Before I had my first child, I hadn't given the idea of having a c-section much thought. I was under the misguided notion that a birth plan was unwavering and something that would almost exclusively be in my control and, that like most things for which I am responsible planning, it would be executed flawlessly. So at the time, I was happily blind to the possibility of a cesarean. It turns out, there are a lot of things no one tells you about c-sections unless, of course, you ask or dig around for information or learn the hard way (like I did).
When my birth class instructor got to the part of class where she started talking about the noises one might hear in the operating room during a c-section, I laughed nervously and then proceeded to zone the you-know-what out. I later joked about the possibility of hearing those very same noises with my doctor, and she agreed that we should remain optimistic and that we would do everything possible to ensure I experienced the vaginal birth of my dreams.
I believe there are things in life that are better when left unknown, until the moment you absolutely have to experience them. I also think there are other moments when knowledge can give you power and a sense of control. When it comes to an operation like a c-section, your best bet is to go with the latter. I wish that someone back then had told me what to expect about having a c-section, so I am going to pay it forward. Warning to those who prefer to be surprised: spoiler alerts ahead.
Your Operating Table Might Look Different Than You Expect
Fun fact: the operating table they put you on during a c-section has a T-shape to it, so your arms are splayed out on either side. This limits movement during surgery so your doctor can do her (or his) thing. For me, it made me feel super vulnerable and very Jesus-on-the-cross-like. I cried and my husband held my hand and whispered over and over that everything was OK, and would continue to be OK.
I understand that the shape of a table may seem like a small thing, but when you've been picturing a scenario a certain way over and over — like the scene of a possible emergency surgery — and you've only imagined things a certain way (like with your run-of-the-mill operating table you've either experienced before or have seen on Grey's Anatomy a million times over) a strangely shaped operating table can be disorienting and shocking. So, I think this is one of those things that is important to know before you go; your arms will be outstretched and away from the rest of your body during the procedure.
You Might Feel Everything That's Happening To Your Body...
My doctor insists that she gave me the highest possible dose of the necessary medications one would be administered during a c-section, but I know that I could feel her cauterizing my insides during that surgery. When the initial trauma of the surgery had faded and we were able to laugh about it (albeit nervously, while planning for the birth of my second son), she posited that since I had been in labor for over 24 hours, it was possible that the effects of the epidural had worn off by the time I went into surgery.
This is one of the possible downsides of the emergency c-section, and one of the reasons I went for the elective c-section for my second baby, when there was some question as to whether or not my body would be able to fully dilate, and the possibility of needing another emergency c-section was relatively high. I didn't want to risk going through labor and then ending up in another emergency situation where, I might feel what I felt during my first surgery: the sensation of my insides being burned, and the searing pain of my guts being rearranged and poked and stitched. No thanks.
...But You Probably Won't Be Able to Feel Your Legs For A While
The epidural made me feel like I was The Elephant Man. My legs felt so very heavy, and though I knew that technically (due to the nature of the epidural) I couldn't feel them, I was still aware of them.
As I was being wheeled into the OR, I became fixated on the fact that my right foot was at a weird angle, and I hated the idea of having to keep my foot at that angle for the duration of the surgery. I asked one of the nurses if she could turn my foot a few degrees to set it right, but no matter what she did, it just did not feel right. I started to feel like I was about to be entombed for eternity in the most uncomfortable position imaginable, rather than laying in a very uncomfortable procedure for the next 45 minutes. I'll never forget what it felt like, though, to have my right foot feel like it weighed 500 pounds and like it was in an unnatural position that might never be corrected. The heavy leg feeling lasted a few hours when all was said and done, but I had a delicious newborn to distract me from some of the initial bodily discomforts I might otherwise have continued to fixate on.
It Is Over Faster Than You Can Imagine
From the time your doctor actually starts operating, to the time you meet your baby, it basically feels like five minutes (most procedures are ten minutes or less).
If you're willing to suspend all disbelief, it can almost feel like a cheap magician's trick. Like, your doctor is behind this big blue curtain with all her assistants, she reaches in somewhere and digs around a bit, and then poof! A baby! Is it yours? Who knows? Who cares! Ta-da!
The Worst Part Is After They Take The Baby Out
I'm sure there are other hospitals across the country that are different, but the policy at the hospital I delivered at was as follows: once the baby is out and after you've snapped a family photo of the baby on your chest with the blue curtain blocking all the stuff you can never "un-see," your partner and baby are wheeled away and you are left alone to get sewn back up. This was the worst part of the day for me.
At this point, I just wanted someone, anyone, to hold my hand. I was shaking uncontrollably from all the medicine running through my body, and I was anxious to see my newborn and ready to be out of surgery. It felt like "the putting me back together" part was taking forever, and when something involving surgery takes forever that usually means something isn't going well. "Sorry, this will just take a few more minutes," my doctor promised. "Everything OK down there?" I asked nervously. "Yeah, I just want to make sure I get this right," she said. I remember thinking not so kindly, "Damn straight you better get it right, I feel like Humpty Dumpty over here!"
Of course, I had an amazing doctor who did, indeed, get it right, but at the time I wish I had known that while the part of the surgery involving getting the baby out was short, the part where they stitched me back up would take a lot longer (like up to 45 minutes longer).
You'll Feel Like The Last One Standing In Some Weird Alternate Reality Show
Everyone who gave birth vaginally has already left and gone home because most hospital stays are 24-48 hours long. However you, c-section mama, are here for the long haul. I stayed in the hospital for five days, which in newborn time feels like an eternity. The mama with whom I shared my little hospital room had just had Baby Number Two, and got the go-ahead to jet the morning after she gave birth; leaving me all by my lonesome with no one to commiserate with in the midnight hours.
All the other moms who I'd become familiar with padding around the nursery and haunting the ice machines had gone home to start their new lives. As the new moms and babies arrived, I felt like an old timer already; like I was some kind of Senior Sorority Girl of the Maternity Ward and these were all the new rushes who just literally had like no idea.
You Could Be The Owner Of A Brand New Shelf (And No It's Not The Ikea Kind)
The first time I looked at my stomach in the mirror after my c-section, I almost threw up. What I saw was straight up indecent, like a scene from a horror show.
Standing in profile, it looked like my belly was sloping down towards some allusive, indented swollen skin area, which lead to a very swollen vagina. Straight on, the scar resembled a largemouth bass. The area around my scar was so irritated, red, and inflamed, my stomach looked like it was literally pouting at me. I furiously Googled what was happening to my body and discovered there was a clever name for this grotesque development: a c-shelf. Generally, a c-shelf is the term used to describe the bulge some women (like me) experience around their c-section incision. My c-shelf went away after both of my c-sections, but man, that is some nasty Mother Nature stuff right there.
There Will Be Blood. A Lot Of Blood.
Another c-section surprise? The fact that I still had to deal with vaginal bleeding. I thought that a c-section meant none of those ugly extra, extra large pads and granny panties for me. Yeah, I was wrong. C-section or no c-section, I still bled for six weeks. Which, I think, is ridiculously unfair.
You Will Need To Wear Special Underwear
Because of the incision site, you will want to wear underwear that doesn't chafe against your scar, so you probably will need to lay off any low cut bikini briefs for a while.
A lot of women decide to wear the mesh underwear gifted to them by the hospital (so sexy, by the way). My body, unfortunately, didn't take kindly to the hospital's brand, and broke into a terrible rash that took on the shape of the tiny squares of the mesh. It also lasted for weeks. So, yeah, bring on the granny panties, I guess.
You Might Want A Doula For Your First Number Two
I was living in my husband's grandmother's basement when we had our first son, so when it was finally time for me to "go," I happened to be home alone with the lovely woman who cleaned grandma's house every other week. I ended up having to ask her to hold my newborn while I hunkered down in the bathroom for basically a full hour, and she yelled words of support and encouragement in Polish through the bathroom door, because, ya know, the bond of motherhood transcends language.
My point is, you won't want to be alone when nature finally calls.
Postpartum Sex Will Still Hurt
You totally thought that having a c-section would mean a free pass on all kinds of things that happen to your vaginal birth sisters, right? Yeah, nope. Not true. I remember sitting in the cozy living room of one of the apartments of my Brooklyn mom group as everyone recounted their respective birth stories and how surprised we all were at how similar our postpartum symptoms were "down there," even if some of us had vastly different birth experiences.
Then we all remembered some basic scientific facts, like how our estrogen levels drop after childbirth and how breastfeeding also affects estrogen levels and we were like, "Well, therein lies the cause of the dry vagina."
That Scar Can Take More Than Six Weeks To Heal
I remember my scar feeling itchy and sore way past the six week mark. In fact, if I'm being honest, it was more like six months.
A c-section affects tissues that go deep into the body, so it is no wonder that it can (and usually does) take a long time for those internal tissues to truly heal. So, while the external scar area can look relatively "normal," the internal healing process can take a while. For both of my children, I would say I was completely "healed" in about nine months, to a year. Let the good times roll, right?