TW: This blog post contains detailed descriptions of an unplanned c-section, breastfeeding, maternal bonding, and adoption.
It’s taken me a long time to sit down and write this, and as I do so, I find myself flooded with emotions and moments I have honestly tried to push aside during the past two and a half months.
I am thankful and relieved that both Clara and I are healthy and doing well now, but my initial beginning of becoming a mother to her while she was earthside, was quite frankly, traumatic.
“Your birth plan is the best kind of plan!” my OB said when I showed her my completed hospital paperwork at our 38 week checkup.
My plan was simple. Go in, and have a baby by doing whatever was medically necessary to make sure that both the baby and I were safe. I didn’t want any narcotics because I have always struggled with nausea and didn’t want to add that to the mix, but I was sure to say, “make sure you give me that last call for an epidural if I haven’t asked for one yet!”
We planned for a vaginal birth, but we were under no disillusion that, like with any planned vaginal birth, there was a chance we could end up having a c-section. We knew that those chances went up when we elected to be induced on my due date instead of playing the “wait and see” game since there were no available c-section slots until I would be nearly 42 weeks.
But we were still primarily focused on a vaginal birth. We took all of the birthing classes through the hospital during the pregnancy –over 12 hours worth of birthing classes– and I felt confident that I knew what to expect during labor and delivery. I practiced my breathing and meditation skills for months, I knew which positions I liked on the birthing ball, and I had a pretty good idea of how much pain I was willing to tolerate before I said, “I’ll take that epidural now!”
Going into the hospital at 4pm on Sunday afternoon, we were both excited, and maybe a little bit nervous, but more importantly, I was feeling confident.
I knew that the induction was likely going to be a long road because I was pretty certain my body hadn’t made any progress whatsoever on its own at that point–and I was right.
When we got up to our room, the midwife came in to check me and I was 0/0. 0cm dilated and 0% effaced. The shop was fully closed. But, she opted to try and insert a foley bulb to get things moving anyways.
For those who don’t know, a foley bulb is a little balloon that is inserted past the cervix and is then inflated with about 40ccs of liquid to manually dilate you. AKA–pry the doors open. In my mind, it is supposed to work like a medical crowbar.
But here’s the thing–if you’ve ever tried to pry open a door with a crowbar, you know that it goes far more smoothly when the door is just at least a teensy bit ajar already because you need a space to get the crowbar in.
Because of my 0/0 status, nothing was ajar.
“Well, we will just try a couple times and see if we can get it up in there,” she said. “Let me know if you can’t take anymore, and we’ll stop and try something else.”
And so began the foreshadowing of the rest of the journey to come.
It took her three tries to get it in, and each one was more painful than the last. I did my breathing exercises and tried to focus to stay relaxed, but my God did it hurt. I was about to say, “stop!” when she finally had success and said it was in place.
Once the balloon was inflated, it was a waiting game. Although I was allowed to get up and walk, the foley was so uncomfortable that all I wanted to do was sit in bed and not move.
The bulb stayed in all night, and at around 4am the nurse came in. She checked and saw that I was only 1cm dilated, so by 4:30am we had started me on pitocin.
Once the pitocin was started, I was completely tethered to the bed for monitoring. Not to mention the contractions started. At first, they felt like minor period cramps –which wasn’t really a big deal because I have a history of extraordinarily painful cramps. But man did they ramp up. Within a few hours I was really needing to rely on my breathing to get through them, but I told myself it was still manageable.
Around 10am I was still only about 2cm dilated and was getting tired. The foley still hadn’t fallen out yet (it does around 4cm), and both the nurse and my OB started suggesting I get an epidural to help me relax and dilate further.
At this point, I was starting to get nervous because my OB was only on call until 6pm that night. After that point, another OB –a male, whom I’d never met, was on call until around 7am Tuesday morning before my OB came back. While I knew it wasn’t the end of the world if I needed to deliver with a different OB, it was still something that caused me a lot of anxiety, so I was hoping that things would really start moving along.
At 10:30am the anesthesiologist came in to administer my epidural. His name was Scott, and he was wonderful. He talked me through what he was going to do and tried to set my mind at ease. By this point my contractions on the monitor were beyond intense and I was having a difficult time staying still while he administered the epidural. It took him two tries, but he was able to place it.
Initially the epidural only worked on my left side, so they did the age old trick of turning me on my side to let gravity help send the medicine down to my right. It worked somewhat, but not completely. However, after about an hour, I had dilated to 4cm, the bulb fell out, and the nurse and my OB came in to break my water.
When my OB broke my water, she checked to see Clara’s positioning. Clara was head down–just like she had been at every single OB appointment for the past 2 months. Just like she had been when the midwife checked at my admittance. Just like she had been for literally every single check since we’d been in the hospital. Can you see where this is going?
20-30 minutes later, the nurse came back in to check my progress. She inserted her hand, paused, and said, “I think I feel a hand.”
“I’m sorry, what?” was my reaction.
Sensing my shock and anxiety spike, she said, “Let me go get Dr. B to double check.”
So in came my OB, and in went her hand to check. She didn’t say anything except for, “Well… let me go get the ultrasound.”
At this point, I had a bad feeling. And sure enough, when she came back and used the ultrasound, the words out of her mouth were, “Well–I’ll be damned.”
Somehow, in some way, Clara had managed to flip completely breech in the half hour since they came in to break my water. This was something I never saw coming.
For as shocked as Daniel and I were, I don’t think anyone was more shocked than my OB. Apparently it is really rare for a baby to be able to flip after the water has been broken because there’s just less space to move. But, Clara was clearly already showing us her “personality.”
I knew what this meant. I knew it meant we were going to have a c-section. And all of a sudden tears just started flowing. My OB was so sweet and stayed with me while I tried to process. She assured me it would be ok, and she asked if I had any questions.
“I’m just concerned about the recovery,” I said. We have no family out here in Colorado; everyone is on the East coast and at the time, we didn’t have anyone set up to come and help us immediately postpartum because both of our moms live in South Carolina and Florida where Covid was still a major concern. We also hadn’t really made friends since moving either because Covid really kept us isolated. The thought of trying to recover from surgery with a newborn and literally no support was overwhelming.
My other concern was my nausea. I had heard that some women get nauseous during c-sections, and I feared I was a prime candidate, but I was told that there were medicines they could administer to help. I felt a little bit better.
“So, we should plan on having the c-section later tonight?” Daniel asked.
“Oh, no! As soon as the nurse comes back with scrubs for you, Dad, and once Scott comes in, we’ll be ready to go!”
Not even 15 minutes later, Daniel was handed his scrubs and was having two cartons of apple juice thrust in his face.
“You need to drink these. Right now.,” the nurse said with kind assertiveness. It was very clear that they had lots of experience and practice making sure unsuspecting fathers didn’t pass out on the OR floor during the procedure.
The next three hours were a horrific blur.
As soon as we got into the OR and I was transferred from my bed to the table, my blood pressure dropped and with it came intense nausea. We told Scott and he tweaked something to help take the edge off. He also needed to boost up my epidural because I was still having feeling on my right side.
Once I was completely numbed up, they started.
It is really hard to explain what a c-section feels like, but I was not prepared. Sure, I knew procedurally what was going to happen; they would make a lateral incision, I’d feel some pressure and tugging while they got the baby out, and then they would stitch me up while I was able to do skin to skin if all was well. The whole thing would be 45 minutes to an hour.
Well, that’s not exactly what happened.
While “pressure and tugging” are technically correct terms for what you feel, they do not convey the intensity with which they are felt. There is a very indescribable feeling that I got on that OR table as they were trying to get the baby out, and while I don’t use these terms lightly, it really felt like violation or assault.
To not be able to see what is going on, and to be completely pinned down while you feel someone’s hands yanking, pulling, and pressing on your abdomen and insides makes you acutely aware of how vulnerable you are.
To add to this, my nausea came back full force and I started vomiting.
Daniel sat next to me holding the medical barf bag as I threw up time and time again.
My OB had Clara out within about 10 minutes, but it already felt like hours. I heard her cry, they held her up over the drape so I could see her, and they took her to the warming table for cleanup and wrapping.
They brought her over and we took our first family picture, but I honestly don’t even remember doing so. I do remember the nurse trying to lay her on my chest afterwards and me frantically saying, “you need to take her! Move her! I’m going to throw up again!”
I wish I could say that in the moment I felt joy and elation, but in reality I just felt panic and misery.
When they started to close, the nausea became unbearable. I was still vomiting, and they were having issues closing because my uterus was not contracting appropriately.
While Daniel was able to step away to cut the cord, he told the nurse it was okay if she took Clara back to our room to get her vaccines and be evaluated because at this point I was nearly hysterical.
It took the team nearly two hours to close.
The entire time I continued to vomit bile, smell the cauterization of my own flesh, and experience excruciating headaches. It just felt like I was having a terrifying out of body experience. I was shaking and remember moaning and crying, asking how much longer it was going to take because I felt like I was going to die.
Those two hours were agonizing. I physically felt like crap, but emotionally I was a mess as well.
Even in the midst of all the chaos, my worries and guilt about motherhood in connection to my adoption reared their ugly heads.I already had concerns before she was born about being able to bond with Clara because of my own adoption trauma. I had already been anxious about whether or not I would feel a sense of overwhelming love and connection when I saw her for the first time –and here I was, laying splayed out on an operating table, and the first words she heard me say were, “you need to take her away.” Additionally, knowing that she was in a room alone in her first moments of life because I didn’t want Daniel to leave my side, had me feeling terribly guilty.
That guilt only intensified post-op.
In the last half hour or so of the c-section, Scott finally administered “the heavy stuff” to basically knock me out. While I was thankful in the moment to finally get some relief (even if it meant being totally incoherent), once we were back in our room with Clara, I saw the downside of those drugs.
I have little to no memory of those first 24 hours with her, and I was pretty much unable to care for her as well.
It took all of my strength and focus to feel like I could see straight, and I struggled to be able to form coherent sentences because I was in such a fog. I know that I held her, but only because we have pictures, and while I am smiling in them, I genuinely have no recollection. What I do remember is drowsily waking up periodically before slipping back into sleep, opening my eyes, and seeing Daniel across the room, holding and rocking her while looking exhausted.
Although the fog wore off the next day, I was still struggling. I was still so exhausted and had so many emotions.
I didn’t feel like I had any feelings towards her. I would hold her and wait–wait for that flood of emotion and awe that I thought I was supposed to have, and it didn’t come. What came instead was overwhelming worry that I wasn’t ever going to feel something towards her, frustration that I couldn’t get out of bed to change or swaddle her, inadequacy because we had to use donor milk to feed her, and some bitterness and resentment that Daniel seemed to be bonding with her faster and more easily than I was.
By the time we were discharged to go home, my spirits were a little bit brighter. At the very least we had arranged for my mom to fly in and help me with my own physical recovery, so we knew we had some support in the house. We also had a good system worked out for feeding using donor milk and the SNS system to encourage her latch and hopefully stimulate my own milk production, and by the time we got home, I was able to independently stand and walk around the house to assist with diaper changes and such.
While the feelings of guilt and emotions tied to being an adoptee entering motherhood continued to be an undercurrent, they were more manageable and suppressed by the overall consuming job of keeping a new tiny human alive.
As I sit here now, two and a half months out, those first few days feel like an eternity ago. Clara and I have an incredibly close bond, and I love being her mother. She is no worse for wear due to the way in which she entered the world, and rationally, I know that she won’t consciously remember those moments or perceive them as traumatically as I do.
I am not embarrassed or ashamed by my labor and delivery story, or by any of the emotions I experienced during them, but I’m not happy about them either, and that’s ok.
I know that like so many other things in my life, that grieving is a process. It’s ok to mourn the fact that although I was open to having a c-section, I didn’t get the birth experience I wanted or planned for. It’s also ok to mourn the loss of having the first moments and days of Clara’s life with me not go the way I wanted either.
Becoming a mother means holding so much love and joy, but it also means holding space for grief and sadness, and there is fierce maternal strength in doing so.