Before I had children, I hoped I would never need a Cesarean section. I thought I stood a pretty good chance of avoiding them. My mom didn’t have C-sections, and I have wide hips. I was young and healthy. I knew better than to write a birth plan in stone, but it seemed a shame to have major surgery to deliver a baby. By the time I became pregnant, the national conversation was about about the overuse of C-sections, and there seemed to be a stigma against them. I didn’t judge people who had them, because before I had preemies, I was a preemie. I knew from my mom’s example that labor and delivery often takes on a life of its own.
At 26 weeks, I went into labor with J, and after a few fruitless hours of magnesium sulfate in my IV and pointing my legs toward the ceiling, we all realized J was coming, like it or not. I wanted to deliver him naturally, after all my labor was fast and he was tiny. But, just a few weeks earlier, he had turned himself, and one of his legs was precariously forcing its way out into the world. One false move, one second too long, and his fragile body might have been fatally injured in the birth canal.
I met the doctor on call for the first time in the hospital room. I had to trust that she was right, that we had no alternatives. I had to accept that I would be put under full anesthesia, that my son might die before I awoke, that I would be alone in the operating room while my husband was alone in the waiting room. Our families were hours away; my dad was already in his car, driving as fast as his car would carry him. And nothing was as I had hoped it would be.
I was unconscious when I became a mother.
It took me weeks to feel like a mother. My brain couldn’t understand what had happened. In one waking moment, I lay on the operating room table pregnant, and in the next waking moment, my baby was gone, whisked away to another hospital. I sometimes wonder if he’s never needed much of my physical touch because he went without it for so long.
My son will be five in a few months, and if I spend very long thinking about his entry into the world, I cry. I could fill buckets with the tears I’ve shed over that night. I will admit it: I am bitter when someone complains about a less than exceptional birth experience because nothing went right in mine, except that my son and I both lived. Given the odds stacked against him, we had the luckiest outcome. Sometimes, I wonder if in all our discussions about the optimal birth experience, we forget how precarious life is. Birth is miraculous, no matter the baby’s entry into the world.
When I was pregnant with M, I had many conversations with my obstetrician and my high-risk doctor about a VBAC. I really wanted to try to have a baby the old-fashioned way, and all my doctors were supportive. Then, I developed severe preeclampsia at 29 weeks. Sitting in the hospital bed, realizing that I was very ill and that I was facing another early delivery and a NICU stay an eight-hour drive away from home, I had to prioritize my prayers. I was realistic. Asking, hoping, and dreaming of a VBAC was pointless. M was coming very early, M was very small, and I was very sick. The best that we could hope for was that we somehow got home to a familiar NICU, and I had to accept that I was going to have another C-section.
The second time around I was miserable, so swollen with my blood pressure swinging erratically, and I was terrified. I hated knowing that doctors and nurses were cutting on me, and they had a difficult time getting to M. My doctor had to laser a second incision on my uterus, and I had to remind myself over and over again not to freak the heck out while I waited for him to deliver her.
But, my second C-section was also full of blessings. I was awake, my husband was by my side, my parents were in town, and—best of all—I heard M cry. She sounded like a mewing kitten, but I heard her very first sounds. I was present at her birth, and the significance of that healed a wound in me. My husband and I welcomed her into the world, and she and I both lived. When I feel tempted to mourn all that was not, my husband reminds me that mere decades ago, he would be a widower with no children. None of us could have lived.
My C-sections were not elective. Nothing was by choice. Both of them were emergency surgeries to save lives. When the statistics say there are too many C-sections in this country, they’re not talking about me.
When I say I had two C-sections, I sometimes feel that I’m supposed to apologize or explain why my babies came into the world through surgery. Believe me, I wish I knew the joy of pushing a baby out of my body; I wish I understood the sense of accomplishment, of relief, of amazement. I will never know about that. But, am I any less of a champion because I had to have two emergency surgeries? So many of us with preemies owe the health of our babies to C-sections, and to all of you who have also had C-sections under some very dire circumstances I say this: I refuse to accept the stigma of C-sections as the easy way out, as a failure of sorts. I endured and sacrificed and fought. I was resilient and brave and strong. If mothers are warriors, then I am one too. And so are you.