Words and image by Sara Bates
The bathroom was stifling after I sat in the shower for too long, allowing the powerful spray to mask the sobs I reserved for the few minutes of freedom I had each day. As I toweled off in front of the fogged mirror, the front of my body sagging from overuse, I sneaked a glance at the gash across my middle, a five-inch smirk sealed tight with surgical glue and strips of tape that were beginning to peel at the edges.
The OB had warned me several times to avoid picking at the tape, an order I followed obediently despite being a serial picker. And why would this be any different? I’d followed the rest of her directives, after all. I’d agreed to the Pitocin when my contractions didn’t strengthen after eight hours, the Nubain when a day had passed under the fluorescent hospital lighting and I still hadn’t slept, the epidural when the contractions weren’t dilating my cervix according to established medical timeframes. The full buffet of medical interventions I’d vowed to avoid was up for the taking, and I’d sampled many of the offerings, starving for the bliss of my newborn child against my skin. The c-section was the final course, served up like the dessert I knew I didn’t want but just had to try.
I tugged the retractable cord out of the blow dryer and my incision tugged back. Yet another example of an everyday action—climbing out of bed, slicing an onion, laughing at a rerun of The Office—that caused me pain now that my core had been cut, glued, and taped like a preschool art project because I wasn’t poised enough to maintain control over my birth. I switched the blow dryer to high, expecting the ambient whirl to drown out the sound of my son crying in his nursery. But it didn’t work because his cries, like the nasty perfectionist scolding me for my performance on my first day of motherhood, were the creation of my restless mind.
I’d decided having my baby in a hospital was the best option considering my location, insurance co-pays, and type-A personality. The books, websites, and hypnobirthing courses said an unmedicated birth in a hospital could be difficult, but it was doable. Imagine a birth free of complication. Labor at home for as long as possible. Pack your physio-ball, essential oils, and handwritten birth plan, and require the doctors and nurses to follow it. It’s about being informed and self-assured. It’s about refusing to back down.
Even though making a return at Target or calling to complain about my cable bill made my heart race, I assumed advocating for the birth I wanted would be different because it mattered to me. How I gave birth was a statement about who I was as a woman and who I would be as a mother. Educated, prepared, in control. And so, I’d chosen to ignore the part of me that didn’t like to rock the boat, and now my birth story included a phrase I couldn’t quite shake: failure to progress.
My husband held fast to the belief that the situation was an emergency, but when I’d given my consent to a c-section after three hours of pushing, it had felt like defeat. When I shared my feelings of inadequacy after the surgery, I was advised by friends, family, and healthcare providers to change my perspective. Healthy baby, healthy mama. That’s all that matters.
A healthy baby, his tiny hands balled into fists, his face a withered, angry beet, as he shrieked throughout the night between fitful stretches of sleep.
A healthy baby losing precious ounces, because I was determined he would feed only on my meager supply of breastmilk since breastfeeding, I’d believed, was the best way to make him feel loved and safe after I’d traumatized him at birth.
A healthy mama, sobbing in the shower every evening, haunted by the belief that mothers savvy enough to advocate for themselves in the delivery room were producing enough milk and lulling their babies into long nights of peaceful slumber.
A healthy mama, morbidly satisfied by photos on social media of other women in dressed in c-section regalia—glasses, blue surgical cap, weary smile—as their partners presented the swaddled babies they didn’t get to feel against their bare skin.
For months, a postpartum cocktail of hormones, comparison, and loneliness kept me in a haze. It was as if my exhausted spirit could manage only one emotion at a time, and the shadowy shame would extinguish each spark of gratitude long before it could take hold. Soon a layer of guilt settled on top of the shame because I was incapable of focusing on the abundance in my life. Talk show hosts and social media were constant companions as I nursed my son on the sofa, making sure to present the world with a smiling mommy-son selfie—hashtag-stay-at-home-mom-life—before each blip of a winter day was swallowed up by the darkness and dread of another sleepless night.
And then one day my son decided it was time to sleep.
At first, I woke every two hours, my body accustomed to my son’s developing circadian rhythm. But when my primal mother’s instincts finally relaxed into the awareness that my son was silent because he was sleeping, rather than strangled to death by a loose swaddle blanket, I started to wake each day with more energy than the one before. As his healthy milestones accumulated, flames of gratitude began to lick at the cold, darkened places in my heart. Instead of spending the time between his feedings, which was lengthening week by week, at home, we started taking walks and visiting libraries and parks, where I met other mothers similarly filled with the energy of the emerging spring.
Sleep, movement, fresh air, and connection with other mothers offered me a renewed perspective on motherhood. The correlation in my perfectionist’s mind between my c-section and my worthiness as a mother weakened each time someone shared her story with me. I no longer had evidence that a child’s birth impacted the ease of breastfeeding or sleeping through the night or whether the child had allergies, developmental delays, or diaper rash. The women who delivered their babies the way I had envisioned had different birth stories, but, just like me, they were dealing with doubts and frustrations as they adjusted to the monumental shift in identity that comes with motherhood.
The intense disappointment I felt over my lack of control in the delivery room had clouded my ability to appreciate all the incredibly difficult things I was doing, day-by-day, minute-by-minute, as I learned how to be a mother. As my incision faded into a shimmery scar and my c-section lost its grip on my body and my mind, I made an essential discovery about motherhood that seemed so obvious in hindsight. A woman doesn’t become herself as a mother, all at once, on the day her child is born. She becomes herself as a mother, a little bit at a time—making mistakes, learning, transforming, loving—for the rest of her life.
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About the Author:
Sara Bates is a mother of two, writer, and aspiring novelist interested in examining the complexities of motherhood. Sara has been a guest on the Vibrant Happy Women podcast and is a contributor to the forthcoming anthology “My Caesarean: 21 Mothers on the C-Section Experience and After”, a deeply personal essay collection that explores the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of C-section births on motherhood and identity. Follow along with Sara on Instagram.