My husband jokingly applies the baseball term hitting for the cycle -- getting each base hit as well as a homerun in one game -- to the way I delivered our three children. Our oldest daughter was a scheduled c-section, I had our second "naturally" with drugs, and that third birth was nature incarnate, delivered without so much as a stick to bite. It wasn't some sport though -- I was fanatical.
I remember the day of that last obstetric appointment before my first child was born more clearly than her birth. It was mild and sunny outside, and I had waited an hour in a windowless room for my doctor to arrive. When he finally placed his hands on my enormous, full-term belly, his eyebrows flew up. The "uh-oh!" sounded light-hearted enough, but he said the word I didn't want to hear: Breech.
I returned to the waiting area and started sobbing, then gulping for air -- something no one wants to see from a pregnant woman. All of those birthing fantasies were gone. There would be no "it's time!" stories. No "you can do this!" from my husband, coaching me on. No real delivery. I was out.
By the time I left, I had a sonogram that was labeled, in all capital letters, "COMPLETE BREECH" across the front. I also had an appointment for a c-section.
Even after all the decisions were made and waivers signed, at no time did I regret having my cesarean. I still don't. My husband and I knew that this wasn't about us; it was about our baby. But I couldn't escape the feeling of emptiness and maybe a bit of anger at having been stripped of some feminine rite. I had silently written myself off as a lesser mother who never really delivered her child.
Six months later, at a playgroup with infants rolling on top of one another and mothers all exchanging their "birth stories," I kept quiet. I didn't think I had one. My daughter was perfect, but I wasn't, I thought.
My emotions hit fever pitch the following year, when I returned to that same doctor's office, three-months pregnant. He offered his congratulations, then quickly said that I would be a scheduled cesarean. Done. No discussion of a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean). I walked out the door and never went back.
Instead, I read studies online, found allies in nurses, and began interviewing obstetricians while four months pregnant. It turned out that I -- like the majority of women -- was the ideal candidate for a VBAC. I was in perfect health, planned to deliver in a hospital, my first baby was a normal size, and the reasons for that c-section were positioning issues. Bingo.
Simply put, 60-80 percent of women with a prior cesarean can follow that with natural childbirth. However, more than 90 percent of women choose repeat surgery. These numbers made perfect sense when I saw people's reaction to my plan.
When my husband and I shared that I wanted to deliver naturally, dissenters did not hold back their opinions. Women who chose cesareans commented that they would never attempt natural childbirth -- what did I hope to prove? Others made snippy and uninformed remarks, like "Why on earth risk it?" and even "Thanks but I'd rather not rip open my uterus." I could have launched into a diatribe against the increased risks of repeat cesareans, but I honestly didn't have the strength.
I knew that I was obsessing and that being a real mom has nothing to do with how I delivered, but I felt as though I had to try. And the science was behind me, so I just smiled at the doubters and kept my game face on.
When my 40th week arrived, I had a team of supportive doctors, a doula, and even a Lamaze refresher course under my belt. I also had weekly acupuncture, evening primrose oil, gallons of raspberry leaf tea for "cervical softening" and enough spicy food and Kung Pao chicken to choke a Sichuan pig. But no amount of western or eastern medicine or old wives tales did anything for my nerves.
My body was a very pregnant clenched fist.
On my exact due date, I got to feel what a contraction was like. Unfortunately, the novelty wore off after a few hours -- this early stage of labor lasted a few days with almost no progress.
Finally, three days after that first contraction, the hospital admitted me. I still hadn't dilated beyond a few centimeters, though. While waiting for my doctor to arrive, I called a friend who is a physician, too.
"Maybe it's time to give up and think about a cesarean," she said softly. I dropped the phone and started crying. I thought I was failing, but knew I had to let it go. I needed to focus on having a healthy baby.
I was still sobbing when my doctor arrived. So when he smiled and said I was halfway there, I didn't believe him. I got my jokes and moments and quotes. I got to yell "Lucky seven centimeters! Time for my epidural!" But most of all, I got another daughter.
Three years later, my third childbirth was everything my cesarean wasn't. I said, "It's time!" in the middle of the night. I calmly arrived at the hospital, was wheeled into a room and the nurses quickly admitted me. There was no drama, no disappointment, and no time. My doctor checked on me once, briefly. Then I heard a primal scream, realized it came from me, and he came running back. Within minutes, my son was laying on my chest.
It was quick, and we were healthy, but I didn't know what to do with myself. I couldn't stop shaking. This was the point where I had to let it all go: the expectations, the suffering, and the fantasies. Finally.
A friend of mine had a cesarean and now desperately wants to experience natural childbirth and all the pain that goes with it. "I feel incomplete as a woman, as if I missed out on something," she recently told me. So I offered her my wisdom: The difference between a cesarean and natural childbirth -- with or without drugs -- is an incision. Nothing more. And I warned her that I obsessed and tortured myself for years before really believing it.
"But would you have said that if you never delivered naturally?" she asked.
I didn't even hesitate with my answer.