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The dull ache of period cramps. The flicker-burble of a baby kicking inside your distended belly. The taut fullness of a milk-filled breast. That ahhh feeling while unhooking your bra after a long day. Four uniquely female experiences, and at 39, having had two kids, I’ve had each one.
But there’s one major experience I’ll never have, and that’s childbirth. I’ve had two C-sections so yes, technically, I have given birth to two children, but the actual process of escalating contractions, of pushing harder than you ever thought you could, of having a tiny human being come out of your body? Now that both girls are here, our family is complete, and unless I lose my mind—and my birth control pill— it’s the final frontier I’ll never get to cross.
It wasn’t something I planned. Both of my girls were born via emergency C-sections, each one a frantic rush to the OR after troubling fetal heart-rate decelerations very early in labor coupled with plummeting amniotic fluids. Yes, I am sort of thankful that both surgeries were not prefaced by lengthy and unsuccessful attempts to labor and deliver naturally—which could have compounded the exhaustion post-C-section. And I’ve had numerous friends tell me that despite having had to endure the post-op pain and scarring of a C-section, I should be grateful for the preservation of my delicate lady parts, as it were.
And yet, I feel somehow cheated. Like I still haven’t joined the club of ‘real’ women who have labored and delivered old-school style. Like I’ve missed out on something—however painful and horrible it might have been—that could have been amazing beyond measure, and fantastically eye-opening. Whenever I wince in pain, I actually wonder: is this what childbirth feels like? Or is this just a tenth of the pain?
My unsatisfied curiosity and sort of deranged FOMO apparently aren’t unusual, says Rebecca Amirault, CNM, a midwife in San Francisco with St. Luke’s Women’s Center. “I’ve noticed that many women feel this way and, like you, it’s not that they are wishing they had the pain of labor, per se, but that they’re amazed by the process and are still just so curious. Even for moms who have adopted their kids, they often wonder what it was like to feel baby move and grow inside them. After my first child was born via C-section I felt a bit bummed. Thankfully, my second child I was able to deliver vaginally.”
Carmit Archibald, MD, an ob/gyn in private practice in New York City had a similar experience. “I had a C-section, and at the time felt that I had been deprived of an experience. Having seen so many deliveries amplified my ‘jealousy’ because I knew in a concrete sense what I was ‘missing out’ on.” On the other hand, access to a surgical delivery is a privilege, notes Archibald, and one that probably saved my babies’ lives. “That’s the doctor part of me saying that. The patient part of me totally gets it.”
Unfortunately, with a U.S. C-section rate that’s about 30% these days, Amirault thinks that feeling disconnected from the birth experience is becoming more common. There are physical aspects and emotional aspects you miss out on when you have a C-section.
Indeed, after both of my daughters’ births, there were no beatific new-mama photos, at least not early on. There was no placing of a warm baby on my chest so I could count fingers, toes or eyelashes; no surge of oxytocin (aka “the love hormone”); I don’t know what a seconds-old baby smells like. Both girls were whisked away, and, for various reasons, we weren’t reunited until much later. While I feel no less a mother, and no less in love with each little girl, I do long for those moments I never had.
So where do I go from here? Am I doomed to watch “Call the Midwife” forever? After all, there’s simply no Childbirth Simulation machine or Virtual Birth app out there (yet!). “There’s no secondary experience to go through if the real-deal doesn’t happen for you,” agrees Archibald.
Here’s the thing. You don’t always get everything you want. You can’t know everything. And what I do have and what I do know is this—and I realize these things every moment of every day—I have two healthy, feisty little girls, children who are so very much more than how exactly they got here.