When I was five, I decided I didn’t want to have kids. At that not-so-ripe age, birthing a baby seemed barbaric. “I’ll have one when they figure out how to beam it out,” I announced grandly. I was pretty disappointed when — 23 years later — I got pregnant and realized I’d have to do all the work myself.
I labored with my first child for eight hours, before his heart rate began to plummet and they whisked me into the operating room for a C-section. It was my worst-case scenario — a surgical birth. My mom had four C-sections, but I was adamant it wouldn’t happen to me. I’d read about all the dangers and heard all the negative chatter about surgical births. What I hadn’t researched were some of the surprising things that happen during and after the surgery. Here are some you can expect, should you have a C-section, too…
1. The Shaking. When the anesthesia kicks in, sometimes the violent shaking begins. It feels like fever chills, and if you don’t know what’s going on, it’s disconcerting. Plus, it’s frigid in the OR.
Pro Tip: Ask for blankets in the OR. They draped one over my top half during my second C-section, and after I’d been stitched up, I asked for more blankets. They usually have a blanket warmer, so I was piled with blankets that had that fresh-from-the-dryer feeling.
2. The Table Strap-down. Sometimes they strap you to the operating table. Often, with your arms splayed out, Jesus-style, to limit movement while the OBs do their thing. As long as I kept my arms (mostly) flat out, my hospital didn’t strap me down. My husband kept one of my hands in his, which helped.
Pro Tip: Ask to have your arms unstrapped. The worst they can say is “No.” Hey, you’re numb from the chest down. It’s not like you’re going anywhere.
3. The Pressure. You’re in the C-section club now. Rather than pushing a baby out, yours gets to emerge, cocoon-style, from your stomach. There’s no ring of fire here, but the pressure can be enormous. It’s momentary, it’s anxiety-producing, but it’s normal. You also may feel pressure when you’re first sliced open, supposedly due to the air pockets. With my first baby, I felt as though an elephant was standing on my chest. “Totally normal,” the anesthesiologist assured me. “It’ll pass in a second.”
“So I’m not having a heart attack?” I asked. He shook his head.
Pro Tip: You’re in a room with a team of people, working together to get your baby out. Keep a dialogue going. You’ll know when you feel the pressure, but it doesn’t hurt to ask what’s happening when so you’ll know. As my OB cut into me during my second C-section, I asked how much scar tissue was there from the first operation. My husband just shook his head in disbelief that I would deign to ask that while I was laying open on the table.
4. The (Potential) Vomit. There’s lots of cauterizing, squishing, moving of parts. Sometimes they have to pull your uterus out. Regardless, a lot of bloody stuff is happening behind that curtain. Plus, you’re lying prone and likely nervous, which doesn’t help. As a lifelong anxiety sufferer (and thrower-upper), during my first C-section, I told them I needed to vomit.
If you’ve never thrown up while lying flat on your back, it’s an experience. They told me turn my head to the side and vomit in that pink kidney-shaped pan. I did. I felt better. The second time around, when I walked into the OR, I informed them that I was a nervous wreck and requested the throw-up pan nearby.
Pro Tip: Don’t lift your head to throw up if you can possibly help it. The straining, mixed with the head lifting, during my second C-section caused a spinal headache that lasted for about 10 minutes. I also requested a wet washcloth that I could keep on my forehead and/or neck when I felt nauseated. It was a tiny bit of control that helped me to feel grounded.
5. The Gas Pains. Your body is sliced open and exposed to the elements (i.e. the Antarctic-chilled air that is the operating room). Baby pops out. Air gets in. It is what it is. And that gas can hurt. In weird places. Several days later. Like, gas in your shoulder.
Pro Tip: If you’re concerned, ask the nurse. They’ve seen it all. More importantly, they can give you a gas relief pill.
6. The Numbness. They cut through a lot of nerves. A lot. Often, there will be some numbness around the incision site. It may or may not go away. Or may go away partially. I still have a few patches, 2.5 years after my last section, that are numb. It’s weird if they itch, but otherwise I forget about it. Also, due to the cutting through those nerves, your hands and feet may fall asleep more quickly than normal post-surgery.
Pro Tip: Remember, you had major abdominal surgery. If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor.
7. The Swelling. You know how an elephant’s foot looks? You’ve had surgery. You’ve been pumped with fluids. They make you wear those compression things. Blood pools places. And sometimes it makes your ankles and feet swell up. A lot. The ankle socks I wore in the hospital would only pull up to my heels. Oh, and the fluids can make your facial features puffy too.
Pro Tip: Just monitor the swelling. Try to keep your feet elevated whenever possible (ha!). Other puffy features should dissipate within a few days when you start sweating out everything. And you will sweat. A lot.
8. The Pooping. It’s hard to poop. And the poop is hard. Havoc has been wreaked with your body. And you’re taking medicine to manage the pain. And you’re gassy. A triumvirate of fun.
Pro Tip: Stool softeners aren’t just for your grandma. Ask for them in the hospital. Take them at home.
9. The Recovery. You hear the horror stories—the long, painful recoveries. But there are plenty of people who bounced back quickly. With both of my C-sections, i was up and walking to the bathroom within four hours. I took a shower within six hours. With my second C-section, I had managed my pain so well, I was walking the halls the day after surgery. The pain was not nearly as bad as I’d imagined. I was terrified of any surgery. When I had my impacted wisdom teeth removed, I was so terrified of having an IV, I opted to just take a mild oral sedative.
Pro Tip: Take the medicine on schedule. Don’t let the pain get away from you. Try to walk around as much as possible.
10. The Guilt. We are told that C-sections are often unnecessary. That a C-section doesn’t allow our bodies to do what they’re designed to do. But having a C-section is not a failure. It is not the easy way out. You are every bit as much a mother as someone who’s had a vaginal delivery. Having a C-section baby does not mean you won’t have a good breastfeeding relationship. It doesn’t mean that you won’t bond with your baby. I was allowed to hold both of my babies in the operating room, and I had them on my chest as I was wheeled to recovery. I nursed within the first 30 minutes of being stitched up.
A Cesarian section is just one way to deliver as safe and as healthy of a baby as possible. That’s always the goal, isn’t it? Safe and healthy. You are not less brave for having had C-section.
Pro Tip: Find an online support group. Facebook is a great way to connect with others for assurance and empathy. Any birth is a life-changing event.
Bonus: When you tell your teenager, years later, about his or her birth, you can honestly say he/she came out of your stomach. That’s way less gross.
Maybe when my kids start to have kids, there’ll be some sort of Harry Potter-style way to “Accio” a baby out. But for now, a C-section was the closest way I came to having a baby “beamed” out of my body. I wasn’t given a choice the first time; I was the second time. And if I had to do it a third time, I would choose a C-section.
Related post: My Birth Plan, Dammit