One of the few places in this modern life where I get to hear real stories from my friends about life and death, physical struggle and victory, and nature’s forces is when they share their experiences of giving birth.
It’s also increasingly a tale of something entirely different. Of a loss of power.
Let me tell you my stories. One ends with Elliot and the other with Elenor. Now six and two years old. The real story, however, is about me, and my power.
In 2010, I was six days past term and holding what was expected to be a rather large baby of unknown sex. I started throwing up. At that moment, in the last hour of the day before I was due to be induced, I knew that birth had started. Until a week before then, I had wanted to give birth at home; in my tiny two-room flat, one of the rooms was occupied by a bathtub big enough to engulf my body and one more creature. However, an unexpected heart rhythm of the baby had eliminated that idea, and I knew that I would eventually have to head for a hospital nearby in Copenhagen to deliver.
That night, hours went by in the bathtub as the contractions increased in strength. At seven in the morning, a grumpy taxi driver dropped off me and dad-to-be at the birth ward. As the midwife listened, she became concerned about the baby’s heart rate, and wanted to break my water to be able to put a sensor on the baby’s head to monitor the heartbeat better. I referred her to the letter I had written about my wish for a birth with no interventions. A senior doctor, a kind and wise man, came in and told me they wouldn’t break the water right then, but to try and keep an open mind as the birth unfolded.
It took 20 hours to get Elliot out. Eventually they did break the water manually, tried to attach the sensor and a bunch of other technologies that failed—the old listening stick was the midwife’s way of knowing that he was okay in there. I had an epidural, which had long stopped working by the time I pushed him out. There were never any push contractions, and after 70 minutes of pure willpower, I had delivered him. After the placenta came out, the midwife spent 10 minutes looking at the scenario between my legs. I finally asked what she was doing. Looking for your sphincter, she replied (in plain language, that is the asshole muscle). Had it not been so painful and had I not had the feeling of having been run over twice by a truck, I would have laughed. A doctor spent an hour stitching me up under yet another round of much-appreciated anesthesia and I was endlessly grateful to have a healthy child with a steady heart rate. My milk came in and our new lives with a baby progressed.
Fast forward four years and I was pregnant with my second child. I had moved to Berlin by then and in my broken German tried to figure out if giving birth vaginally would leave me with a dysfunctional bottom. After six hospitals’ unaligned conclusions, I finally found a specialist who took a closer look and could give a clear answer: don’t try this again. Get a C-section.
It was a bittersweet moment. I cried when I got that reply, yet I had seen it coming. At the same time, I was also a startup founder, and my hectic schedule meant I had spent no time on preparing mentally or physically for the birth. Part of me thought that though it felt sad, I also didn’t feel prepared to muster the strength to be run over by a truck twice again.
I scheduled the birth, which felt surreal, for a Monday morning, on what happened to be my dad’s birthday, Sept 8. I chose the hospital that performs the most C-sections in Berlin, in the thousands, because I figured they would be good at it. They were. A few hours later the only surprising thing had been a good-looking young male doctor who had added eyes and fangs to the cutting line he had drawn on my belly. I had healthy little Elenor. And a big surgical incision that hurt like hell.
The contrast of the two experiences is still sitting in me with a power that takes me by surprise. After my first birth, I had such a feeling of accomplishment. Of strength. Of having gone through a rite of passage that would enable me to face any challenge that might come. I felt like such a determined woman. I felt a kinship to all other mothers and a gratitude to my body for being able to create life and give birth. What a wild, wild thing to experience in your body! After the birth I was tired, but if I had to, I could have walked. I could lift my baby to the breast. I could laugh. I was proud.
The one thought that kept coming back as I laid in the hospital bed for days after the C-section was: disempowerment. A birth is this active process where I myself, and my body, with helpers around, do this amazing thing. In the operating room I was literally paralyzed. I couldn’t see what was going on. I could feel the movement and some pain, but I couldn’t do anything. Even when they laid Elenor to my breast I could only hold her with one arm, as the other one was fastened to the board to keep tubes getting ripped out. The nurse said, “air is more important than milk!” I was struggling to keep the airways free for the slippery wobbly baby who obviously couldn’t hold up her own head.
In the coming days, I fainted the first four times I tried to get out of bed. I had a catheter, as I couldn’t move to get to the bathroom. I really couldn’t move one single tiny bit. It’s a big thing to have your belly and uterus cut open and have a baby pulled out. I had not anticipated the pain after the procedure. The horror of having to cough. The birth of Elliot had been painful, but it had lasted 20 hours only. Elenor’s C-section was painful for at least 20 days.
It’s been two years and I don’t regret my decision, but I still have an unresolved tension sitting in my body, in my belly, in my core. My body was holding this child for nine months, and then… no release. Like I had been practicing for a marathon and then last minute decided to take the bus. I couldn’t make myself say that I had given birth. My baby was not born! It felt totally strange, of course she had been born… But not really. She had just suddenly been woop—taken out.
I have a sadness in me that sits so deep that I rarely feel it. But sometimes when I connect with it, I’m surprised by its strength. I cry, I’m angry, I feel a loss, I’m sad. My body did not like that C-section one single bit. My strong body’s power was taken away, and it hurts.
I know many people who choose to have planned C-sections for many reasons, both emotional or health related, and I do not question their decisions. My thoughts also go out to the large number of people who end up having unplanned emergency C-sections. I think about their emotions when such a dramatic thing happens unexpectedly, and maybe even unwillingly. I hope we know how to support them emotionally, and know that it’s a big deal when a birth doesn’t go as expected. Around the globe there are also still so many who should have had C-sections but didn’t have access to them. I cannot think of anything more horrible than to have a baby stuck inside.
The group that keeps coming back to my mind are the millions around the world that live in cultures and societies where C-sections have become the norm. In Latin America and the Caribbean the rate of C-sections has gone up almost 20% in the last 25 years and now more than 40% of all births there are C-sections. The trend is global. Do they feel like me? That their powers have been taken away? Would I myself have known about my own strength if had I not given birth vaginally once in my life? Will these people ever know about their own profound strength?
Like any medical procedure that is needed to save lives and improve lives, C-sections have their place. But so does vaginal birth. Whether you want pain relief like me (I thought I wouldn’t, but the doctor who said keep an open mind, had a point!) or not, giving birth is still an incredible journey that I believe holds a lot of power.
For me it was the right choice to have a C-section. But though my body has healed, I am still working on getting back the emotional power that I feel it took away.
I’d love to hear from others who have given birth, vaginally or via a C-section. What made you feel powerful or powerless? You can find me on Twitter @idatin