Vaginal vs. C-Section: Celebrity Smackdown

OK, not so much “celebrity” as “me,” and not so much “smackdown” as “how my experiences compared,” but that’s hardly an interesting headline.

And now, for the disclaimers:

  • I am not recommending one method over the other for anyone.
  • Both of my births were in hospital settings.
  • Both births involving the most wonderful anesthesiologists ever to stick a needle into a spine.
  • Both resulted in my babies going to the NICU, for reasons not due to the birth itself.
  • Both births were in emergency situations, so I’ve never had the experience of sitting at home and watching the clock.
  • Read at your risk. I include some intimate details, including the words “vagina” and “placenta.”
  • I consider both of my births to be smashing successes, what will the healthy babies that [eventually] resulted.

Lastly: based on all that, it might seem that my births were atypical, but anyone who’s had a baby know that EVERY birth is atypical. No baby is the same, no pregnancy is the same, no birth is the same. The friends I have who had relatively incident-free childbirths have their own stories to tell–the epidural covered only half their bodies, the doctor forgot to break the bag. The list goes on and on. Lest that makes a woman feel lonely, though (If no one has my experience, who can I talk to?), I see it like this: since none of us are in the same boat, we’re all in the same boat. We’re all pregnant, a little scared, a little excited, and probably in quite a bit of pain. Maybe this will help a little.

The Prep

Like I said, I didn’t have a lot of warning with either child. With Eliza, I went to the hospital for a no-stress test and came out a week later with a baby. One minute I was wondering why my baby wasn’t moving much, and the next, the attendant said, “So it looks like we’re going to induce,” and that was that.

I was already 3.5 cm dilated when I got there, so all they did to induce the labor was break the bag of waters, which is to say, get out a long, plastic crochet hook and stuck it where the sun doesn’t shine. I went from “I don’t know, I guess I might be feeling some twinges” to “YOW!” in about three minutes. And let me tell you: I read Dr. Sears, and he says “childbirth is not about pain, but about sensation.” In the thirty minutes before my epidural took effect, I think I can fairly judge that for me, that statement is something like saying, “Putting your hand in a pot of boiling water is not about burning, but about sensation.” Although I take some pride in that the nurse did say if I wanted, I could do it drug-free, as I was “breathing through the contractions and not screaming.” The fact that my baby had a heart rate of 185 pretty well decided it for me. Nothing like occasional hot-pokers of muscular pain to send the ol’ pulse skyrocketing, so between wanting to stay calm and, you know, not screaming? Bring in Dr. Feelgood, please.

For the C-section, I had more time to mentally prepare; after all, I’d been in the hospital for a week and knew that, with baby girl’s feet dangling out of my cervix, that the chances of me having a vaginal birth were slim. (Footling breech results in an extremely risky vaginal birth; cord prolapse risk goes up from .5% to 15-18%.) And I knew it could happen any day. You’ve already read about the morning of RocketBaby #2’s birth, so I won’t rehash all the details, but I can say that the nurses and doctors outlined the entire procedure from start to finish, and talked me through all the prep, from lying in the hospital bed to walking the twenty feet to the OR.

C-section wins this round. Ironically, I felt more prepared for the birth of my preemie than I did for my full-term.

The Process

C-section wins for efficiency, hands-down. I walked in at 10:30 AM, and they rolled me out about an hour later. Emotionally, I was in a good place because I knew they were preventing my baby from getting an infection, and that I’d be getting off bedrest at last, but physically, I did feel a little like a human anatomy model, with all my innards exposed for people to pull out and rearrange. I didn’t feel bad about, per se. Just unsettled.

For the vaginal birth, it took more time, but it was also quite smooth–the easiest part of the entire ordeal with Eliza, actually. After they broke my water, my labor progressed along at such a rate that I didn’t require any Pitocin or additional drugs to keep her moving; I’m convinced the kid knew she was in a bad place and made a dash for the door. The epidural was a smashing success for me, and as a result, I felt neither like a beached whale nor like I had no control over my lower body. To the contrary, I could control the muscles I needed just fine, and I felt pressure. I just didn’t feel pain.

When it came time to push, David stood at my side, holding my leg and counting to ten, and the nurse practitioner who assisted held my other leg and used oil to stretch my vaginal opening between pushes. She was a triathlete, I did Pilates, and we chatted about running for a while. David cracked jokes. I pushed for an hour, and then she brought in the OB to catch, who was a lovely woman; the worst part was that I bled a bit heavily afterwards, and I felt some no-joke pain when she went elbows-up to my uterus to pull out the placenta. All in all, if I hadn’t been so worried about Eliza’s health, it would have been a downright pleasant experience.

Winner of this round: Vaginal birth. Just three of us for several hours–my husband, the NP and I–working at getting the baby born, all of us conscious and pain-free.

The Recovery

Having both babies in the NICU actually offers a pretty good control to this little V vs. C comparison. That said, Eliza was much sicker; I stayed at the hospital for the duration of her stay, and it was a first birth, so I knew less than I did the second time around.

After the vaginal birth, I experienced the following:

  • Extended chills immediately after the birth
  • Major emotional breakdown four days after
  • Night sweats
  • Vaginal swelling
  • Vaginal soreness
  • Yeast infection
  • Breast engorgement
  • Mastitis
  • Period-level bleeding for about three weeks, following by light spotting for several weeks
  • Some incontinence in the weeks following and during my second pregnancy

After the C-section:

  • Extended chills immediately after the birth
  • Night sweats
  • Incision swelling
  • Incision soreness and pain
  • Breast engorgement
  • Period-level bleeding for about three weeks, following by light spotting (ongoing)

After the vaginal birth, all of the symptoms were cleared up by the end of the first month, at which point I could just experience the business of being extremely fatigued. A week after I had Eliza, I walked down the hill to Union Square and went shopping, and while I was more sore than usual, I bounced back quickly.

The yeast infection–the worst I’ve ever had–was due to the chorioamnionitis-curing antibiotics I was on in the hospital (three rounds in, and 20 days’ after). I was on the same antibiotics with Gillian, for the same thing, no less, but I had the good sense to have David bring me my acidophilus. The stuff is miraculous in preventing yeast infections, and I always take it when I’m on antibiotics.

The mastitis was brought on by a combination of fatigue and stress, but I realize now it was also because I didn’t properly care for my engorged breasts. When my milk comes in, it comes in like a fire hose, and I couldn’t breastfeed either girl during those first few days. I had to pump. With Gillian, though, I knew better: each time I pumped with the machine, I followed up by hand-expressing for at least ten minutes per breast. It expelled more milk and massaged the hard spots out of my engorged breasts. I also used hot compresses for the first two weeks. Result: no mastitis.

And every woman’s worst pregnancy fear: incontinence. About six weeks after I had Eliza, I was on my way home from a very nice lunch with a friend when I realized I had to pee. I could stop at the hotel I passed or… eh, I’m only twenty minutes from home. Five minutes later, I was thanking my good fortune that I was wearing a pantyliner. And throughout my second pregnancy, when I had to go, I had to go, or risk sneezing and leaking on my underwear, at best. I’m a long way from requiring Serenity, but I don’t waste time in finding a bathroom anymore.

However… I’ll take the vaginal recovery over the C-section. Why? Think of it this way: you have two paths you can take to the top of the hill. One goes straight up, and will take thirty minutes, but you’ll be experiencing some temple-pounding exercise en route. The other route goes around the hill, and will take six hours.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take the thirty-minute path. Walking up a long, gradual incline is always more exhausting than the straight shot, and five weeks on, I’m still more or less housebound. Picking up my toddler results in increased incision soreness that lasts a day, at least, so I’m not keen on the idea of facing the uphill climb to my apartment from Union Square, and my OB doesn’t recommend it, either. The swelling I mentioned at the incision isn’t so much swelling as “extra roll of fat above the scar,” and while my doctor says it “will flatten out some,” every woman I’ve talked to says that won’t so much happen, ever.

So in spite of the mastitis, the yeast infection and the incontinence, the Recovery round goes to vaginal birth.

The Winner

All else being equal, I’d prefer vaginal over C-section, if I could choose. I’m happy I managed to have a vaginal birth first, so I didn’t have to deal with the VBAC question, which opens a whole new can of worms. I’m not upset I had a C-section; I never really put much of myself into my birth experience. I made a birth plan for Eliza and all that, but I wasn’t wedded to it. And I was lucky enough to have two relatively good birth experiences, despite all the stressful extenuating circumstances.

Wait, let me temper that: I’d prefer Eliza’s vaginal birth over Gillian’s C-section. It’s entirely possible that had I been able to have a vaginal birth with Gillian, that it would’ve lasted 37 hours and had me weeping and screaming and miserable. Like I said, every baby is different, every pregnancy is different, and every birth is different. I wish you the best of luck with yours.

Tiny hands: making birth pain more endurable for millennia.

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One Response to Vaginal vs. C-Section: Celebrity Smackdown

  1. Dottie says:

    Isn’t it weird to talk about birth because as you said right off the bat, each one is so different. But yeah, the not walking thing when you live in a hilly neighborhood kinda bites!

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