My C-Section Was the Happiest Moment of My Life

Moms are often made to feel ashamed of having a surgical delivery, but I wouldn’t trade my daughter’s birth for the world.

Credit...via Thalia Mostow Bruehl

This story was originally published on Sept. 24, 2019 in NYT Parenting.

My daughter loves when I tell the story of her birth. She asks to hear it on her birthday and when we’re looking at her baby pictures. Often, when she’s ill or has had a hard day at school, she’ll ask me to tell it, sometimes twice in a row. There’s one line I always make sure to say the same way — it’s her favorite part: “And then Daddy brought you over to meet me, I kissed you, and he put us cheek to cheek.”

“Cheek to cheek,” she repeats.

When I tell the story, I start by explaining that on the day her dad and I first heard her heartbeat, the doctor picked out Feb. 19 for her birthday. I’d had two hip surgeries previously, and because of a combination of osteoarthritis, hypermobility and chronic injuries, I knew even before I became pregnant that I would need a cesarean section. My daughter is very familiar with my disability; she’s witnessed the ways it’s limited me for her entire life, so when I tell the story I don’t focus on how hard it was for me to carry her in my body, or the bed rest necessary to keep my pain under control. Too many details can bury a 5-year-old, who really just wants to hear the part where she appears. Instead, I jump ahead and tell my daughter that the night before she was born I stayed up late and painted my fingernails navy blue.

[Read our guide on what to expect from a cesarean section.]

Every time I tell the story, I want to get the actual birth exactly right, to draw a picture of a moment so beautiful that her heart feels as full hearing it as mine does telling it. When I explain that the doctor had to make a cut in my lower abdomen and pull her out while I lay on an operating table, I don’t want her to correlate that experience with the two hip surgeries I’ve had since she was born, because it wasn’t at all like those; nor was it like the two surgeries before — it wasn’t scary or lonely. My C-section was the most romantic moment of my life. Better than my engagement, wedding or honeymoon.

My husband appeared in the operating room not long after I realized that my entire lower half was numb, and after taking a seat beside me, and my hand in his, we barely spoke. We simply stared at each other under the bright and unnatural hospital lights. We cried. We kissed. He stroked the tiny bit of hair on my forehead that had escaped the required hairnet. And as I felt my insides being rearranged, the pressure heavy, everything so crammed, I also felt more love, trust and connection between my husband and me than I ever had before.

Credit...via Thalia Mostow Bruehl

The procedure itself was quick, and then came a siren scream; my daughter had entered the world. This is where the story finally gets good for her, and her face animates accordingly when I tell it, all smiles and giggles, life so bright in her eyes. I tell her how much my arms ached for her, but since I was strapped down, I sent her dad to get to her as quickly as possible. As the doctor stapled me up, my husband reported her APGAR score from across the room. He yelled out her height and weight. She was as healthy as could be.

Birth stories might be the most important ones we’ll share. They become the prologue to our lives, and may be the only time parents and their children have equal billing — the starring role belongs to them both. These stories are among the first things new moms reveal about themselves upon meeting one another. I have listened to dozens of birth stories from women over the years, but I have yet to hear another C-section story told without a twinge of disappointment in the mother’s tone. Sometimes it’s not subtle; sometimes the suffering is on full display, the feeling of failure weighing heavy.

There are endless ways our culture tells women we should be insecure about our bodies, with C-sections written in permanent marker near the top of that list. Before I became a chronic pain patient, I watched “The Business of Being Born,” Ricki Lake’s popular 2008 documentary about the benefits of midwife-assisted birth. I imagined myself floating in a birthing tub, experiencing this rite of passage, this moment of true womanhood, because according to the film, anything less could be considered a total lack of respect for your own body.

The documentary likens scheduled C-sections to plastic surgery, referring to them in one scene as “designer births.” The film blurs the line between elective and medically indicated cesareans at times, and even goes so far as to compare medical interventions during delivery with the horrors that resulted from mothers taking the drug thalidomide. The idea that C-sections are a selfish choice and likely to ruin your earliest opportunity to connect to your child was echoed in some of the books I read on breastfeeding and in the birthing class my husband and I attended. There are only two options presented in these narratives: the triumph of vaginal delivery (and the bragging rights that go with it) or the scaring defeat of a cesarean.

But C-sections aren’t rare. Close to 32 percent of all babies in the United States are delivered by C-section, and almost 30 million C-sections were done worldwide in 2015, not to mention that the procedure has been performed successfully for more than 500 years. And yet women still seem ashamed to have given birth this way.

Many C-sections are truly traumatic: The procedure can come with a higher risk of complications and has been correlated with lower rates of breastfeeding (though, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfeeding issues are most likely due to stress or other external factors rather than the procedure itself). Delivery method ultimately has little effect on a mother’s ability to breastfeed her baby, according to the A.A.P. Prioritizing skin-to-skin contact within 30 minutes of a C-section, if possible, and attempting breastfeeding within an hour of delivery greatly increase the rates of success. Both certainly made a difference for me — I held my daughter before leaving the operating room. As soon as I was wheeled into recovery, she latched onto my breast, where she basically stayed for the next two and a half years, further cementing our bond. (I recognize our luck; many moms work tirelessly to establish a connection with their babies while struggling to breastfeed.)

I have deep respect for the women who will, unfortunately, forever link fear and grief to what is supposed to be the most brilliant day of their lives. But what about the rest of us? How many women would feel let down by their bodies if they hadn’t been told they should feel that way? It shouldn’t be considered bold to say your C-section was joyful, to admit to feeling empowered instead of disheartened. I share my story with pride and look forward to a time when more stories like mine are told freely, without shame.

I had the exact birth I wanted. My daughter making her entrance in an operating suite, instead of at home alongside a midwife or even in a hospital’s birthing room, didn’t take away from that. And though my daughter may not actually remember the moment my husband put us cheek to cheek, as she claims she does, we both recognize that our attachment to each other was cemented in that instant. Her birth story is first and foremost a love story, the greatest one I’ll ever tell.

[For more on birth, read our pieces on what to do when birth doesn’t match your expectations and how to advocate for yourself in the delivery room.]

Thalia Mostow Bruehl is a writer and mother who is working on a memoir about her experiences as a chronic pain patient.