Taking an unplanned cut!

Danielle Aalders reflects on giving birth by caesarean when this was not part of her plans.

When I found out I was pregnant, I stated to anyone who would listen that I did not want to have a caesarean. I was quite emphatic about it. I read up on natural-birthing techniques, took notes and spent time psyching myself up.

So I was taken aback when I found out at 32 weeks that my baby was in breech position and that if it didn’t turn by itself, or if the medical professionals couldn’t turn it, I would be having a caesarean. A vaginal bypass, one midwife quipped. I laughed, but deep down I felt as if my world had collapsed. I was faced with the distinct possibility of bringing my child into the world in the way that horrified me the most. No soft lights, calming music and comfortable bed in a birthing suite. No, it was to be needles, scalpels and fluorescent lights for me.

Over the next six weeks, I regularly spent time on my hands and knees, pelvis raised, in the hope that my baby would turn. No luck. As my final hope, I went to hospital and had a specialist try to turn the baby manually. Lying back on a bed raised at an angle so that my feet were higher than my head was not uncomfortable, but was definitely tricky for someone suffering reflux as a by-product of pregnancy. The procedure was unsuccessful. The specialist said that we could try again in a week, but I decided, after some deliberation, to give in to the fact that a caesarean it would be.

I arrived at the hospital on the scheduled day, showered with antiseptic soap, put on a gown and lay down on the trolley. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was terrified. The staff in the operating room did a wonderful job of making me feel comfortable and ensuring that everything went smoothly. My son was delivered safely within 40 minutes and there I was with tears in my eyes – just as I would have been in the birthing suite – as I looked down at him.

In retrospect, the whole experience was not as dreadful as I had anticipated. The post-op pain was bad, but drugs soon took care of that. I healed fast and had no further complications. My biggest frustration was not being able to get out of bed quickly enough to attend to my baby crying in his crib. I often gave up and called for the midwife to help. Not being able to drive for six weeks afterwards was also inconvenient.

Illustration by Madeleine StamerWeighing all of this up, it still makes me laugh when I hear others describing a caesarean delivery as the easy birthing option. “Oh, I’ll just have a caesarean,” some women claim boldly, as if they’re ordering a coffee. There is nothing ‘just’ about it. It is major abdominal surgery – a point I was reminded of when I signed the pre-op papers outlining the potential dangers, paralysis and death included!

Somehow it bothers me that I too could be labelled as one of those who chose the ‘easy’ route. When I saw my file marked “Elective caesarean”, I felt like adding the footnote: ‘Necessary; not by choice’. I’ll often defend myself when telling people how my baby was born. “Yes, I had an elective caesarean, but really I had no other option,” I’ll hear myself say. When one of the midwives who tended to me in the days after the birth remarked that doctors were too scared of lawsuits nowadays to oversee a breech birth, a small part of me felt like a failure.

This leads me to wonder about the emotional response to caesarean birth. Do I feel like I missed out on a uniquely feminine experience? Because I had an elective caesarean, I never even had the chance to experience contractions. I arrived at the hospital heavily pregnant and within a few hours I was holding my baby. A surreal experience to say the least. I’ve been assured by other mothers who gave birth vaginally, or who went through some labour and ended up having emergency caesareans, that I certainly didn’t miss out and that, if anything, I probably recovered more quickly as I was not already physically exhausted.

Well, blood loss, epidural, no food for 24 hours and painkillers aside, yes, I’m sure I was in a slightly better physical state to bounce back.

Let’s be honest, there is no easy way to give birth. Normal deliveries are very painful, but the pain ceases as soon as the baby is born (or so I’ve heard). Caesarean births are not painful, but the pain starts as soon as the epidural wears off. And the physical discomfort can last for days; in my case, it was almost a week before I could stand up straight again.

What is ultimately important is that the baby is delivered safely. Whether it is vaginally or via the ‘bypass method’ is of no consequence. And yes, I do feel that I gave birth to my son. I’ve even got the scar to prove it.

Illustration by Madeleine Stamer