A little over three years ago, I gave birth to our first child. I was so sure that I was going to have an incredible, unmedicated birth experience. I drug my husband to an all day birthing class and was borderline obsessed with asking other moms about their birth stories, imagining how it would go for me.
Spoiler alert, it didn’t go the way I wanted or had envisioned. Our daughter was complete breech and came unexpectedly in the middle of the night, three weeks early, via c-section. (If you are curious about all of the ways I tried to get her out of the breech position, you can find my post about that here..)
Everything turned out totally fine, and eventually I was able to have a vaginal delivery after cesarean (or VBAC for short) with our second child two years later.
Because I was so focused on the one and only way I thought my birth experience would go, I hadn’t really thought about alternative scenarios. Now that I’ve had two COMPLETELY different experiences, I know that one is not better or harder than another, it’s just different.
I know every mom’s experience with delivery is wildly different. There are literally endless scenarios that can take place. I had somewhat uneventful births, so this is a comparison of two mostly average birth experiences. So it’s easier to follow, I broke it down into mental and physical differences, before, during, and after delivery.
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The psychological aspect of giving birth is just as important and profound as the physical. During both of my pregnancies, I didn’t spend a lot of time contemplating what the birth experience would be like until closer to the end, probably around 30-ish weeks. The first time around I was incredibly excited for the opportunity to bring a baby into the world…maybe I was a tad naive about what it would be like. The second pregnancy came with a little more anxiety because I had recognized by then that I actually had less control over the situation than I’d previously believed.
There was no difference for me mentally in preparation for a c-section versus a vaginal delivery. Obviously, because neither one of these things were planned ahead of time with any degree of certainty. In both instances I spent a lot of time wondering what would happen before it actually did. In hindsight, I think the best preparation is to have an open mind and go over more than one scenario in your head. Chances are, your birth story will not be exactly like the one you’ve written beforehand.
I’ve imagined what it must be like mentally to have a scheduled c-section and know exactly what moment your baby is going to come into the world. For some, this might help you relax because it removes an unknown variable. For me, I would probably be a nervous wreck and would rather it just be sprung upon me. Which is what both of our kids decided to do!
The biggest psychological difference during a c-section versus a vaginal delivery was where my mind was. When the c-section was taking place, a large focus was on everything around me. There were surgeons tugging on my body. There was an anesthesiologist asking if I was nauseated. There were bright lights in my eyes and oxygen tubing in my nose and I was staring at a blue drape so I couldn’t witness my body being sliced open. Although I felt anxious about what was happening to me physically, my mind was all over the place. Every thought was fleeting, jumping from one sensation to the next.
In contrast, my mind was very much in my own body during the vaginal delivery. I didn’t care what anyone else was doing. The only thing I could think about was what was happening and how I was going to attempt to manage it. My own breath was important. The way I was positioned was important. It didn’t matter in those final moments before the baby arrived that there were 7 strangers in the room with my husband and I, standing quietly in the shadows of my the darkened room waiting for me to get that baby out.
I had to dig deep mentally during the VBAC because there was no other choice. There were moments I just wanted to quit, and that wasn’t an option. There was a moment after the doctor said it’s time to start pushing when I had to shove down the panic that was welling up inside of me, because this baby was going to push his way out of my body whether I liked it or not.
Here’s the most beautiful thing about having a c-section. A friend of mine told me this before I actually had a c-section and I’m so glad it stuck with me. When you have a cesarean, immediately following the procedure you head to recovery for a couple of hours. They don’t allow visitors in recovery. You and your baby and your spouse can bond and learn to breastfeed. You can check out every inch of your new baby and get to know them before anyone else does. You can put that brand new baby skin-to-skin on your chest and breath them in. These are hours that you can never get back, it’s the only time that you’ll experience this kind of newness with your child. It was a gift to us to have this time before we saw anyone.
Not only do you get that alone time as a new family in recovery, but you also don’t have any pain because of the epidural. You get to focus on your new baby and it’s pretty amazing. I couldn’t have cared less that I couldn’t move my legs.
A vaginal delivery is incredible afterwards too, as ideally your little babe will be handed to you and placed on your chest as soon as possible. The rest of what happens after is extremely variable. I got to hold our son on my chest for an hour while the doctor repaired internal damage I suffered during delivery. Oddly, I barely remember that part because I was so excited to be looking at our little guy for the first time ever.
You’re going to be exhausted mentally and emotionally after delivering your baby, no matter how they come out. And you’ll probably be begging for a burger and a milk shake.
There is so much variation here. I spontaneously went into labor with both of my kids so I had the experience of contractions, water breaking, etc. Some moms end up having a scheduled c-section so the hours before delivery are different. Some moms are laboring towards a vaginal delivery, only to end up having an emergency c-section. Other moms push their babies out in a bath tub or their living room or the front seat of their car. This is one of those unknowns..you won’t know what those hours leading up to the birth of your child are going to be like until it happens.
During a c-section, a lot of the physical aspect is left to your imagination. You feel pulling and tugging and it can be unsettling to say the least. You might get nauseated, your heart will race, and you will probably be cold. But the pain of a c-section is not during the act of birth (obviously). That happens after.
During a vaginal delivery, your body goes through all kinds of phases. I won’t bore you with every detail of my experience, but I will tell you that the contractions are most likely going to be worse that you had imagined they would be. You may not even know how you’re going to react to it, because unless you’ve done it before it’s going to be a whole host of new sensations.
I withdrew into myself for a while. I got quiet and didn’t answer questions. I talked to myself. I squeezed my eyes shut so tight that I saw white spots. The next morning I could hear another mom in the midst of her delivery, and I’m pretty sure people in the next town over could hear her, too. Everybody is different.
No matter what, having a baby entails a large creature exiting your body one way or another. Because so many people do it, it tends to get brushed off as just a normal thing that women do. And I suppose it is, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a really big deal. An actual person needs a large enough place to escape your abdomen, there’s no way around it.
In our world of laparoscopic surgeries, the need to make a large incision in your body is becoming less and less common. Except in the case of needing a c-section. Having a huge incision through your abdominal wall, the muscles, the uterus..it’s major surgery.
After my c-section, it was close to impossible to get out of bed for a while. I definitely had to set the baby down before attempting to get up from sitting or laying. It took months before the thought of using my abdominal muscles for anything but the bare minimum scared the pants off me.
I took prescription pain medicine, tylenol and ibuprofen around the clock for close to a week after my c-section, and it was totally necessary.
The incision healed up well, but to this day 3 years later, it’s still numb in some areas. And sometimes it gets itchy. Like, really itchy. (Ok, no matter where you’re healing after delivery, you are going to be itchy. Especially if you have stitches.)
The weeks after vaginal deliver were painful too, just in different ways. It was a relief to be able to use my core a little better the second time around, especially since I then had two babies to pick up. But sitting and walking were both painful and difficult. And don’t even think about sitting cross-legged or stepping over the baby gate. Out. of. the. question.
Any way you look at it, these are the important things:
-Every birth is painful. Sometimes before it happens, sometimes during, and sometimes after.
-You will learn all kinds of things about yourself and your partner during labor.
-Your life is going to change afterwards. Whether this baby is your first or your fourth, you’ll never be the same.
-There is going to be a long period of healing. Go through that process and be kind to yourself.
-Your body is going to surprise you by doing weird things before, during and after delivery, no matter how the baby comes out. And it’s supposed to.
-The process of giving birth is a split second compared to a life time of being a mom. Soak up the feeling of being superwoman, squeeze your little baby, and write down what it was like for you. Because trust me, it’s going to be hard to remember later.
-Don’t let anyone tell you that their birth experience was better or harder or whatever than yours. There are about a zillion variables that go into giving birth, and it’s really none of their business anyway.
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