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No One Told Me About the Trauma of a C-Section

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Editor's Note

The following article contains specific details about a C-section that may be triggering.

You probably know someone who has undergone a cesarean section, whether it was elective, emergency, or circumstantial. This major surgery is more common than many realize; in fact, according to the World Health Organization, the rate of C-sections keeps rising, with 1 in 5 childbirths resulting in one. This statistic actually both shocked and underwhelmed me, as I continue to recover from my own C-section. On the one hand, I was shocked at the high rate (that’s 20%!). On the other hand, I’ve since connected with so many women who also had a C-section (or multiple ones), and I quickly realized that they aren’t that rare at all.

However, if that’s the case, why did no one prepare me for the emotional trauma that comes with this major surgery? Or the physical trauma? Why did no doctor tell me that the raging post-birth hormones, mixed with a screaming midsection, would leave me curled into a ball on my kitchen floor? How come no one mentioned that feelings of failure, inadequacy, and shame would remain ever present in my life, especially during that wild first month of motherhood?

Don’t get me wrong: I love my son, and I am now forever grateful that we are and were both happy and healthy following his birthday. And these first two months with him have been trying, amazing, exciting, and eye-opening. But there’s one glaring piece of my experience – and the experience of 1 in 5 people – that needs to be addressed: the trauma that accompanies an unplanned (for me) C-section.

Doesn’t my experience ultimately speak to the stigma around C-sections? They’re the “easy way out.” The “you didn’t try hard enough.” The “you couldn’t get it done.”

Here’s the short version of the story

Nothing can truly prepare for that moment in the delivery room, when everyone is waiting for you to say OK to the inevitable. The doctor wanted it to be my call. She laid out all the truths of my situation and offered her best, most informed suggestion. I was later told that “this doctor doesn’t take C-sections lightly,” which was somehow supposed to make me feel better. Wow, I’m so glad she clarified that my doctor isn’t taking the “easy way out” with me. And after you tell them to go forward with surgery prep, it happens so fast. I think one of the hardest parts for me was not having a moment with just my husband to process what was happening. Before I knew it, it was done. I know it was the right call for my baby and me, but I felt like I was catching up in acceptance afterward … or maybe I still am.

But doesn’t my experience ultimately speak to the stigma around C-sections? They’re the “easy way out.” The “you didn’t try hard enough.” The “you couldn’t get it done.” Believe it or not, these are things I’ve heard said to other moms who share in my experience. And they are a large part of the guilt and shame I felt after mine was finished, and I was left with a beautiful baby boy and a screaming scar below my belly button.

Here’s the long version of the story

Recovering from a traumatic C-section is widespread, long-term, and difficult. I’m now two months removed from mine, and I am still talking about it in therapy every single week. From a memory perspective, I can still distinctly recall the images of the operation room. My inability to hold my child right away. The hazy bits of eavesdropping on the doctors’ casual conversations while they put me back together. (Did you know a C-section cuts through six layers of tissue? I sure didn’t.) The dry heaving and eventual vomiting (multiple times) due to anesthesia. That first tender look at your postpartum, post-pregnancy, post-surgery, post-WTF body.

Why aren’t we talking more about the emotional component of these surgeries?

From an emotional perspective, I can still feel the heaviness of hormones, exhaustion, and intrusive thoughts on the third day we were home. I was curled in a ball on the kitchen floor, dinner almost burning on the stove. It all felt absolutely impossible, which is true for any mom at any moment. But the added layer of feelings of failure and inadequacy had completely consumed me, totally knocking my self-worth and athletic background into unknown territory. I should have been able to get it done “naturally.” Part of me will never outrun that thought.

And from every perspective, I’m still stumped as to why I found more support, preparation, and hope from brief Instagram posts, private messages to other C-section mamas, and doing my own digging for first-person accounts than I did from any medical professional during the last year. Even my own OB admitted that she didn’t want to touch on some of the details until after I had delivered; she knew there was no way to prepare me for what was to come … until I had gone through it.

Why aren’t we talking more about the emotional component of these surgeries? Why aren’t C-sections listed as an “option” on those new patient forms that ask about previous surgeries? Why aren’t moms immediately offered or referred to a mental health professional upon discharge? Why is it huge news that a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model is baring her own C-section scar? When 20 percent of child-bearing people are getting this major surgery, it shouldn’t be mulled over as just another day in the delivery room. It’s the only major surgery where a person is expected to care for another person immediately following the final stitch. And believe me, the debilitating, stinging pain makes that really, really, really hard.

I am so forever grateful to all the doctors and nurses that went above and beyond to make sure I was comfortable and supported during my stay in the hospital. I know that they can’t be everything to every new parent on the recovery floor. But at the end of the day, it took my own posting and sharing of my experience to find other moms who knew exactly what I was experiencing. As someone who has struggled with body image her entire life, it will take me some time to heal from this entire experience – not only from carrying a child for 40 weeks, but also from receiving a literal scar from it all. Just like all the ones they cut through, there are so many layers to C-section recovery, and everyone deserves to be prepped for that beforehand.

Getty image by FatCamera

Originally published: May 23, 2022
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