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When your body lets you down

I couldn’t give birth to my daughter.

I tried, the midwives tried, the on-call doctor tried, the drugs tried. Even the hippie new-age hypnosis tracks tried. But for some reason, after days of painful prodromal labour, my body just wasn’t going to send my daughter down the birth canal. So I had a C-section.

I should feel blessed. I think of all the women who’ve had trouble conceiving, or who had rough deliveries or sick babies, and I’m overcome with guilt. I’m sad because I needed a little extra help at the very last minute? C’mon, right? But I’ve come to this realization: it’s okay to feel grief even if you know other peoples’ grief is bigger and badder. You just have to put that grief into perspective.

So I’m going to give myself this moment to have one final pity party, to lament and mourn and run through the what-ifs. Then I’m going to get over it.

So here’s my pity party.

I spent my pregnancy planning for an un-medicated, midwife-assisted hospital birth. I bought a study-at-home self-hypnosis course called Hypnobabies and listened daily to CDs that prepared me for a drug-free birthing experience.

I listened as the soothing voice reassured me that there is nothing more natural than giving birth. Our bodies are designed to do this, our bodies will know what to do. The lovely voice reminded me daily that it is not the doctors or midwives who deliver your baby… YOU deliver your baby. The strongest, bravest, most bad-ass thing I could do was to bring my child into this world. I’d never felt so empowered.

I saw this upcoming drug-free birth as a right of passage. I yearned for the experience out of extreme curiosity (what was the pain really like?). And out of a desire to do this incredible thing that women have been doing since the dawn of time: squatting on their haunches, clenching their teeth and pushing life into the world. I wanted to be part of that club. I wanted to put myself to the ultimate test. And I wanted to blow my husband away.

I knew I only had limited control of the direction this birth would take, and I promised to accept whatever was in store. But when you start prepping for a natural birth, the dogma gets to you. The doula in our pre-natal class kept warning us about stalling our labour and – god forbid – winding up with a C-section. “You don’t want a C-section,” she’d say. As if it’s a speeding ticket or a disease you can catch if you’re not cautious enough. She was insistent that we WOULD be able to give birth to our babies safely and naturally. Don’t fuck with nature, ladies. Nature has it under control.

So it was a hard pill to swallow when – after 4.5 days of labour and endless walking, bouncing, squatting and meditating – it became clear nature wasn’t on my side. Oh how I dreaded those moments with the midwife, when she would frown, pull a gloved hand out from between my legs and assign my cervix a number tantamount to a failing grade.

I hid my disappointment from everyone. I was exhausted from the pain and lack of sleep. I accepted the epidural I swore I would  never get. I accepted that after 15 hours on oxytocin, I was still dilating at a snail’s pace. And I accepted the offer of a C-section.

Part of me was fine with it. Relieved, even. The part of me that was done with labour. I didn’t have time to be sad about it, even as my midwife stood over me apologizing, consoling. They were already prepping the operating room. Baby would be here within the hour.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the grief and sense of loss hit me. Possibly when the blue curtain went up, shutting me out of my daughter’s birth. Or when I realized the doctors were going to spend this incredible moment talking about their recent vacations rather than talking to me. Maybe it’s when I heard Isla cry for the first time but couldn’t see her, couldn’t touch her. Or when I saw the doctor hand her to Dylan instead of me, as I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of their skin-to-skin moment while I shook and gagged on the narrow table. Maybe it’s when I said no to holding her for the first time because I was so sick and shaky and groggy.

I had built up this dream: of pushing her out, of taking her in my arms pink and screaming and brand new, of soothing her and smelling her and drinking the moment in. Of being the first one to hold her. Of having love wash over me like a wave. I was robbed of that experience. By stupid circumstance. By my body not doing what Doula Annie promised it would do if I did everything right (and I did do everything right, didn’t I?)

IMG_0129Instead, I can barely remember my baby’s birth and the first few hours of our lives together. My head was so cloudy from the drugs and those horrible shakes that no one warned me about. I feel like I wasn’t present for a moment I had been waiting for my whole life. Like her birth was something that happened to me, reducing me to the role of bystander. I’ll never be able to get that moment back. What I do remember is unpleasant: a bright, cold, sterile operating room, feeling distant, detached, disconnected and forgotten, unaware of what was happening to me. I felt unfeeling. Worst of all, I didn’t feel bonded to Isla.

Lingering questions haunt me. What if I had turned down the epidural and kept walking, bouncing, believing? What if I had given it a few more hours? Would baby have come naturally?

And of course: What’s wrong with me? The language surrounding stalled labour C-sections only reinforces this sense that we’re somehow defective. Vaginal births are called “natural” births, as if my daughter’s birth wasn’t natural. Stalled labours are classified as “failure to progress.” Failure – a lack of ability to realize a goal. The opposite of success. What a powerfully insensitive term.

A few months after Isla’s birth I signed up for a C-section blues workshop and sat for an hour with a therapist talking through all these feelings. I was hoping to leave armed with new strategies to cope with my sadness, but really it just felt like a vent session. At best, I left feeling validated, assured that my feelings were common and I needn’t feel guilty for regretting my birth experience. But I realized, as I was driving away, that to get over it, I just needed to… get over it.

I will probably always be jealous of other women’s birth stories when they talk about pushing their baby into the world. I love my daughter more than anything. I was able to conceive and carry my child through a wonderful pregnancy. Isla came into the world strong and thriving. We are both healthy and happy.

That should be enough, right?

From here on out, that is enough.


Further reading

Read about the rise of the gentle C-section – which allows moms to have a more holistic birth experience while on the operating table – here.

Read about failure to progress C-sections here and here.

Read about one woman’s VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarian) story here.


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