by Louisa Flynn
This article outlines Louisa’s experience of having a C-section. Please remember that everyone’s journey is different. This content is for general information purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you’re pregnant and are affected by any of the issues in this piece, please speak to your GP or midwife, or refer to our Urgent Warning.
“We’re going to have to do a Caesarean section!”
These were the words that were said to me after the attempt to turn my overdue, breech baby didn’t work. These were also the words that changed my life. They weren’t the words I was hoping to hear. Neither were they what I was expecting. But their utterance was to be my first major lesson on motherhood: that childbirth (and indeed children, parenting, and life) can be wildly unpredictable.
Out of the window flew my visions and preparations for a water birth. But I had a deep respect for the reality of the situation, and I agreed that a planned C-section would be the best bet. So, with my heart beating out of my chest, and with the help of an incredible team of medics, I gave birth to my first child.
The words I use to describe this incredible moment have never changed: I gave birth.
We all know that words can wound as much as they can heal. According to Healthline, the words we say to ourselves are significant. In this great article, they outline how ‘self-talk can be both negative and positive. It can be encouraging, and it can be distressing.’ So how does the power of words relate to having a C-section?
Well, following the birth, I became aware of the associated connotations that were applied to me because I’d experienced this mode of delivery. ‘Never mind, you can try again next time!’ someone said to me. Next time? I’d just had a baby. I was ecstatic! While being slightly bemused, but far more concerned with learning how to care for my new baby, I didn’t dwell on it for too long. Instead, I put myself in a sort of bubble because, despite what others said, within me there was a deep acceptance of what had to happen, and I was, above all else, relieved to be in the moment with my beautiful baby. I know I have my meditation and yoga practice to thank for that. However, I am not a machine, and I’ve certainly felt pangs of inadequacy, and, disappointingly, the put-downs didn’t end there.
Repeatedly, I bore the brunt of others’ disappointment for me and their concerns for any of my future pregnancies. Once I was told that as I hadn’t given birth ‘properly’ and ‘did not know the pain’, therefore I ‘could not know the sense of empowerment that comes from pushing a baby out’.
True. I didn’t. I don’t. But I do know the pain of undergoing a C-section, and I was empowered by the birth, and as prepared for motherhood as anyone else.
Motherhood is a great leveller, as far as I am concerned, whichever way it comes about. However, I quickly became aware that others did not always see me in such an equal way, given that I hadn’t had a ‘natural’ birth.
I soon realised the incredibly patronising and alienating view that a substantial amount of people have towards C-sections: that fundamentally I was lacking because I had not experienced the defining experience of womanhood, and it meant that, somehow, both myself and my child were, by default, supposedly unprepared for this thing we call life.
Not only that, but it was also assumed (judging by the sheer amount of ‘why-didn’t-you-just…?’ comments) that because I’d ‘succumbed to the need for intervention’, I was, somehow, pathetically misinformed, disconnected from my feminine self, and so many other terrible prejudices.
Which makes me wonder, given that time and again there are many women who experience unplanned C-sections (like those in this study from Penn State University College of Medicine who tell of their feelings of disappointment and failure), how much of this is down to the words that society uses when referring to C-sections, and the ways the women who experience them are judged?
And, crucially, is there a way we can all protect our mental health by being mindful of the way we ourselves think about and discuss our birth stories with others?
I’ve found it most helpful to absorb supportive and encouraging words, and to simply discount the rest.
Words cut, sometimes more than a scalpel. So, surely, it’s time we all start to consider, not only the way we discuss C-sections, but also the wider reality of birth: that sometimes birth can be risky and sometimes intervention is required.
Fundamentally, whether by circumstance or choice, and whether we give birth vaginally or abdominally: all birth is birth.
So, to end, I’d like to borrow the powerful words of Dr Annalise Weckesser, a medical anthropologist featured in a recent BBC video about C-sections and feelings of guilt, should any of the 1 in 4 women who have C-sections need to hear them: