It's odd to admit, let alone accept, that there are more than a few things everyone thinks happen during a c-section, but don't. For a procedure that approximately 1 in 3 American mothers will undergo, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is a lot of misinformation out there about what can only be described as a common procedure. Nevertheless, these myths loom large in the popular imagination. Unfortunately, the majority of these half-truths or misunderstandings cause women an undue amount of stress, fear, or may even lead them to make decisions that aren't ultimately in their best interest.
Here's the deal with c-sections: while it's an incredibly common, very safe surgery, everyone will experience it differently, both physically and emotionally. So if a woman tells you that she had an amazing experience and was up and walking within a few hours, she is telling you the truth. If a woman tells you a c-section gave her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and she still has trouble walking weeks later, that's also true. Even a very common, safe surgery is surgery, which comes with a bevy of potential side-effects. So when a c-section mom relates her experience to you, believe her. That said, believe that her description is her experience. It does not represent all c-section experiences or, perhaps, not even a common one.
"So if everyone is telling the truth, how can there be misconceptions?" you may ask, fairly, but with a kind of smug tone in your voice that I don't like. They're misconceptions in that they are touted as across-the-board facts and, well, they just aren't. In many cases, they're not even particularly common. While there is no single c-section experience, I think it's useful to talk about what goes on (and what doesn't) under typical circumstances, as well as what is possible.
You Will Be Completely Numb From Chest To Toes
There are several different types of anesthesia that may be used during a c-section: general anesthesia, epidural anesthesia, or spinal anesthesia. What you will require will be determined by your medical team. Most c-sections, however, make use of the latter two, which means you will be wide awake for the birth of your baby.
While everyone reacts differently to anesthesia, it is not a foregone conclusion that you will be completely numb all the way down to your toes during your surgery. Perhaps this sounds scary, but it's not. In the case of my anesthesia, an epidural (stronger than the kind they give women who give birth vaginally), I could feel someone touching my toes or fingers just fine. The effects of the medication were localized to my abdomen and while I could feel some movement, I didn't feel any pain. It was seriously one of the coolest things I've ever experienced.
You Will Be Out Of It
If you wind up needing general anesthesia (usually reserved for emergency situations) you will be unconscious during delivery. Statistically speaking, though, you probably won't need general. Some people may feel a bit sleepy or loopy under the influence of a spinal or epidural, but based on my highly scientific anecdotes and internet searches for other people's anecdotes, most seem to feel basically the same except for being appropriately and physically numb.
You Will Have An Enormous Scar
Considering a c-section incision has to be large enough to accommodate a fully-formed human (albeit a tiny one), c-section scars, to the wonderment of c-section mamas everywhere, are generally remarkably small. Nowadays the most common type of incision is low and transverse, going across your lower abdomen (so low, in fact, it is often entirely covered even in a bikini, or even pubic hair). It may look massive at first, but once you're healed and the swelling has gone down you will wonder how your little one, even at their tiniest, ever fit out of there.
(Pro-tip: if you're squeamish, just don't look for a week or so, because the swelling and staples will make it look terrifying, especially in your hormonal, postpartum state.)
The Doctors Will Remove Your Guts
There are lots of stories floating around the parenting world, usually among dads, who claim to have seen their partner's organs out of their bodies during a c-section (intestines is usually the most common claim). Barring unusual circumstances, however, this doesn't happen. The only exception, of course, is the uterus, which is pulled part-way out of the incision to facilitate delivery.
You're getting a c-section, moms-to be. I promise you're not being mummified.
You Won't Feel The Baby Coming Out
If you're awak you will absolutely feel the baby coming out. It's a really intense, indescribable, incomparable feeling. There's pressure! There's suction! There's a 5-10 pound baby coming out of an incision in your abdomen! I'm sorry, I'm a writer and all but I really can't convey what that feels like in any meaningful way. That's the best I've got.
You Won't Be Able To See What's Happening
OK, yes and no. Under typical circumstances there will be a big ol' sterile sheet blocking your view. I genuinely don't think it's a nefarious move by cold, unfeeling doctors — I think it was originally conceived a courtesy to moms who don't want to see a doctor cut into their bodies (that's a bit of a mindf*ck, no?) as well as keeping the area as sterile as possible.
Still, more and more hospitals are offering the option of a "gentle c-section," during which a mother can have a clear sheet put in place so she can watch the surgery as its happening or have the doctors lower the curtain at the moment of delivery. Some hospitals are cool with it, others aren't. If you're interested, it's certainly worth talking to your doctor and the hospital about.
You Won't Be Able To Hold Your Baby For Hours
Again, this is entirely dependent upon your individual circumstances, your baby's health, and your hospital's policy. For some people, unfortunately too many, this is sadly true. This isn't an across the board fact, though. I was able to hold my son as soon as I was put back together and wheeled into recovery. Before then my husband held him to my face and we snuggled cheek to cheek.
You're Destroying Your Ability To Breastfeed
I have a 5 year old who was breastfed for a year and a half who can prove you wrong! While a c-section may present some challenges of varying difficulty to your breastfeeding game, it absolutely doesn't irrevocably sabotage you as a matter of course. Lots of c-section moms go on to nurse their babies, and no matter how one gives birth, there will likely be unavoidable breastfeeding challenges along the way.
You've Given Up On The Chance Of Ever Giving Birth Vaginally
Most women who have a c-section are still good candidates to give birth vaginally in the future, if that's what they want. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states:
"Most women with one previous cesarean delivery with a low-transverse incision are candidates for and should be counseled about VBAC [vaginal birth after cesarean] and offered a TOLAC [trial of labor after cesarean]. In addition, the College guidelines now clearly say that women with two previous low-transverse cesarean incisions, women carrying twins, and women with an unknown type of uterine scar are considered appropriate candidates for a TOLAC ... Approximately 60-80% of appropriate candidates who attempt VBAC will be successful."
And if you don't want to do that? A-OK! That's totally fine, too, but the point is there is usually a choice to make.
You Won't Be Able To Bond
People extol the virtues of immediate skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding, and with good reason. They have proven benefits to mom and baby. Bad news for c-section moms, many think, who may not have this opportunity. Well, for one, you may indeed have this opportunity, depending on your hospital. If you don't, please be assured that this isn't the only way to bond with your baby. Fortunately, the vast majority of that is going to be done in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.