I remember the chill of the operating room, the glare of the lights, and the shadow of green robes moving in and out of my field of vision. My midwife reached for my hand as the anesthesiologist waited for the lull between contractions to insert the spinal tap. Next, my husband was by my side relaying every surgical step to me as he witnessed it over the canopy that separated us from my looming belly. I focused on his voice and let his words wash over me. At last, they showed us our baby—wet and wriggly, screaming with new life. I marvelled at the way he glowed in the room, his anatomical perfection.
The new love I felt flowed through a difficult recovery. First, there was the immediate separation while I regained mobility in my lower body. I remember waiting in the recovery room wondering how my baby was and where he was while nurses gossiped in the other room. When we were reunited, I fumbled to find positions to nurse him without putting any weight on my tender abdomen. In shock, I discovered I was unable to burp, change, or even carry my baby. It took two days before I could walk or use the bathroom unassisted, five days until I felt strong enough to go home.
I was not prepared for this. I had wished for an empowering and natural birth. In my birth plan, I had requested the freedom to move, the use of the birthing tub, and no drugs. Instead, I was immobilized on my back from the moment I was admitted to the hospital. First came the fetal monitor belt on my belly, then an internal monitor on my baby’s scalp, and eventually a catheter and an IV. I became my own nightmare image of a pinned-down butterfly tangled in tubes and surrounded by beeping medical equipment. Using the bath or shower to ease my pain during labour was out of the question, and for days after his birth, my skin itched from the morphine.
I had tried to surrender to whatever birth experience was meant to be mine. Secretly, I’d hoped that caesareans were a reality other women experienced. I was well informed on the growing rate of caesareans and the surgical procedure itself, but had read nothing on the emotional or physical aftermath of this major operation. Even my prenatal classes did not cover the facets of trauma I experienced postpartum.
The reason for a caesarean on the chart reads “fetal distress and failure to progress.” After six hours of active labour, I had only dilated 2 cm, and the fetal heart monitor had shown a dropping rate and arrested heartbeat throughout my contractions. This had made everyone, including the midwives, worry. When my son was born he had the cord around his neck and had been difficult to extract even by the hands of the surgeon. My pelvis shone with blue bruising for days where my son’s head had been lodged. But could he have been fine without intervention? Could I have avoided a caesarean? Had I insisted, could I have had the natural birth I dreamed of?
When I became pregnant three years later, I hoped and prayed for a different birth experience. Something inside of me had hardened. I wanted more control over the destiny of my labour. By the end of my pregnancy, I had read enough on VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) to make me an expert. I wanted to heal the past and I was convinced that, if anything, a VBAC could do that. My last weeks of nesting were dedicated to preparing for the ultimate birth, the birth that would be everything the first one wasn’t. I visualized birthing the baby vaginally, created a collage of empowering pictures to look at, and put together a bag of essential oils, concoctions, books, and tools to assist me in my labour. I was ready to experience the most painful and powerful experience of my life.
At 40 weeks, I awoke in the night to my water breaking. I was nervous and excited. I knew there was a 95% chance labour would begin 24 hours after the rupture of the membranes. Two days later, my labour had not yet commenced. With the wonderful support of my husband and midwife, I tried everything I could to get things going naturally. I went for long walks, pressed on acupressure points, drank a castor oil cocktail, and went for an aggressive treatment of acupuncture for induction. At home, I busied my three-year-old with activities we could do together in preparation for the big arrival. The smell of chocolate birthday cake filled our house and a litre of homemade labour-aide (energy drink) sat ready on the counter. Patiently, and repeatedly, I affirmed that the baby would be coming soon.
As time elapsed, everyone was growing uneasy. My mental commitment to a natural birth had stopped me from truly considering the impending possibility of a second caesarean birth. Though my midwife affirmed that the power of decisions always lay in my hands, she also explained the risks of infection involved with prolonged ruptured membranes. The obstetrician pushed for immediate intervention. The longer I waited, the higher the risks. I bargained for more time. We agreed to give it one more night and pray for strong labour to wake me. Otherwise, surgery would be booked for early the next morning.
That night under the glow of the moon my husband and I went for a walk and let go of our last unspoken fears and hopes. I made peace with tomorrow but prayed for a miracle in the night. I awoke in the morning to the sound of my alarm. In a calm and surreal state, we drove to the hospital, stars hanging above.
In the operating room, I was greeted by an array of twinkling eyes above white masks. My midwife wrapped me in a warm towel. This time, instead of reporting on the procedure, my husband crouched down and looked me in the eyes. Together we breathed in unison throughout the surgery. In that silence, I loved him deeply. When our boy came out, his father cut the cord and they brought him to us. I pressed his cheek to mine and nuzzled his softness. I felt joy, relief, and love wash over us. In the background, upbeat music was playing and light conversation bubbled around us. Our baby was here. I felt insurmountable gratitude and relief.
My recovery was unbelievably smooth. The next day, I was able to walk slowly to the shower and after 48 hours, I dressed my little love in a new white outfit and went home. This time, there was no room for speculation or regret for needing medical intervention. When the midwife examined the placenta, she discovered that the umbilical cord was not attached but that thin, veiny membranes had precariously attached themselves to the amniotic sac. For the first time in her twenty years of midwifery, she was unable to extract enough cord blood for a routine blood test. My midwife told me that when she saw the placenta, she both gasped and sighed with relief. Had my labour been long or stressful and the fragile cords detached, my baby would have had a mere three minutes to come out alive. Even a caesarean could not have saved him.
My birth collage hangs above me and the words, “my body is wise and knows what to do” stare back at me. I had read those words as a mantra to help me believe in my power as a woman to labour vaginally. But this baby and this body of mine had all the wisdom of the universe to not go into labour, but to wait patiently until skilled hands could assist. I was sure it would take a VBAC to heal the past, but ironically, it was this second caesarean that taught me the lessons I needed to learn. My scar tells the story of love, sacrifice, and surrender. Twice over.
Rayya Liebich is an award-winning Canadian poet of Lebanese and Polish descent. Passionate about writing as a tool for transformation, she teaches creative writing classes to youth and adults in beautiful Nelson, British Columbia. She is the winner of the Richard Carver Award for Emerging Writers (2019), The Golden Grassroots Chapbook Award (2015), and The Geneva Literary Awards (2015). Her debut full-length poetry manuscript Min Hayati, has just been released by Inanna Publications and Education Inc. (Toronto, 2021). https://www.rayyaliebich.com
Don't miss the virtual Birth Sharing Circle 2021 on Zoom on October 30th at 2 p.m. (EST) Come meet the winning writers, including Rayya, who will share their birth and writing experiences. Many of the jurors and readers will be there too! It will be a unique heartwarming event! Tickets are available on Eventbrite by donation.