My first Caesarian section was a foray into the great unknown. It was a scheduled event, but even with the advance warning I did zero research. In my next pregnancy, I ended up with a repeat C-section, but knowing what I was in for made the entire experience (mostly) much easier to deal with. Here are a few lessons I wish I had known the first time around.
1. It’s surgery and it’s scary
When you plan for a vaginal birth, your vision may involve dim lights and a curated music playlist, perhaps even a tub of water to ease your little one into the world. A C-section is surgery, plain and simple. That means being wheeled into a cold, sterile operating room and being hoisted onto a table with your gown flapping open as strangers prep the room. Partners aren’t allowed into the room immediately, so you may play the waiting game on your own for a while.
2. Pick your coping skill
Some people prefer quietness to center themselves. Me? I ask questions. Engaging the OR staff in random conversation helped alleviate some of my nerves, and I was surprised both times at how communicative and reassuring the anesthesiologists were. Once the medication kicked in, though, the sensation of being numb from the waist down was completely unnerving. (There’s something terrifying about telling your toes to move and them not obeying.) At that point, I directed my husband to tell me a story to keep my mind off what was happening — and about to happen — to my body.
For me, the biggest disappointment of a C-section was that I couldn’t feel “normal” for quite some time.
3. Did I mention it’s surgery?
This is really, really important: Yes, there is a sheet blocking your view of the procedure, but I’ve heard horror stories of women accidentally spotting their filleted abdomen in the reflection of the lights above. Avert your eyes unless you have a morbid curiosity about these things. And despite all efforts to avoid seeing my guts in all their glory, my husband got an eyeful when he stood up to cut the baby’s cord. He still can’t talk about it.
4. Nothing is sacred
It goes without saying that a vaginal birth means your private bits are on full display. A C-section is surprisingly similar. Your entire lower half is exposed, complete with legs splayed on the operating table. But since everything is numb, it feels like it’s happening to someone else. Come recovery time, nurses will be washing your nether regions with a squirt bottle while you’re perched on the toilet. There also will be lots of bleeding through the damned flappy hospital gown, and many, many conversations about your poop.
5. Not all hospitals are alike
The immediate recovery from my two C-sections couldn’t have been more different, and that had everything to do with the hospitals’ procedures. On the first go around, my baby was held up in the air for me to see him and then whisked away. I didn’t see him again for hours as I was wheeled into recovery to wait for the sensation in my legs to return, and almost immediately passed out from Benadryl (to deal with the itchy side effects of anesthesia). On round two, I was able to breastfeed my daughter while in recovery, with my husband by my side, and the nurses advised against Benadryl (“Do you really want to sleep right now?”) It was a poignant experience that I would recommend to anyone getting a C-section.
6. Day two is the worst
After that first day filled with love hormones and anesthesia, things took a sharp turn for me. It’s an unfortunate combination of the anesthesia wearing off after having my abdomen cut open, extreme difficulty peeing after the catheter was removed, and gas buildup from lying down for so long. After my first birth, it was like having multiple knives stabbing my insides and the only solution was simply to “get up and move around.” Easier said than done, and it took two nurses to heft me up, while I was crying hysterically, to go to the bathroom. The second time, I asked for my catheter to be removed as soon as possible and had a nurse help me get up to pee before the anesthesia fully left my system.
7. Don't be a martyr
The recommended cocktail of narcotics and ibuprofen sounds intense, but it’s critical for you, your baby and your milk supply to stay on top of your pain management. If it’s not already hospital policy, ask the nurses to administer meds on a regular schedule, even if it means waking you up, instead of waiting for the pain to set in first.
8. Be kind to yourself, but take control
For me, the biggest disappointment of a C-section was that I couldn’t feel “normal” for quite some time. After waddling around with a baby inside me for so long, all I wanted was to have my body back. But there’s nothing normal about having an incision in your abdomen along with all the other postpartum stresses of engorged breasts, exhaustion and hormones. Definitely enlist the help of family, friends, a postpartum doula or anyone else you think can do simple things like hand you the baby, feed you and drive you to appointments. But also use this time to get stronger: Walk around, stay on top of your medications, and try to do something other than watch TV while feeding the baby (one-handed writing is my specialty). This time after birth is incredibly fleeting and special, but it can also be a perfect storm for depression.
9. Don’t apologize
People often confuse the terms “vaginal birth” and “natural birth.” Vaginal means the baby came out of your vagina. Natural usually refers to low or no medication during the procedure. Anything else would suggest that a C-section is “unnatural,” and nothing could be further from the truth. Then there are the people who mistakenly think a C-section is somehow an easier option. Educate them if you wish, but don’t ever feel like you have to downplay your experience. Every birth and recovery is unique, and this is your story.