Mom Talk: How I Learned to Love My C-Section
Written by Emma Frisch
Photography by Photo courtesy of Emma Frisch
Every expecting mother is advised to head into the big day with a plan. Home birth? Epidural? Birthing tub? Scheduled c-section? And while it’s smart to have your wishes mapped out, prepared for, and communicated clearly to those around you, it’s almost equally as important to realize that absolutely none of those wishes may ultimately come true. When it comes to birth, we all know to expect the unexpected, but mentally coming to terms with a scenario that is wildly different than the one you hoped for is no small feat. In today’s Mom Talk, mother of two Emma Frisch shares her touching account of a hoped-for home birth thwarted by a stubbornly breech baby, and her personal journey towards accepting and eventually embracing her daughter’s “belly birth.”
“No more,” I groaned as my mother ladled a second helping of minestrone into my bowl.
“You sure?” she said.
“I can’t eat anything else. My stomach will explode,” I said.
“Oh, alright,” she said, taking the soup bowl back into the kitchen and returning with a massive fruit salad.
“What’s that?!” I cringed, my squashed belly protesting.
“More roughage,” said my mother. “It’s got lots of pineapple.”
Pineapple, according to the blogs my mother had been poring over since she arrived, was a surefire way of inducing labor. But the main takeaway from her research was that copious quantities of roughage would build up into a massive bowel movement that would almost certainly make me go into labor, hence our fiber-rich lunch.
“Let’s go for a walk after you’ve had a nap. Exercise can get things moving,” she said as I chewed my way through pineapple, grapes, mango, oranges, and apples cut into bite-size pieces.
I couldn’t blame her for trying to hurry along my labor. I had pushed back my c-section by a week after she’d made the four hour drive to Ithaca, and I felt as if I were holding her hostage until I made The Decision: move forward with a scheduled c-section or wait until labor began and then have an unscheduled (or “emergency”) c-section.
“So, what are you thinking?” she asked.
“Hire you as my personal chef?” I smiled, and felt my throat clench as I fought to hold back a wave of tears.
My second baby was lying in a breech position, just like our first daughter, Ayla. In the 21st century that usually means a scheduled c-section. So, here we were for a second time, switching gears from a home birth to a hospital birth. It didn’t seem fair. A hospital VBAC (vaginal birth after c-section) was something I was open to, but Bobby, my husband, wasn’t willing to take on those risks. And frankly, neither was I without his support.
After Ayla’s birth, I promised that if I ever had another breech baby, I wouldn’t go through the stress of trying to spin him/her. I would simply relish the miracle of growing a human inside of me, schedule a C-section, and be done with it. Yet, when I learned that this baby was also breech, I couldn’t fight the hope that maybe, just maybe, this baby would spin.
During the last six weeks of my pregnancy we tried every trick under the sun. Bobby and my mom took turns burning moxa sticks next to my pinky toes, I went to the local swimming hole to do underwater handstands, I painted pictures of my womb with a baby head down, I listened to “spinning baby” hypnosis soundtracks. And I even tried what I had sworn I wouldn’t do again—a cephalic version, the excruciating hospital procedure where the obstetrician forcibly tries to turn the baby into position.
Everyone had an opinion about why my baby was upside down: she/he wanted to listen to my heart beating, he/she knew something that I didn’t know and was setting her/himself up for a healthy birth, my uterus was tipped, my uterus was an unusual shape, my baby was head-strong, and so on. Deep down I think I knew that my baby wasn’t going to spin and was head-up for a reason. In fact, looking back, I’d known he/she would be breech even before it became a “problem” at thirty-six weeks, when there was increasingly less space in the womb for the baby to flip. Why hadn’t I just trusted my intuition?
Another thing that nagged at me was the negative emphasis on a breech baby. The breech position didn’t seem normal, even though 3 to 4 percent of babies are breech; about 154,000 born in 2018. I couldn’t help feeling as if it were somehow my fault and that I hadn’t done everything I could to make things right.
My mamma and I sat at the picnic table enjoying the late summer sun, nibbling at the fruit. I held onto the last thread of hope that if I could go into labor naturally, the baby might have one last chance to spin before making its entry into the world. (After all, a friend’s baby had done just that!) And if the baby didn’t spin, going into labor would give me the satisfaction of knowing my baby was ready to be born instead of being suddenly plucked from the womb.
“You know,” my mother said as she rubbed my belly, “even though my doctor didn’t recommend it, I insisted on a vaginal birth with Sebastian. I felt I owed it to you three girls. How could I help you give birth when the time came if all I knew was cesaereans?” She looked me square in the eyes and said, “I’m here to tell you, it’s not worth it. It really isn’t.”
“I know, mamma,” I sighed. My brother’s birth (a vaginal birth after two c-sections) had been difficult for my mom, and she didn’t see the point in going through labor and a c-section. Nearly every mother I knew whose labor ended with an emergency c-section felt the same way. For my mother, it had taken her longer to recover from a vaginal birth than both c-sections. This reminded me that my vision of a vaginal birth was only hypothetical. My OB and chiropractor both invited me to consider the benefits of a scheduled C-section: it could be calmer and less stressful, and I would have time to prepare for a positive experience. Was it possible that a scheduled c-section could be a better route for me and my baby?
My friend Emily, a postpartum yoga therapist and teacher, encouraged me to reframe it, saying that many of her clients had adopted the term “belly birth.” Belly birth certainly sounded softer, without the negative connotations surrounding the term c-section. It also offered a simpler way of explaining to Ayla why we might have to leave her for a night or two when we went to the hospital. Ayla never did well when we were apart, and it was another part of the impending transition that had my stomach in knots. Welcoming a new sibling was one thing, but after mamma and daddy went away for a while and having me return physically out of commission? Eek. I comforted myself knowing that millions of families had thrived in the very same scenario.
Still, I couldn’t shake the conviction that a natural, vaginal birth was the Holy Grail for bringing a child into the world. Going into labor would surely help me experience at least some of the miracle of childbirth. I needed to get close to Nature to still the noises in my mind.
I set off for the nature preserve behind our house. I walked as far as I could down the trail to the dam, and sat on a rock to catch my breath. I started talking to my baby. “It rained heavily last week. The dam is full and pouring into the gorge. It’s white and frothy, and the sun is shining so that it catches the mist. It’s like there are little rainbows spiraling upward! From here it looks like we’re in a bowl of evergreens, and the sky is bright blue, and oh!, there are three red-tailed hawks circling over us right now!” My sadness slowly melted away with the realization that I would soon meet this soul and have the privilege of being his/her guide in this world.
I waddled down the trail to the swimming hole, and slipped out of my maternity dress. I slid into the creek and floated on my back, letting the cool water wash over me. Damselflies landed on my belly, their iridescent, indigo eyes seeming to bore into me with the question: what is most important to you? I remembered my friend Sarah’s mantra: the best way forward is through. One way or another, this baby was coming through me, and what mattered most was a healthy birth for both my baby and me.
It was time to move forward.
I had been so attached to my belief about what was best, that I hadn’t been able to accept my situation and take the next step. I knew deep down that my baby wasn’t planning on spinning. I wanted a healthy birth. It was now clear that having weighed all my options, a scheduled c-section was the best approach. If I could cultivate a positive mindset, I could create a sacred experience, no matter what.
A flight of swallows exploded from the trees above, startling me. I waded back to the bank and heaved myself onto solid ground. Another family had arrived, and just as the children were charging into the water, the mother squealed, “water snake!” I turned to see the creature gliding through the water where I had been floating.
On the way home I called my midwife. “Monica, I’m 99 percent sure we’re going to the hospital tomorrow morning.”
She said soothingly, “Well, you’ve been so thoughtful in this whole process, and 99 percent is about as close as you can come to making such a hard decision. There will always be another side to the equation. Who knows, you might go into labor tonight! If not, I’ll see you at the hospital tomorrow morning.”
Though my mother and Bobby had been unconditionally loving and patient with me, I could see the relief on both their faces when I shared the news. The next morning, Bobby and I kissed Ayla on the forehead as she slept and crept out of the house at 4:30am. It was still pitch dark as we arrived at the hospital. As we wheeled our overnight bags towards the brightly lit hospital foyer, I clutched my belly and doubled over, groaning.
“Bobby, wait!” He spun around, running back to me.
“What’s wrong,” he cried, bending down to look at my face. I burst out laughing and stood up. “Nothing. I just wanted to see what it would be like to arrive in labor.”
As we checked-in at reception, I noticed a snake—the symbol of modern medicine—stamped on the papers, uncannily like the one at the swimming hole. While we were waiting to go into the operating room, Monica sent us pictures of the sunrise on her way to the hospital, a perfect crescent moon hanging above the horizon. She called it “baby moonrise,” the perfect morning for our baby to be born.
At 8:03 a.m., Dr. Surosky flew Cora over the blue curtain, landing her on my breast just seconds after she’d emerged from my belly, in the exact same breech position as her big sister—folded in half with a foot to each ear. She was instantly calm, so much so that the nurse wouldn’t stop vigorously rubbing her until she began wailing.
“It’s a girl!” I squealed, crying and laughing at the same time.
“She’s a redhead!” exclaimed Bobby, stroking the soft fuzz on her perfectly round head.
I spotted Monica snapping pictures through the window, smiling ear-to-ear. She had encouraged me to talk to Cora from the moment I stepped into the operating room, gently guiding her out just as I would in labor. I loved this suggestion, which had helped me stay grounded and centered through her birth. As we were wheeled into the recovery room, I noticed a swallow tattooed on the inside of the nurse’s wrist. With Cora suckling at my breast, Bobby holding my hand, and my heart doubled in size, I knew that everything was right in the universe and our real journey was just about to begin.
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