It was hour 29 of an unmedicated labor. I was exhausted, but the nurses kept telling me I was doing great. It was finally time to push and suddenly there was more concern in the room. I was made to flip positions frequently and finally the doctor on call came in the room. He told me my baby’s heartrate was not rebounding well, so I would need to breathe through several contractions to let the baby rest. It felt like a monumental feat at the point.
We tried again. This time, when the doctor came in the room, he looked at the monitor shaking his head—the scariest experience I’ve ever had. Finally, he called it. He told me it was time to get the baby out ,and that meant a caesarian section (c-section). Something that had been one of my biggest fears during pregnancy suddenly seemed like a godsend. I struggled to sign the consents through the pain, and within 30 minutes, my husband and I heard our son cry a healthy scream. He was fine and I was fine.
The doctor told me that my teeny, tiny, 6-lb., 2-oz. son wouldn’t have made it out otherwise, which, as strange as it seems, is exactly what I wanted to hear. He told me the anatomy of my back and pelvis (which they couldn’t have known otherwise) was such that he wouldn’t be able to fit. My poor son was trying to take a right angle out.
I was wheeled back into my room and marveled at my son. The nurse that was there for the final stretch of my labor (who I later found out has seven children of her own) told me what a great job I did. That’s the last time I would hear that sincerely for a while. I caught a couple of hours of sleep and then my hungry son and residual adrenaline woke me up. It was shift change for the nurses and my wonderful nurse was giving her replacement the run down. The first words the next nurse said to me were, “I’m so sorry.”
Sorry? Why was she sorry? I had a beautiful, healthy son in my arms. That was the goal. She went on to say how terrible it was that I worked so hard to labor without painkillers and now I had to recover from a c-section. This was something I hadn’t even been bummed about until then. As the day went on, more nurses and technicians that entered told me similar things. I guess I appreciated their sympathy that birth did not go the way I wanted, but everything I was told originally said it had nothing to do with me not trying hard enough or being strong enough. My body just didn’t cooperate.
The more I heard their sincerest apologies, the more saddened I became.
“My body failed me,” I thought. “What kind of woman am I that I can’t birth such a tiny child that I made?”
By the afternoon I shed my first tears about it. My poor husband tried to reassure me that I did a wonderful job and that he was proud of me. It all fell on deaf ears. I felt the same sort of failure and resentment towards my body as when I had a miscarriage. It was faulty. I was faulty. I was less of a woman because I could not do the one thing that women were literally designed to do.
Meanwhile, I got out of bed several hours after my surgery. I wanted to walk to the bathroom. I wanted my IV out as soon as possible. These things impressed nurses that told me how hesitant most women were to get up and that I’d be grateful I did later. I tried to redeem myself from what felt like a failed birth by being the ideal patient and not asking for or accepting help. My abdomen was cut open, my organs moved, and I felt that accepting help would make me seem weak.
The next day, I could only think about my perceived failure and how I would have been able to take my son home if I had succeeded in a natural delivery. Forget the fact his test results were stellar, proving his health, forget the fact that we worked hard and were breastfeeding like champs. I still felt small. But I held my beautiful boy close and watched visitors “ooh” and “ahh” at him and started to feel a little better. I was going to get to shower and I was going to be that much more independent.
That afternoon, the nurse that was with me for the majority of my labor (and still one of my favorites) came in. I was grateful to see her. She had been so encouraging and calming. She told me how sorry she was. I told her how the doctor said there was no way my boy was getting out on his own. She responded “Oh, yeah. [Another nurse] told me you have the world’s smallest pelvis.”
I wanted to burst into tears. She meant no harm, but she had just shattered my spirit. I felt like a failure again and now resigned to the fact that any subsequent children I have would be scheduled c-sections (something I needed to know, but wasn’t ready to hear).
I read so much on social media from old classmates talking about their “natural births.” Any vaginal delivery frequently gets termed as “natural” despite the dozens of interventions from painkillers to forceps that are used to bring about babies. However, these births are deemed as somehow better and more womanly than a C-section (planned or not). Somehow I am made to feel like less than a woman for doing the best I could for my child. I was angry and sad reading through all of these stories, trying to keep myself awake while nursing my son.
Later that day, the same nurse who told me how small my pelvis was came in for her periodic checks. She stopped what she was doing and sincerely told me how incredibly I did. She told me I was the best labor patient she’s ever had. She talked about how focused I was and how persistent. She told me that most women couldn’t have done what I did. It meant so much to me to hear that, but it was one of only a couple positive voices in a sea of disappointment and pity.
It took days for me to stop grieving a birth that should have only been celebration. Women are conditioned their whole lives to think less of themselves, to think of themselves as all or nothing, for one reason or another. Birth has been a perfect illustration to me about why that is. The whole world is telling you either you are a success or a failure. There is no in-between. There is no “it didn’t go how you wanted, but you still accomplished your goal.”
I have no doubt that a man recovering from a major surgery or injury does not get the same sort of feedback. I am sure he hears sentiments of, “It’s not going according to plan but who cares?!” Women are so engulfed in this idea of perfection that we cut each other down when trying to be supportive and empathetic. We have let this narrative and vocabulary become part of who we are at work, with friends, in life, and certainly in birth. To change this, we have to throw away the idea of perfection or failure for ourselves to benefit each other and the beautifully imperfect generations of women to come.
Photo Credit: Mackenzie Maeder Photo + Video