Fifteen years ago, I was a young, single mother-to-be, walking around barefoot, wearing faerie wings, immortal and invincible in the way that only twenty-year-olds can be. Raised by Appalachians and hippies, I had a great deal of mistrust for doctors, drugs, and modern medicine, so I opted for prenatal care at a local birthing center, with the expectation of a textbook, drug-free delivery in a warm, cozy bedroom under the care of midwives and surrounded by people I loved. I enjoyed the empowerment and involvement in my own prenatal care, the fact that I was given so much information and so many options, the fact that I wouldn’t constantly be hooked up to a thousand machines, the fact that I would have complete freedom of movement throughout the process. And, for the most part, I had a textbook pregnancy. Other than low iron which was immediately corrected with supplements, I had no medical complications whatsoever. Sure, I was sick during the first trimester, and yes, I grew to a size where I could no longer reach the clutch on my manual transmission automobile, but these are not uncommon complaints, and I didn’t think I would have any issue delivering my firstborn daughter the way I wished and imagined.
My due date came and went. I would have regular, painful contractions, but I would make little-to-no progress. I drank raspberry tea. I drank blue cohosh tea. I drank Castor oil. I took evening primrose oil. The midwives attempted to ripen my cervix with prostaglandin. Some progress was made, but not enough. Finally, one morning about two weeks after my due date, my water broke (or, at least, I thought it did at the time. In hindsight I’m not sure that’s really what happened.) The contractions, however, were sporadic and irregular as ever, and at eight o’clock that evening, I’d only dilated a couple of centimeters. The midwives stripped my membranes and set me to walking the halls of the birthing center. Within an hour, I was having intense, painful contractions about two minutes apart, and I spent the next ten hours dilating up to five and finally ten centimeters, oscillating between pushing and then trying not to push because there was swelling, and in a general state of unbelievable pain, absolute panic, and total confusion. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what went wrong. The official reason for my transfer to the hospital was “failure to progress,” but that usually indicates a failure to dilate to 10 centimeters; despite the fact it took an eternity and a small army to get me to 10 centimeters, I was, in fact, able to get to that point, so I’m not sure what else could have complicated the delivery. The hospital gave me an epidural and encouraged me to push for several more hours to no avail. My firstborn daughter was finally delivered into the world with no complications via cesarean section. When they pulled her out, the doctor exclaimed that I’d been trying to give birth to something as big as me.
My daughter was 8 lbs., 4.6 oz. when she was born. And I was only 4’10”.
Flash forward fifteen years. Now, I’m a married mother-to-be of “advanced maternal age” with a Master’s degree, working full-time for a large and stable corporation, living in the suburbs of all places. While I haven’t completely shed my mistrust of the mainstream medical community, modern medicine is what makes it possible for both my daughter and myself to be alive right now — it’s what makes it possible for my husband, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was thirteen, to be alive every single day. Modern medicine diagnosed my daughter with autism; created developmental interventions for her speech, occupational therapy, and social skills; and helped her find a way to communicate and integrate with the larger world around her. Because I previously had a c-section, my options for prenatal care were somewhat limited — I could not, at least, return to the birthing center to try a natural VBAC delivery, so I had to pick a different avenue. I went with the hospital where my oldest daughter was born, and I started seeing doctors and discussing recommendations. All of the doctors I worked with were very willing to cooperate with me on attempting a VBAC — as long as I was willing to keep an open mind to their suggestions and concerns as the pregnancy progressed. Once again, I had a fairly textbook pregnancy — no major issues, no health problems, very active healthy baby. It’s been fascinating to me just how “hands off” the doctors are with the prenatal visits. No ultrasounds have been ordered since the standard anatomy ultrasound at 20 weeks — my primary doctor won’t even offer a guess to the baby’s weight since he says it’s impossible to be accurate about such things. I’m healthy, the baby’s healthy, and the past two months have just been basic urine/blood pressure/fetal heartbeat checkups that take about 10 minutes at a time. He did start laughing at me whenever I would lay down on the exam table at about week 36 just because the baby takes up such a crazy amount of room in comparison to my tiny frame.
When I was researching delivery options, I’d decided that, while I really wanted to try a VBAC delivery, I also did not think it was a good idea to go over my due date, so I thought I would give myself up until that point to deliver vaginally, and if it didn’t happen, I’d just go ahead with a c-section. When I explained this to my doctor, he agreed, and suggested that I go ahead and schedule my c-section a month in advance to make sure I had a good time slot, and that he’d be able to perform the surgery.
The thing is, I’ve been embarrassed to confess publicly that I have a c-section scheduled this upcoming Friday.
I’ve been embarrassed for many different reasons. First of all, I’m embarrassed that my body, once again, seems incapable of progressing forward. I joke and say that my womb must have amazing furnishings and killer wi-fi for my progeny to want to stay there forever, but that’s a joke that masks a lot of insecurities. When I first saw the Vagina Monologues, I remember thinking that if my vagina could talk, it would say it felt like a failure since it wasn’t able to deliver a baby. Even though I recognize how ridiculous of a concept that is, I can’t help but still feel that way. I should have tried harder. I should have done more yoga. I should have been more active. I should have been drinking raspberry tea all day every day for all nine months of my pregnancy. I’m also embarrassed because there’s a real stigma about c-sections in our culture today. If you get a c-section, there’s often an assumption that not all avenues and options were fully explored. The doctors obviously coerced you into getting a c-section because it’s more expensive. A successful VBAC is better for the mother, better for the baby. Many of these beliefs are often true, which makes me feel even more guilty about my decision. The other thing I often hear is that mothers don’t create babies that are too large for them to deliver vaginally. I have no idea if this is true or not, but doctors often cite my small size as a possible cause for my failure to progress. That being said, I know that there are women who are smaller than me who have had successful vaginal deliveries of babies larger than my own. Again, I feel depressed and irresponsible. According to the rhetoric, this should be something I can control. I’ve obviously not put the work into it. I’ve not done the research. I’ve not done everything within my means and my power to do what’s best for my baby. So, I’ve hemmed and hawed and hoped beyond hope that I would go into labor before my due date, that I’d be able to have a successful vaginal delivery, that I would be able to proudly share the news with the world that, finally, I did it. Achievement unlocked. Bought the t-shirt.
However, it’s now two days before my scheduled c-section, and I have to set aside this embarrassment once and for all. Despite the intermittent painful contractions, it doesn’t look like anything is going to progress into actual labor. I have to stop beating myself up over this decision, and be willing to move forward and completely accept it. I also need to be able to talk about it publicly, because it’s possibly one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever agreed to do in my entire life, and I really need support from people I care about right now.
My first c-section was an incredibly traumatic experience for me. This was partially due to the fact that labor itself had been so incredibly traumatic, and that I was not at all prepared for what was going to happen on the operating table — the possibility of a c-section had not even crossed my immortal and invincible twenty-year-old mind. However, I also have a deep reptilian fear of medical procedures. Donating blood is a huge act of courage for me. The nurses had to give me anxiety medication to stave off panic attacks when I went in to have my gallbladder removed. Simple blood tests make me sweaty and nauseous. This time, I know what to expect — I’ve even seen the movie of the procedure from the other side of the curtain — and I know that it absolutely scares me to death. What happens if something goes wrong? My last c-section went very well, all things considered, but there were still minor complications. What happens if I hemorrhage? What happens if my blood pressure plummets? Those things happened before, and I obviously survived, but they were terrifying to go through, and I’m scared of the same problems happening again. Logically, I understand that if I’m in a hospital surrounded by intelligent and capable physicians, even if something goes wrong, they should be able to fix the situation, to fix me — but the fear is still there. What if? And even if everything does go according to plan, there’s still the feeling of pressure, the overwhelming smell of blood, the fact that I won’t be able to hold my baby right away, the extra complication of breastfeeding right after major invasive surgery, the pain involved in recovery.
I try to stay focused on what’s really important. I’m healthy. This baby is healthy. I have an amazing, supportive network of family and friends that will be there for both of us. I have an incredible husband that I get to share this experience with, and he’ll be right there in the operating room beside me, holding Kes as soon as she comes into the world. Whatever the trappings, whatever the procedures, whatever the methods for making that possible, that’s really what’s important, and that’s what makes it all worth it. Still, fear can be a very paralyzing force, and it’s so hard to be brave when there’s something just ahead of you that scares you that much.
On Thursday, I am taking the day off of work, and my plan is to spend the entire day in meditation — utilizing all of the mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques I’ve learned in my various classes, and letting myself sit with my fear and try to let it go. Friday morning, at 6am, I will be at the hospital with my husband, going through the intake and preparation process for our 8am c-section. I will be in good hands, and I will be surrounded by love, but I can use all of the thoughts, prayers, well-wishes, and good mojo I can get. If you get a chance or think about it, please send some my way. And afterwards, we can all celebrate Kes Litha Alley’s beautiful arrival, just in time for the summer solstice.