How does a natural vaginal birth compare to a C-section?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

OPINION: Two weeks after my daughter was born, I texted a friend who had also recently given birth via caesarean section.

"How do you know if you have an infection?" I asked. "Like how sore, is sore?" 

I had a fiery, prickly heat on one side of my wound that radiated pain every time my stretchy waistband brushed the dressing. When I moved, I felt like the stitches were tearing. She sent back some photos of her post-partum C-section infection which looked like cottage cheese oozing out of an angry red wound. "Does it look like this?"

Thankfully it didn't but, after a trip to the A&E, I was put on antibiotics for an infection.

"I think any woman who chooses a C-section is crazy," she said when I updated her. And, as someone who has had both a natural vaginal birth as well as a C-section, I kind of had to agree. 

Before we delve any further, let me say, everyone is free to choose how they want to birth their baby. Equally, not everyone gets a choice. I didn't with my second baby, who was 7 weeks premature and spent her first month in the SCBU (Specialist Care Baby Unit) unit at Auckland's North Shore Hospital. When her heart rate dipped and spiked like mountain peaks on the monitor while in utero, an emergency C-section was the only option, and I'm so grateful for it.

For years, I've read tabloid headlines such as "too posh to push" when celebrities book in their elective C-section to fit childbirth into their busy schedules. On paper, a C-section appears to be the easier option. It can be scheduled in, organised, and to an extent – controlled.  And it's not just celebrities doing it.

According to a 2017 Ministry of Health study, elective caesareans are on the rise, while there is a significant decrease in spontaneous vaginal births. There is a whole host of reasons for this: big heads, small pelvises, multiples, high blood pressure – the list goes on.  

I smugly thought I was one of the lucky ones with my first-born. My experience with my son had been relatively quick – four hours all up. I went into labour at home and we arrived at the hospital just in time for the midwife to say "start pushing".

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There was no time to instigate the birth plan, or even consider pain relief. Twenty minutes later, my son was born. Don't get me wrong – it was hard and painful. But afterwards, I felt elated, ecstatic, crazily happy and in a complete love bubble. Of course, I was sore. I had a little tear down there and two stitches, but I was walking around right away. 

With the C-section, I felt like I'd cheated, or missed the hard part altogether. Like I should have been doing more, or helping in some way. And rather than feeling in charge, I felt like I'd relinquished all control over to a total stranger.

Further, the sensation of said stranger (an obstetrician) rummaging around in my abdomen not only felt uncomfortable (at times, I could feel the sensation of my body being lifted off the table), but strangely invasive. He could see parts of me that even I hadn't seen – my insides. And for some reason, that felt odd. Although I couldn't feel it, thanks to the epidural they had put in my back, it was that numbness which bothered me.

For me, there was this disconnect. One minute she was in my stomach, the next she was out. It reminded me of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat by its ears. Ta Daaa – it's a girl! 

Because I couldn't physically feel anything, the actual birth with a C-section was definitely less painful. But here's the rub: the recovery is worse. Much worse. Immediately after, you're wheeled through corridors to your room (because plans to go home or to birthcare are delayed). A catheter gets inserted and an IV line.

I lay connected to all this medical equipment, willing the feeling to come back to my legs. Then – almost wishing it hadn't. Pain seeped slowly and crept back to my tummy, as the numbness ebbed away. It was jarring to stand the following day. Jarring to walk. Jarring, even at times, to sit.

Because she was unable to drive for six weeks after her C-Section, there was no nipping to the grocery store when Sarah Murray and family had run out of bread or breast pads.

Added to that, logistically it was a nightmare. I couldn't drive for six weeks. That meant, once discharged, there was no nipping to the grocery store when we'd run out of bread or breast pads. Driving my son to daycare each day was out, as was doing any sort of caring for him at all.

"Remember, you've just had major surgery," was the party line used by the midwife and medical professionals when I'd air my frustrations. "Don't push yourself."

I was told not to lift anything heavier than my newborn girl, but try telling that to an only-just-turned-two-year-old. Or explaining why you can't lift him out of his cot in the morning, or bath him, or scoop him up when he's fallen over?

Ten weeks' post-partum I went for my first light jog and it felt like my organs had been rearranged, pushed back into a space where they didn't quite fit. Even after the infection cleared and the wound started knitting together, I felt pain. A constant tugging on one side. Six months later, it still tingles and pulls. I wonder if that will ever stop.

In the end, a baby has to come out one of two ways and the only result that really matters is that mum and bubs are healthy. But if I ever get up the courage to have number three, I will be crossing my fingers for a natural birth again.

While it seems magical to pull a rabbit out of a hat, in reality, a C-section makes you feel like the magician's assistant getting sawn–in–half. 

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