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What It Feels Like to Have an Unmedicated C-Section

A baby being born by Caesarean Section.   Childbirth,
Photograph by Getty Images

My first two babies were born via c-section, so by the time I was pregnant with my third, it was a foregone conclusion her birth would be surgical, too.

I went into that first birth scared of surgery but came out a c-section advocate when vaginal delivery isn't the best option. The most painful that first and second time was getting the IV put in, which should tell you how smoothly everything went. My girls were both gently lifted into this world by the same doctor, whom I love. They had perfectly round heads and were true “Gerber babies.” They were never very fussy, ate well and, by 6 weeks old, slept a good 8 hours through the night.

After those first two early morning deliveries, I was even able to get out of bed and walk that very same night. The pain during recovery wasn't anything like the horror stories I’d heard. I’d even begun thinking I may have had it easier than the mamas who were in agony just sitting down on their hoohas after a vaginal delivery. Me? No complaints.

So when I found out I was expecting our third child, I knew I’d have a c-section and had no fears or issues about it. Which of course means everything with this little lady and my pregnancy with her was an entirely different story.

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With my first two daughters, I didn't go into labor (which is why they recommended c-sections in the first place). Since this was my third, we scheduled her delivery right away.

But at just under 36 weeks, my water broke.

I don’t know if it was because I had carried my toddler up the stairs or because one night at just under the 36 weeks mark there had been a full moon, but at 3 a.m. my water began breaking. By 7 that morning, I was having gushes every few minutes.

I was shaking, yelling, cursing and begging for something to take the pain away.

I was brought into the doctor's office and, after an extremely quick exam, I was sent to the hospital and told my little one would be coming that day.

Aside from the whole “going into labor thing,” everything was exactly the same. Same doctors, same hospital, same procedure, and so on. I had my IV put in, took the nasty little liquid that tastes like a super salty shot of Southern Comfort and was wheeled down to the surgical floor.

They sat me up on the surgical bed, and I leaned over for the spinal block. All familiar territory. They laid me down and I felt the familiar tingles from my toes up through my legs. The anesthesiologist checked to see if I had any feelings or sensations on my calves and thighs.

When he touched my stomach, I knew something was off. I could feel him.

It was dull, but there was feeling. I told him so. He tried the test again, and I could only partially feel it. He said that test should have been painful if I still had real sensation. It really wasn't painful, so I laid back, total pro at this that I was.

Then, my doctor began cutting and I could feel something—a bit more than normal. Instead of pressure, I also felt pulling.

I attributed this to the fact that, since this was my third c-section, the doctor needed to cut through scar tissue from the previous surgeries. I also figured the fact that I had gone into labor this time may have been causing the different feelings.

Within minutes, I knew something was wrong: The discomfort had quickly become pain.

I could feel the scalpel slicing through my abdomen and my uterus. I felt the searing burn as my stomach was spread open. I felt pain, real pain, raw, unmedicated pain. Little did I know, this was just the beginning. Once the baby's delivery began, I swore I was going to die. It felt like my spine was being ripped out of me through my stomach. I felt the usual pressure, pulls and prods—I also felt everything else. Literally, everything.

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I was shaking, yelling, cursing and begging for something to take the pain away. At this point, I was informed it was too late to correct the spinal block. Duh. Obviously, I couldn’t sit up, bend over and get a needle shot into my back with my stomach cut open and my uterus lying in my lap. But I was also informed I couldn't be given anything to help with this excrutiating, unnecessary pain until the baby was delivered—or else she would have been exposed to high doses of narcotics.

As they stitched me up, I lay there weakly, feeling every pull as they closed my uterus and then my stomach.

So I took it. I basically had major abdominal surgery with no anesthesia.

I've lived with mental illness for many years, including with the fear of being tortured. Like, cut open, filleted—you know, those horror movie things. I'd never experienced torture firsthand, but these were thoughts that intruded my mind with some regularity. This surgery was every bad thing I had ever imagined.

I winced, my eyes watered, my body shook violently against the restraints. I was given oxygen but screamed to have it removed, because I couldn’t take one more thing over my body. After what felt like an eternity, my daughter was delivered. She was breathing and healthy overall, but since she was born 4 weeks and 2 days early, she was taken up to the NICU.

Meanwhile, she and I were disconnected so they started giving me pain medication right away: Morphine, propophol and eventually nitrous, an attempt to knock me out when we all realized I was too far gone for the other meds to take.

But NONE of it worked. None. Not even the nitrous. I never lost consciousness for more than 3 seconds at a time.

As they stitched me up, I lay there weakly, feeling every pull as they closed my uterus and then my stomach. Never in my life have I felt so broken. I felt like my body had been tortured, and I was on the brink of death. To me, it seemed like relief would never come.

But I survived. I healed. I am fine. I am grateful my daughter is healthy. I am grateful each of my daughters was lifted peacefully into this world without forceps or complications during birth.

It was awful. It was horrible. I could genuinely cry discussing it at times. But I got through it, and I’m OK.

But this last time changed me. It is impossible to face that level of pain, of feeling your body in and out in unimaginable ways, without emerging from it a little different. I am stronger than I ever imagined: I didn't cry hysterically and beg for my mother. I didn’t demand pain meds that they didn’t want to give me before my baby was free from my belly. I didn’t pass out and wake up disoriented.

It was awful. It was horrible. I could genuinely cry discussing it at times. But I got through it, and I’m OK. I appreciate my body and my strength in a way I never could have understood until I went through my own little corner of hell and walked myself from my bed to a wheelchair that night to go see my littlest one.

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In fact, this experience has changed, for the better how I think about myself. I faced unimaginably agony with consciousness. I came out the other side fine, great even. I now consider myself a tough badass mama who conquered (incidentally) her deepest fear.

That is strength. That is motherhood.

And no matter how our little ones enter this world, how much or little we feel, how pleasant or unpleasant our pregnancies and deliveries are, we do it for them. "Are they OK?" we want to know. "How did the little one look? Did she cry yet?"

Despite the best and worst of it all, we forget within seconds our own comfort as we discover, over and over again, a love unknown before parenthood. And that is the miracle of birth.

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