This post was written by mommy blogger, Habiba. Habiba is from London, UK, and a new mother to a baby girl. She’s also a freelance editor and blogs about food (and life!) in her spare time.
Coming up is an important milestone for me, which will mark three months to the date that I went through two life-changing events: 1) on 16 July 2014 I was blessed with a daughter, Baby K; and 2) I had a cesarean.
I have to differentiate between the two things and treat them as if they are entirely unconnected, because my feelings towards both are completely opposite. Baby K finally entering the world was the most exciting, emotional and overwhelmingly happy moment of my life so far (as I’m sure any mother will say of their child’s birth), but on the other end of the spectrum, going through a c-section was the most scary, painful and overwhelmingly shocking experience of my life so far.
I have wanted to write about the latter for a while now, because no-one talks about cesarean births in the way that they talk about natural births, do they? We hear in graphic detail about contractions, tearing, who took what pain relief, etc. I attended three antenatal classes and left feeling so well-prepared and positive about going into labour, but not once were cesareans discussed, even though according to the NCT approximately a quarter of births are by c-section. It may not sound like a lot, but to put this into context, the NHS Maternity Statistics covering 671,000 births for 2012–13 showed over 75,000 were by c-section. So we’re talking about a whopping 75,000 women that year that I would be willing to bet money felt as surprised at how little they knew about what they would subsequently go through, as did I.
But it’s not just the women that go through it that need to know; it’s everyone else they may interact with as well, because I have heard some real, tactless gems in the past few months. My favourite is this: on my way home from the hospital, I had walked to the car with great difficulty just four days post surgery, only to discover I had completely forgotten how to strap in Baby K’s car seat (and no one else knew either!). So there I was, clutching on the seat to keep it steady during the drive, in pain from walking a distance more than the ensuite bathroom and with high blood pressure, gritting my teeth every time we went over a speed bump, when a close friend called to say congratulations. She then told me I was lucky, at least I didn’t go through the pain of natural labour, and had the baby taken out for me with no fuss.
So, here are a few things I’d like to share with anyone else that might also think a cesarean is easy, and that I wish I had known too. Mostly, this post is for all those out there that have been through this too, as a sort of *virtual-high-five-sister* (please note some of it is pretty graphic, so if you’re pregnant, easily scared or simply don’t want to know, turn away now):
1. You feel everything:
Unless you are rushed to surgery in an extreme emergency, you will not be under general anaesthetic. You will most likely be given an epidural (an injection into the back that numbs the lower half of the body), and while that means you don’t feel any pain, you can feel everything else that happens during the operation. The sensation of being “unzipped” when they cut into you, the stretchy, pulling feeling when they open you up to take the baby out, and the feeling of the baby’s limbs travelling out of your body… everything.
You don’t just lie there as if you are on a massage table in a spa while all the “hard work” is done for you. The operation theatre is cold (I shivered throughout the operation. And I mean the teeth-violently-clattering type shivering), and not for one second do you switch off or forget that half of you is currently cut wide open.
2. You will need a LOT of pain killers:
Until the effects of the epidural wore off, I enjoyed some indescribable time with Baby K. We stayed in a small recovery ward, skin-to-skin and it was the most precious and emotional time. And then the epidural wore off.
Nothing, no blog post, could ever describe the pain. I still don’t know if it was the pain of post surgery or the uterus contractions every woman gets post partum (when your uterus begins “shrinking” back to its normal size) but I cried. I told my midwife I was going to pass out with pain. She gave me paracetamol and told me to try and relax. I did. It didn’t work, and I insisted they do something, anything, and eventually they gave me the maximum dose of morphine that they could, intravenously.
And a few hours later when the morphine wore off, I went through it all over again. I just couldn’t understand what was happening. The c-section was over, Baby K was out. Why was I in even more pain than before? FYI, I had also gone through 16 hours of contractions before the operation. But this was something else.
BUT here’s the thing: if I had known that this might happen, or if I knew that there would be a lot of pain coming, I would have coped much better. I would have been mentally prepared, and as only you can know your own pain threshold, I would have asked for pain relief earlier or possibly even in advance. My pain threshold is so low and I just kept thinking, it’ll get better, but it just got worse. And if I had known that, I would have insisted on the morphine straight away.
3. You have layers of stitches:
Around eight days post-partum, I had my third home visit from my midwife. I asked her (rather naively, in retrospect) why I felt so much pressing pain in my wound. She put her hand on mine and told me it was time to know what exactly the operation had involved; it would be difficult to hear, but she assured me that I would feel much better being in the know afterwards. She was right.
Contrary to the idea that a c-section involves one horizontal cut, baby out, and you’re closed back up and that’s it, you’re actually cut and stitched up layer-by-layer. There is skin, tissue, and muscle before you even get to the uterus! I understand the number of layers can differ, but in my case (and in most) there were SEVEN layers of stitches!
As my kind midwife informed me, having a tumour or appendix removed would be less painful. A caesarean is major surgery. Again, had I understood its magnitude from day one, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself for still being in pain only eight days later!
4. Even laughter hurts:
Any activity that involves engaging your abdominal muscles is quite painful for a good few weeks. Mostly, this can be managed by minimising such things like getting up, walking, bending over, etc. But what always caught me off-guard was the pain I felt doing something so natural such as laughing! Similarly, how do you stop yourself from sneezing or coughing—both equally painful?
Later, I read somewhere that if you hold a pillow against your abdomen when sneezing, coughing, laughing, whatever, it hurts less. This means I should’ve kept a cushion/pillow handy at all times (maybe one that could double up as a baby feeding pillow), but once again, I just had no idea.
5. You still experience post-partum bleeding:
Despite not giving birth naturally, women that go through caesareans are often surprised to find they have to go through the same post-partum experiences as those that do. This includes post-partum bleeding and a noticeable need for pelvic floor exercises (no need to elaborate on either, I think!)
6. You might put on a lot of weight during your post-partum period:
I wrote “might” because I’m not sure if this is true for everyone, but was certainly true for me. I put on a lot of weight during recovery—more than I did throughout the entire pregnancy. The reason is simple: you need to eat a healthy diet of 1,800–2,000 calories whilst recovering from this major operation, and at the same time, you can just about walk to the bathroom and back (i.e. you’re eating more than ever and not burning any of it in away).
It wasn’t until I was three weeks post-surgery that I was able to manage slow and short walks of about 10–15 minutes. Now, almost three months on, I still cannot imagine being able to do any type of exercise other than walking.
This is not to say I haven’t tried… just two weeks post-partum I went to Westfield (shopping centre). And more recently, I ran through my local supermarket in a rush. Both times, I suffered for days afterwards.
This point probably links the most with the next one.
7. You are more likely to experience the baby blues:
Everyone, to some extent, goes through a dip in emotions at some point post-partum. Looking back, however, I can now see and acknowledge that I went through more than a few dips and was most likely slightly depressed. In fact, research has shown that women who have a caesarean have a six-fold increased risk of developing postnatal depression. After nine months of waiting for your baby to arrive, and looking forward to being “yourself” again, you suddenly find yourself feeling worse than ever before.
For me, the moment I realised I wasn’t feeling quite right was when feelings of guilt kept creeping into my mind. Yes, guilt. Can you believe I found myself feeling guilty for not giving birth naturally? Of course, I knew that it was not my fault; the c-section likely saved both mine and Baby K’s lives. But I could not help but feel like it made me less of a mother for not having given birth the way nature had intended. Though she was fine, thank God, I felt as though I had somehow failed my daughter.
Luckily, I was well aware of the signs and symptoms of post natal depression, having witnessed a friend go through it just a few months previously. I recognised pretty quickly that was I was feeling/thinking wasn’t true and kept telling myself it would pass (as did my husband) which is why I think I did not slip into it fully.
Emotional support is crucial. If you already know exactly what to expect and are fully prepared, but have no emotional support, you will struggle. On the other hand, even if you have no idea what to expect (like me) but have a good support network around you, you will be ok… eventually! So make sure you don’t hesitate to reach out to your loved ones, your partner, your friends, whoever you want; most likely they want to help but don’t know how! By turning to them yourself, they’ll be relieved that you’ve done so and will step up.
Finally, I want to say something every woman that has had a c-section told me, and whether or not I believe it, I have repeated it to myself like a mantra every single day: you will feel better, one day, you WILL feel better.
This post was originally featured on Habiba’s blog, Being Us!