Written by Abby Deliz
I was probably like you. When I got pregnant the first time, I read “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” as though it was The Bible to pregnancy and childbirth, and I thought I had my bases covered.
I went into my first birth feeling informed as I had read hundreds of birth stories online, after all!
But after 24 hours of labor and a cascade of interventions led to an emergency cesarean, I came out of the hospital feeling bewildered. The feeling of “what just happened?” was compounded by the sleepless nights, difficulty breastfeeding, and weeks of healing.
At the time, I most likely suffered from postpartum depression, especially since I did not drive at the time and was isolated in our small apartment.
Because of my haze, I didn’t realize that I needed emotional healing after a cesarean.
When I got pregnant again, I felt doomed to cesarean birth – after all, my mother had had 5 of them, and my sister 3. Weren’t these things genetic? (They aren’t.)
My doctor encouraged me to have a VBAC, but he never explained why it was important, and I did not go to the trouble of asking (remember, I thought I was doomed).
I regretfully underwent a repeat cesarean at 36 weeks when I went into spontaneous labor. I developed a severe brain condition 5 days after my daughter’s birth, and she was released without me. I only got to breastfeed her once.
I never wanted to do that again.
When I got pregnant in 2014 with my third child, I researched my possibilities.
A VBAC was actually safer than having a third major abdominal surgery? Shut the front door!
Since most hospitals in my vicinity do not offer VBACs after two cesareans, I hired a midwife and a doula to accompany me during labor. I went to a chiropractor and an osteopath regularly; modified my diet; studied spinning babies; sat on my birth ball for hours; made a birth affirmations poster; visualized a successful delivery; and most of all, read voraciously, all to prepare for a successful labor.
I believed in my birth team, my husband, and myself. By taking all of this action, I was doing some major emotional healing after a cesarean.
I knew that I could do it! I was GOING to do it! I could not wait to feel the powerful transformation that so many women describe upon having successful VBACs.
So when it all went to hell, I think I was the last person who expected it.
The range of emotions after cesarean
We all imagine our birthing day and the moment when our sweet baby is placed in our arms. When the reality is so vastly different than what we had hoped, we can go through a range of emotions.
Some moms may feel that the surgery was justified and necessary; others may feel disappointed, sad, angry, resentful, or anxious. All of these feelings can be a natural part of the emotional healing after a cesarean.
Some feelings you may experience include:
- Feeling that the surgery could have been avoided; blaming yourself
- Feeling powerlessness or out of control
- Feeling disappointed, humiliated, or disassociated from the experience
- Feeling like a failure, defective, or less than a woman
- Feeling that you were violated and that your birth experience was akin to rape or abuse
- Feeling that your birth happened TO you, that you were not a participant
- Feeling that you were mutilated
- Feeling that there were illegalities in your birth experience (here’s a link to Michelle Mitchell’s Facebook page where she describes her court case against a “forced” cesarean. Cases like this exist all over the country).
- Feeling that no one believes or hears you
- Feeling unable to hear other women’s birth stories (the bad ones act as triggers, and the good ones make you envious).
- You may also go through what are commonly known as the five stages of grief, introduced by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – though not always in that particular order.)
You might feel different toward those around you, too:
- You might have a hard time connecting with your baby
- You may blame your baby (your partner, your doctor, your doula and so on) for what happened
- You might feel that no one can possibly understand
- You might worry that you will not be an adequate parent
- You might have an awareness of mortality that you didn’t have before, about yourself or those around you
- It might be difficult to return to intimacy
You may also be grieving difficulties with breastfeeding
Breastfeeding issues can be a common result of cesareans due to a a time delay seeing your baby post birth, doctors/nurses supplementing your baby with formula, painful breastfeeding due to body soreness, and a longer time for your milk to “come in” since your body was jarred from surgery. (My milk did not come in until five days after I had my first son, post emergency cesarean).
You may feel upset about your body, as well. You may resent your scar and feel that it is ugly, or you may hate the flap of skin that often develops after surgery. All of the above emotions are completely normal and can stem from having a cesarean, even if it was planned. You need to allow yourself to feel the feelings for emotional healing after a cesarean.
What may influence emotions after a cesarean:
- What kind of labor you went through prior to it, if any
- Whether or not it was planned
- How you were treated by doctor and staff
- How you recovered
- Whether or not you had any complications
- Whether or not baby had any complications
- Whether or not it was truly medically necessary
- If you were bullied or degraded
- Time separation from baby
- Your ideas about birth before you went into the situation
For the loved ones of cesarean mamas
What can you do if you are the loved one of someone who has undergone a c-section? I think the most important thing my husband did for me was listen and validate my feelings. He never said, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or “It didn’t happen like that.”
While he never fully understood the complex emotions that I was dealing with, he sat and listened, no matter how many times I said the same things over and over again. (Thank you, Gabriel!) Getting support is critical for emotional healing after a cesarean.
Avoid saying the following to a mama who had a cesarean birth
- Move on! It’s over and done with.
- The most important thing are that you and the baby are healthy.
- The doctor saved your life! (When they often created the emergency that necessitated saving you in the first place)
- Once a cesarean, always a cesarean. You’ll never have that baby the “right” way!
- At least you didn’t have to go through a “real” birth!
- At least you didn’t “ruin” your vagina for sex!
Instead, you can listen, empathize and ask how you can support her. Let the mom tell you how you can help. Giving her space to have her process is important in emotional healing after a cesarean.
Mental and emotional healing
Healing from a cesarean birth from the inside out is not only vital if you would like to have more children (and a chance to have positive birthing experiences), but for your general, day-to-day functioning.
Few of us truly realize the impact that our births have on our mental health. Taking care of a newborn is a whirlwind event, and it’s tempting to overlook how you feel in the midst of diaper changes and hourly feedings. It can take several months or even years to process the birth experience.
It may take some time to figure out that some friends and family members are simply unable to hear your story and your pain. Perhaps they are avoiding thinking about their own difficult birth experiences, or perhaps our culture is unable to deal with grief, sadness, and depression.
The good news is you don’t need everyone’s support to heal. You just need your own commitment and a few helpers.
Tips for mental and emotional healing:
- Write out your birth story, or record it on video
- Write out your birth story the way that you wish it had happened
- Share your story with compassionate, like-minded women – this might be in a birth trauma healing group, or a professional therapist who is well versed in birth trauma
- Write in a journal, or use music or art as forms of release
- Stay away from people who do not understand your experience or who cannot truly hear you
- Purchase a book on birth healing
- Try not to avoid how you are feeling; it will only fester and become worse.
- Write a letter to the attending providers
- Find a safe place to scream and yell your anger out
- Recognize that it can take time to fall in love with your baby, just as it likely took time for you to fall in love with your partner or other loved ones
- When you’re ready, get your birth records to better understand your experience
- Understand that your partner may also feel powerless about the birth and need to do some processing of their own, perhaps using some of the above ideas
- Join ICAN (International Cesarean Awareness Network) or other online communities created for women healing from cesarean birth – I have also participated in Birth Justice Project; and Improving Birth.
In the healing process, we need to connect on a deeper level and search for understanding about ourselves, our bodies, our experiences, and the reason why things happen to us. Some of these suggestions might help:
- Pray. The Serenity Prayer is an excellent one for healing.
- Meditate. This can help shift your focus and help you heal.
- Read Scripture or other sacred texts.
- Begin positive affirmations. Write them down and post them on your mirror, in your car, or anywhere you might see them. Repeat them to yourself throughout the day. You have to rewrite the negative, circular emotions!
- Work on dream interpretation. A lot goes on in the unconscious mind that plays itself out at night. Going to bed with a journal that you can scribble in when you wake up helps to figure out the meaning behind some of those images.
- Turn into a birth advocate! Teach others about VBAC; become a doula, midwife, or lactation consultant. Go into nursing, or run a mom’s group for pregnant women who want to become educated about their options. When we help others, we can heal ourselves in the process. It is enormously powerful and spiritually uplifting!
Treating your body with kindness and compassion goes a long way towards healing, too:
- Get solid nutrition – cesareans deplete your body of many vitamins and minerals, so a simple blood work-up may determine any deficiencies
- Develop an exercise routine, even if it is just taking short walks with your baby. Your body can benefit greatly from even just 15 minutes outdoors
- Get a massage to get back in touch with your body, if you are comfortable doing so
- Devote a day to lay in bed with your baby. Talk to her, hug her, and nurture her. A laying on of hands will feed your baby’s soul, and yours.
- Take a postpartum yoga class
- Use Young Living oils to uplift your mood and release emotions
Here are natural tips for c-section recovery.
What about your next birth?
You may wonder if you ever want to get pregnant again. However, many women begin truly healing from a prior cesarean during a subsequent pregnancy and/or birth.
Even if your next birth doesn’t go as planned, you can know you have options like a Gentle Cesarean.
You may be in my situation – you might be done having children and have to come to terms with the fact that this simply was your experience. While it is difficult to remember when you are in the midst of grief – You made a sacrifice for the love of the baby. You deserve all the credit in the world for this.
And, most importantly, you are not alone.
My last birth
As I sit here writing this article, I am still struggling with letting myself emotionally process all of my births. Especially my most recent birth, my attempted VBAC after two prior cesareans.
After going into labor at 39 weeks on the dot, I handled contractions pretty well.
Until, over 24 hours after labor had begun in earnest, I was stalled at 5 centimeters for 12 hours.
I went to the hospital, where I was bullied and intimidated by the doctors and nurses, and told that by trying to VBAC, I would surely kill my baby. I was left to labor alone (with my husband, midwife, and doula) for over 8 hours. When I was found to still be at 5 centimeters another 12 hours of labor, I submitted to a third cesarean.
I was knocked out after the surgery, and when I finally made it into a room with my son, my uterus went hypotonic (meaning it continued to contract, without pause, for over thirty minutes).
When I was finally medicated for this, my blood pressure went down to 58/40. Once I was revived, I was left alone with my baby for the night, but only after the doctor came in and told me that I had deserved what had happened by trying to labor, and that I should not have anymore children.
The next morning, I was found to have extremely depleted blood levels, necessitating four blood transfusions. A seven centimeter hematoma was also found on my left side. I had elevated blood pressure and I was kept in the hospital for one week, and my son was released before me.
After I got home, I had uterine and vaginal infections. My scar wouldn’t heal, and the doctor had to apply silver nitrate several times to get it to close properly. The hematoma took months to go away.
And for some reason (which we are still figuring out), I have extreme nerve damage in my legs and hips, and swelling in my pubic bones. I am in daily pain, even now, 14 months after my son’s birth.
So I can tell you, without hesitation, that you are NOT ALONE. You need to be heard. Your voice matters.
You are a birth warrior
And you ARE a birth warrior. No matter what you believe about yourself, you are.
It takes a tremendous amount of strength, determination, and courage to be on that side of the surgical curtain, for the gift of life. You ARE powerful. Look at what you’ve been through, and you are still standing.
When I have low moments, the one thing that helps me is sitting with my son. My son, who broke me, is also the one who puts me back together each day. He has double dimples and a chin cleft and so much sunshine in his heart.
I can’t turn away from that. It propels me back into life, where I need to be. When I sit with my son, I think, “I would do it all again, a thousand times, to have you here.”
And that’s what birth is really all about.
How about YOU? How did you practice emotional healing after a cesarean?