The concept of “gentle” C-sections has been making the news lately. (Well, actually, I think it was making the news rounds back in March, but a friend recently brought it to my attention again. They’ve been available in some hospitals for several years.) In a nutshell, a gentle cesarean means allowing the mom to watch her child’s emergence, then laying the baby immediately on the mother’s chest. The newborn thus gets immediate skin-to-skin contact, just as is recommended after a vaginal birth.
I think this is a great idea. It wasn’t offered to us as an option for Little Boy’s birth, but we didn’t ask, either. As it turned out, I was in no condition during my C-section to appreciate such a thing. All my energy was focused on surviving the pain (don’t worry, that’s not normal). Instead, Little Boy received nearly an hour of skin-to-skin time with his father before being brought to me for his first attempt at nursing. It was wonderful.
However, I am seriously annoyed with the conversation in the media. Take this NPR article, for instance, titled “The Gentle Cesarean: More Like A Birth Than An Operation.” Wait, what? More like a birth? Excuse me, but I think that when a baby is born, it is a birth, regardless of whether surgery is involved.
Or take this paragraph from the start of an NBC Today article on gentle C-sections:
Friends and family who had gone through it told her it was more like having surgery than giving birth. A C-section is just happening to you, it’s not an experience, they complained.
Yes, a C-section does involve a lot of laying on an operating table thinking wow, this is crazy. But it is sure as heck an experience!
Both articles describe cesarean sections with words like cold and sterile, and feature stories of women describing “vague memories,” “failure,” and “feeling empty.” Why is this the dominant story we tell about C-sections?
Birth, no matter the method, can be traumatic both physically and mentally, and it can be made better or worse by the environment and demeanor of the medical professionals involved. Because C-sections come into the picture when there are complications with pregnancy or labor, it stands to reason that there are more terrifying and traumatic birth stories associated with C-section deliveries—they are, after all, the option that saves lives when things go very, very wrong.
But treating C-sections as inherently negative, traumatic situations is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If women are made to fear cesareans, if they are told that the operation will hinder bonding and breastfeeding, if the resources they read imply that a C-section represents a failure of womanhood—then of course they will feel scared, awful, and disappointed if one becomes necessary.
One of the women interviewed in the NBC Today article, the one who described feeling empty after her C-section, explains her hopes for her next birth:
Now pregnant with her third child, [she] is hoping to be cleared for a vaginal birth, but is comforted by having access to a family-centered cesarean if not, she said.
That’s all well and good, but what if there’s an emergency? Will she feel the same sense of mourning and failure for something completely out of her control?
There is a hesitation, it seems, to talk about positive cesarean experiences, as though to do so would encourage women to ask for them and doctors to perform them unnecessarily. But the “ideal” C-section rate—the rate below which mothers and babies start to die in childbirth in increasing numbers—is 10–15%, according to the World Health Organization. That means that 1 in every 7–10 moms should be having a cesarean.
We shouldn’t be telling those women to expect to feel like a failure. We shouldn’t be making those women afraid.