction that was not covered by an epidural, I would have agreed. That is, until I was the one having the contractions. Suddenly I understood why those women had scheduled their second c-sections. What was I thinking?
I stayed up all night. I took three baths (they really do help). Then, first thing in the morning, we went to the doctor's office to see how my fluid was. Sure enough, I was low again, so they put me on Pitocin to start things moving along. At this point I felt like I was in the Bill Murray movie Groundhog's Day -- this was almost an exact replay of my first pregnancy. I was sure I was headed down the hall to the operating room for my second c-section. I tried to tell myself it was okay. After all, if Madonna could have two c-sections, so could I. But deep in my heart I was disappointed. I wanted to experience a "real labor."
Well, it turns out I got my wish. The Pitocin worked, my labor progressed, and soon I was in my own Lifetime movie-of-the-week, pushing and screaming, looking nothing like those actresses on TV. But like those Hollywood pictures, as soon as the doctor told us we had a healthy baby girl, my husband kissed my forehead, we looked adoringly at our baby girl, Tess, and all was right with the world.
The c-section was scary, yes. But do I look back on it with any regret? No. The vaginal delivery was plenty scary, too. Neither delivery was any less real, or more real, than the other. Both were "normal." Each of my deliveries gave me a healthy, beautiful baby. And that's all anyone can hope for.
As someone who has had both a c-section and a VBAC, I can tell you that there are certain advantages to each.
Amy Einhorn is the author of the book The Fourth Trimester, about the first few months of being a new mother.
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