“I’ll push it out of my ear before I have a C-section,” I leaned over and whispered to my husband, who was staring blankly at the television screen at the front of the room. Missy, our childbirth educator, was explaining that approximately twenty-five percent of first-time mothers require Caesareans, so she felt it was important to cover it. “Hopefully, that means none of you,” she laughed nervously, looking around at the four couples in the room. “Hopefully, none of you will have to have one. But with that number, it means that one of you may have to.”
We had been attending the free childbirth classes at the hospital for a few weeks, and I had diligently been reading my quickly worn copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting in between visits to the certified nurse midwife at my obstetrician’s office. I’d spent more afternoons on the couch grimacing at operating room scenes on “A Baby Story” than I cared to count, and no matter how widely Missy smiled when she handed out the free diaper samples, I knew that the awful carnage on the childbirth videos was speaking to me. Deep down, I knew that the person in that room who would have to have the dreaded Caesarean was me.
Call it intuition or self-fulfilling prophecy, but my greatest fear from the moment those two little blue lines appeared on the home pregnancy test was not raising a happy, healthy, and delightful child. I wasn’t scared about being a good mother or making enough money or giving my baby a comfortable home. Instead, I was terrified that I could not physically give birth to a child and that I was doomed to die on a slab of stainless steel surrounded by strangers in masks and scrubs. Partially, I was right.
As the months passed and the winter turned to spring, I finally began to look pregnant around 6 months. One morning, I woke up and a lump roughly the size of a cantaloupe protruded from my left side. It was my baby, a daughter, I had learned, who was making her presence known to the outside world. As I stood in front of the bathroom mirror brushing my teeth, she gradually floated down towards the center of my stomach, and I looked like a normal pregnant woman. Everything had progressed normally, and she was perfect. Each month at my checkup, her size was measuring exactly on target. Her heartrate was within normal ranges. Her bone density scan showed that she had all of her body parts and zero abnormalities were detected. Blood tests and screenings all revealed textbook results: I was pregnant with a healthy baby girl.
Despite this, I could not forget that sinking feeling that kept overcoming me each night as I curled up on my side and felt my active baby perform acrobatic stunts just at the moment I began to drift off to sleep. What would happen when it was time for her to arrive? Would my water break, there in the bed? Would I go into labor at home, alone? How many hours would I push before the decision would be made to cut me open? Would I bleed to death?
“This baby’s gonna be huge,” my midwife, Ms. Stover said, peering at the in-room ultrasound. It was Wednesday, July 18th, and my daughter was due in six days. Stubborn already, she hadn’t descended into the birth canal, and she had run out of room. There was nowhere else for her to go. “She’s tucked and rolled, head down, facing the right way,” Ms. Stover said, “but she literally has no more room.” I sighed. I had come into my OB’s office for my final appointment before heading to the hospital to be induced for labor, and as I looked at the perfect round head bobbing on the fuzzy miniature screen at my side, I could see my daughter was crowded inside me.
“Here’s what we can do,” she said, snapping off her rubber gloves. “We can go ahead and send you to the hospital and induce you, but you’re going to have to have a C-section. Do you want to do that? Do you want to labor awhile, or do you want to go ahead and schedule it?”
I flashed back to all of the images from childbirth class and all of the episodes of “A Baby Story.” I imagined myself groaning in pain, pushing, sweating, and crying, and all for naught. My body was supposed to be built for this. Yet here I was, negotiating what would happen to me and my baby because it couldn’t. “Just schedule it,” I said, defeated. “If it’s going to have to be surgery, then let’s just get it over with.”
Later that afternoon, I sat in silence on the couch in my living room and watched the sun stream through the windows. I was preparing to call my husband at work and my parents, who would be coming from out-of-state to be with us when our daughter arrived. I held the phone in my hand, unsure of what to say. “Um, hi. We’re having a baby in two days. Surprise. Come on down!” My surgery was scheduled for Friday, July 20th at 8:00 a.m. “We could wait and see,” Ms. Stover had said, “but she’s just hanging out in there gaining weight and getting bigger. Best to get her out before she’s even more cramped.”
This time next week, a baby would be here. But would I?
The morning our daughter, Harper, was scheduled to be born, I sat alone on the front porch of our house and watched the sun come up behind the hill just over the next subdivision. It was quiet, but already sweltering hot. North Carolina heat in July is not kind to pregnant women. I rocked gently on my porch and wondered if it would be the last time I would sit here. Somehow, I was convinced that I would die. I had never been able to understand my fear of having surgery, only that I was afraid and could not think farther than the incision. I didn’t see anything beyond that point.
I was immediately relieved when we arrived to the operating room check-in on the maternity floor. “Your surgery has been pushed back an hour,” the receptionist said. “We had an emergency one that had to go in first.” Fine by me, I thought. I’ll wait all day. So, I sat inside my makeshift room on a table surrounded by hanging curtains and listened to the thump-thump-thump of my daughter’s heart echoing throughout the hall. Family members came in to tell me I looked good, that they were excited for me, that they would be praying for me, and wishing me well. I smiled, and thanked them, and told no one that I was terrified. Not even my husband knew that while I sat entertaining visitors, I was watching the clock and dreading the moment that I would be next. Nobody knew how scared I was. I hadn’t told a soul.
The jovial Jamaican anesthesiologist wearing chili pepper-printed scrubs was the first one to find out. “Cul up,” he told me. “Cul up like a cat. Ach ya back like ya ah a shrimp.” He had come to administer my spinal block. It was just me, him, and my nurse. I had been moved into the OR now, and I could hear a team of busy people assembling various metal parts and items on wheels. The sound swelled in my ears to a deafening roar. I could barely focus on his words. “Ah ya hearin’ me? Like a shrimp.” I shook my head, yes, that I was hearing him, but no words came out. I could not arch my back like a shrimp. I could only stare ahead and cry. Within minutes, I was having a full-blown panic attack. Would the spinal anesthetic paralyze me? Would I arch my back like a shrimp and the needle would go into the wrong place? I’d never walk again. What if I was one of the .001% of people who had a fatal reaction to the drug?
“Look at me. Look at me. Look right here, in my eyes,” a nurse said. Her dark brown eyes peered over the top of her blue facemask. “Just look at me. I know you’re afraid. It’s okay to be afraid, but just keep looking at me.”
“Like a shrimp,” the voice boomed behind me. I crumbled, falling over towards my petite nurse and holding onto her shoulders, never moving my eyes from hers. “That’s it,” she told me. “Just like that.” I was afraid to stop looking at her, that if I did, something would happen. Before I knew it, I was flat of my back looking at bright fluorescent lights suspended from the ceiling and I couldn’t feel anything below my neck.
The next hour was a blur: I remember bright lights, the snapping of latex gloves, the beeping of monitors, the “swoosh, swoosh” sound of the vacuum that periodically cleaned my stomach, and the smell of my cauterized flesh. “Twenty-three sponges,” a faceless voice narrated, telling my nurse how many foam squares had been packed inside my abdomen. My chest hurt and I sweated a lot, and there was some laughter from what sounded like a large group I couldn’t see. I saw a purple little head appear from over the blue sheet separating me and what I perceived as a scene of carnage. “Happy Birthday,” I warbled uncertainly, and my eyes rolled back in my head just after the nurse asked me if I wanted to go to sleep.
Recovery was difficult over the next five days, but the worst was over. I no longer had to fear surgery and wonder if I would survive it, because I had done it. I did have complications afterward, including a seroma that required my incision to be re-opened and packed daily at the hospital’s wound center for almost a month after I was released.
As for my baby, she was perfect. She’ll be ten years old this summer, and her existence in my world makes all of the stress of childbearing and the trauma of surgery a worthwhile experience. I remember all of the milestones that came after surgery just like I remember the milestones of her first year of life. While my body was adjusting to everything it had been through, my baby girl was growing up. Soon, the only physical reminder of her entry into the world was a thin, grey line on my lower abdomen and the occasional cramp from scar tissue.
All through my pregnancy, I had been told that mothers forget the pain of childbirth once they hold their infants for the first time. Ten years later, I certainly haven’t forgotten the pain that I experienced as a result of my C-section, but in time, I was able to forgive it.