"No crotch shots. No blood. No goo. And if I have a C-section, definitely no pictures. I don't want to see any of that."
These were the instructions I gave to my husband and our mothers before the birth of our first child. I'd invited each of them into the delivery room early on in my pregnancy. I'd also told them that I wanted them to take pictures of the birth—but only the right sorts of pictures. None of the "gross" stuff, which definitely included any and all stuff one might see in an operating room.
No one, I assumed, wanted or needed to see that.
Of course, I had also assumed that I wouldn't need a Cesarean section anyway. I'd figured that the odds were in my favor, considering C-sections comprised "only" 1 in 3 births. I'd discounted the possibility of a Cesarean so much that I'd even zoned out during the 30 minutes my childbirth education class had devoted to surgical births.
But then I became the 1 out of 3.
In many ways, I was lucky. My doctor had discovered that my baby was showing signs of distress during a routine appointment, before my first real contraction had even begun. The distress was worrisome enough that my son needed to be born within a few hours. But it wasn't so severe that he needed to be born within minutes. I had enough time to call my husband, to ask our mothers to retrieve our hospital bag and camera from home, to get used to the idea of a Cesarean section instead of a vaginal birth.
It turns out that I also had enough time to reconsider my perspective on the kinds of pictures I wanted.
"I still don't know if I want any pictures," I said to my husband and our mothers, as we waited together in the pre-op room. "But what do you think? Should we take the camera just in case?"
Without a word, my mother slipped her camera into my husband's hands.
"Just in case," she said.
And then a nurse wheeled me back to the operating room, momentarily leaving behind my husband, my mother, my mother-in-law and every familiar face I knew.
I cannot remember the exact sensation I felt when the doctor inserted the anesthesia into my spine. I cannot remember the faces of the physicians and nurses who gathered around my swollen belly. But I can remember my emotional sensations. I can remember how the birth made me feel.
My husband looked at me with a mix of yearning and skepticism. I think he wanted to look beyond the drape, but then didn't.
My legs rested straight in front of me and arms were splayed out at my sides, crucifix style. A pale blue drape separated my chest and head from the rest of my body. The room was cold, its sterility multifaceted and many-layered. I alternated between anxiety and excitement, mild discomfort and extreme nausea.
I began to feel disconnected from the birth, and even from my own body. The surgical drape represented a radical split between my mind and my body, my sensing upper half and my numb lower half. It signaled a separation between my baby and me.
My husband rejoined me as the surgery began. He sat by my left ear. The anesthesiologist sat by my right. This man was a godsend, whispering what seemed like sweet nothings into my ear as the rest of the medical team cut and pushed and tugged at my body: "They're starting the Cesarean now. They're getting close. You'll get to meet your baby soon. He's almost here. I can see your baby's hair now."
I was not giving birth, I thought. The birth was something being done to me.
Before I could further lament my lack of agency, my OB spoke up.
"If you stand up now," he said, turning to my husband, "you can get a picture of your baby."
My husband looked at me with a mix of yearning and skepticism. I think he wanted to look beyond the drape, but then didn't. He was apprehensive about what he might see, but he was impatient to meet our baby. He knew that I'd demanded no pictures, but he also knew, perhaps hoped, that I might have changed my mind.
"Please, please," I reassured him, tears welling in my eyes. "Please stand up and take a picture of our baby."
And so he did. Ten seconds was all it took. Then he was done.
As I lay immobile, nauseated and disconnected from my baby, I felt less and less like an agent, less and less like the narrator of my own child's birth.
The doctor quickly lifted my new baby boy above the drape. I caught only a glimpse of his slippery, pink body. The nurses whisked him away to the warmer where they cleaned him, weighed him, dressed him, cooed at him. The distance between us seemed like miles, the time apart seemed like hours.
This was before the popularity of the family-centered Cesarean—the lowering of the surgical drape so the mother can see the birth of her baby, the speedy reuniting of the mother and baby, the placing of the baby on the mother's bare chest. It's not that my doctors and nurses didn't care about my sense of disconnection. It was that no one knew how to care or how to address that care.
And so my baby and I remained separate. As I lay immobile, nauseated and disconnected from my baby, I felt less and less like an agent, less and less like the narrator of my own child's birth.
I struggled with these feelings for a while. I felt guilty for having them. At least, I told myself, I had a healthy baby. And so I kept those feelings mostly quiet, a secret malaise that I hid until I could cry a few tears in private.
But then I saw my husband's pictures.
There was my belly. There was my baby. There was the opening in my skin where my baby emerged, the beginnings of the scar that still marks my body to this day. There was my child being born out of my body, the body that grew him and nourished him and ushered him into the world.
There was my agency. There was my story.
There was the other side of the surgical drape.
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It's a side of Cesarean birth that I'd hope any expectant parents would consider, even if they're absolutely certain that they don't want pictures. In fact, I'd recommend that everyone bring along a camera into the operating room, if the doctors and hospital allow it.
They never know for sure what stories those pictures will tell.
Photograph by: Kristen Oganowski