We plan for and envision our birth experience, reading everything we can get our hands on to prepare. We picture who will be by our side, how we will cope, what support we would like and we feel fearful, excited or both. But for many women, reality does not quite play out as planned, and medical intervention including C-section are common. Many C-sections are planned and positively chosen and for some, even emergency intervention is simply welcomed and gratefully accepted. But others feel failure or shame around their imagined inability to ‘perform’ at labour and childbirth in the way they expected.
Neither of my birthing experiences turned out at all the way I had planned. I was a strong 34-year-old personal trainer when I gave birth to my daughter in 2005. The final hours of a 28-hour labour involved emergency medical intervention, which left me fading in and out of consciousness, haemorrhaging. I was told that the surgeon had been ‘up to his elbows’ in my body and in my blood. It wasn’t a good image. I was completely rocked, saddened and bitter that my preparation, fitness and strength seemed to have counted for nothing. I was determined that with my second child I would ‘do it right’ but my second labour two years later brought me closer than ever to losing my life. I haemorrhaged again, this time much more acutely. Had it not been for the paramedics urging me to stay conscious as I was flown by helicopter to a larger hospital, and the work of surgeons on the day, I wouldn’t be here at all. Eternally grateful as I feel now, at the time I simply felt weak and broken, like my body had failed me again.
Whether due to emergency C-section or other intervention, I too experienced the belief that my body had let me down, that it hadn’t achieved what was supposed to be intuitive and natural. I felt as though I could no longer trust my body, as though it had deserted me when I needed it most. As a fit and strong personal trainer dedicated to self-care and respect for our bodies’ abilities and strengths, I utterly disconnected. I neither trusted nor loved my body and faced a long road of not only physical recovery, but also mental health issues and rebuilding self-esteem. This is why I connect so deeply to the stories of women who feel any sense of ‘shame’ around birth that is medicalised or traumatic.
Feeling out of control and fearful is not uncommon for women looking back on their birthing experiences. Former Love Island winner Dani Dyer recently bravely opened up - sharing that she cried about her caesarean because it was never what she had planned. She felt an acute sense of failure because her reality was so different to her planned natural birth, because she was too exhausted to push.
I don’t know Dani, but I’d want her to know that regardless of how it happens, giving birth is hard, and our bodies are strong and powerful. When intervention is necessary, when trauma occurs, then we are survivors, not failures.
So, what can we do to ease C-section guilt?
C-sections are common, and not always a ‘plan-b’ or last resort. C-section can be a positive and conscious choice and may be the medically safest option for a multitude of reasons or circumstances. Around 1 in 4 births in the UK are by caesarean, and in the US this figure is higher. C-section birth is ‘normal’ and safe, it can be calm and positive just as any other experience. Extreme anxiety is often the result of feeling uninformed and scared, so talking about the possibility of a C-section scenario beforehand may help.
If your C-section wasn’t planned, and especially if performed in an emergency situation, it can feel fearful and disempowering. Know that this is your journey, your story. Give yourself time and grace, and consider yourself a strong and powerful survivor, never a ‘failure’. However our births go, the people around us can make all the difference. A C-section can be a calm, quiet and reassuring experience with a great team. We all remember the caregivers who made us feel safe, cared for and informed, just as we may remember the ones who were rushed or brusque. Birth partners or a Doula can be a great comfort, advocating for you, asking questions or simply being there, holding and reassuring you.
It’s okay not to be okay and pretending you’re okay is not okay.
‘Mother’s guilt’, feelings of judgement and shame extend beyond birth - whether or not we breastfeed, how we parent, how our body appears to have ‘bounced back’, whether or how quickly we return to jobs or careers. The multiple ways we can be perceived to fail feel endless and exhausting.
C-section recovery takes time, nourishment and gentle rehabilitation. It is major surgery and its routine status shouldn’t diminish the physical trauma and need for recovery and care. Breathing exercises and techniques such as MUTU System to restore core muscle connection and engagement are vital. Hydration, good nutrition and daily gentle exercise such as walking to encourage circulation and healing will all help.
Women may continue to endure symptoms such as incontinence, back pain or painful sex believing them to be inevitable consequences of motherhood. It’s as if these issues are further signs that we have simply ‘failed’ at birthing, mothering, or achieving a so-called acceptable or perfect body. Please know that these symptoms can absolutely be addressed and that you deserve function, dignity and pleasure in your own body.
Speaking up and seeking support is so important. Every woman deserves to feel confident and strong in her body, to feel empowered not weak, and to know that however she gave birth, she did good. There are platforms out there which are ready to help you at every step of your journey.
Whether you’re a mother who gave birth by unplanned caesarean, you experienced trauma or intervention, or you’re pregnant and undecided or fearful about birth, or even Dani Dyer herself, I’d like you to know that you are Warriors. This is your story, so be proud of your incredible achievement.
Wendy Powell is the founder of MUTU System, a medically-recommended, digital-specialist core and pelvic floor programme for all mothers, which has been approved by the NHS Apps library. She is also the founder of the #ByMySide movement, a campaign which raises the importance of birthing partners and support for mothers.
More information on the MUTU System programme and membership can be found here.