“Hey, wanna see my C-section scar?” That’s not a sentence most people usually hear, or say. And, as a woman who had a C-section, it’s pretty easy to understand why.
There is no denying that my C-section might have been one of the worst experiences of my life. But at the same time, it was one of the most wonderful. The surgery can be a lot to wade through mentally, physically, and spiritually for a new mom. For me, it was no different.
I really, really wanted to have a vaginal childbirth. I wanted an Ina May Gaskin, baby at home, doula and midwife, Ricki Lake documentary-style delivery. When friends came over, I would explain to them with a snarky smile that the baby was born in this room. That’s the kind of birth I envisioned.
Instead, what I got was a bit of a harsh reality check—a doctor telling me that due to oligohydramnios, or low amniotic fluid, a C-section was imperative. I recall hearing scary clinical words like “incision” as I lie under anesthesia, feeling helpless yet awake, as if I was being gutted like a fish.
But on the other, very bright side, the result was a beautiful and healthy baby boy. Luckily, I also healed well without complications, aside from my experience with postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder and the definitive realization that I didn't ever want to go through that again.
After the birth, I felt devastated, and somehow as if I was the only woman who’d ever had a C-section before—which is of course far from the truth.
Postpartum hormone disarray is a heaping hot dish best consumed with company, but I plowed through it mostly alone. My busy husband floated us financially as I recovered and cared for the baby, and my family came from a long distance away for short visits to help when they could. But I spent many months with just my emotions and a tiny infant doubling as a hanky to sop up so many of my tears.
A week after my pregnancy, I returned to the ER, convinced something was wrong. I was experiencing what seemed like every emotional and physical postpartum symptom that the phone book’s worth of information (remember phone books?) the nurses sent me home with said to look out for—from stomach cramps, to nausea, to over-exhaustion, to anxiety, leg pain, back pain, and a persistent headache. These symptoms could signal anything from postpartum depression, to a bowel injury, to an infection, as I understood. So I went to the hospital.
The ER doctor, a woman about my age, explained comfortingly that she had had a C-section a year earlier. “It gets better,” she said. “You just had a baby a week ago! Give yourself a chance to heal.” For the first time since the birth, her kind words about our shared experience offered me a glimpse of what it felt like to be human again.
That interaction inspired me to seek out other moms who also had C-sections and talk to them about their experiences. There are loads of us.
Roughly 30 percent of births in the U.S. happen via C-section, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Talking to other mothers, I heard similar and comforting thoughts and ideas and a general remembrance of what is so important: Though the surgery is no foosball festival, it (thankfully) brought this particular group of women much loved children to show for it. Oh, and of course, a sweet scar.
C-section operations and their resulting scars are different now than they used to be. They aren’t typically vertical anymore, or as long, and they are now usually cut very low into the belly, just above the pubic line. You're unlikely to even get a peek at the scar on a mother in a cropped top or even a bikini.
For some, a scar can be a powerful piece of evidence, a snapshot of a story of having lived through a traumatic event. But when it comes to C-section scars, it doesn’t always feel that way.
In all my years on the planet, no one has ever boasted their C-section scar to me. In many circles, it seems odd for moms to show off C-section scars and say, “That’s where the baby came out!” It’s almost as if the scar itself is another vagina, and to display it would be inappropriate or unchaste.
However, for the group of women you’re about to meet, showing their scars was, in some ways, healing. It offered a chance for lively, therapeutic discussion about their birth experiences, which vary greatly from “not so bad” to “my worst case scenario.” It was courageous of them to reveal their scars, if for no other reason than it’s just not something women typically do—both because society doesn’t encourage it and because it can be scary to expose any vulnerability to the world. I know this for certain, because one of the women photographed is me.
Some of the women featured here had complications, others had a relatively smooth ride, and some are still trying to make sense of it all. Here are some of their post-surgery thoughts and perspectives on the operation, their advice to others, and, of course, the physical mark the experience left.
All photos were taken by Alex M. Smith.
“I wasn’t planning on having a C-section. My water broke at 28 weeks, and after two hours of ‘trying’ vaginally, my baby’s heart rate was going down so I had an emergency C-section. FYI, at 28 weeks, I hadn’t read much on how to give birth and never went to those classes that prepare you.
“At this point, after four years, the idea of having another birth scares me to death. But if I were to get pregnant again, I would ask for a C-section 100 percent. I’d rather it be planned this time; everything was just so scary, chaotic, and I had no idea what was happening to me.”
“My first C-section was an emergency C-section. I was 11 days late, so they induced me. They were estimating the baby was large. I was also super uncomfortable so I was ready for him to be out. After 18 hours, he ended up getting stuck and both of us went under stress. I remember everything beeping and the doctor saying we need to take this baby out within seven minutes. I told the nurse I was going to throw up. She went to hand me a bedpan and I puked in her hands.
“I was not at all prepared emotionally or mentally for a C-section the first time around. I assumed I did everything during the pregnancy so that I could have a vaginal birth. The second time, we went in at 41 weeks. It was super easy. It was really laid back; we were talking about the summer Olympics. The second one, I was much more at peace with."
“If you have to make a choice between a vaginal birth and a C-section because of some problem that comes up, don’t be afraid of the C-section. As long as you trust the doctors and the hospital you should be all good. I’ve heard some horror stories, but for the most part, everyone I know who’s had one has said it’s been an easy experience. Also, the scarring isn’t that bad.”
“I had a planned C-section due to breech positioning. I tried an ECV at 37 weeks to flip him, along with a bunch of other at-home interventions, but it was unsuccessful. It turns out he was 9 lbs., 6 oz. ‘No wonder he didn't flip!’ the doctor said as they pulled him out.
“I remember hearing, ‘God forbid I have to have a C-section,’ at prenatal yoga as well as comments about avoiding a C-section being a matter of will and determination. I get really defensive when people even say ‘elective C-sections’ instead of planned. I didn't ‘elect’ to have a C-section; I listened to my doctor when he, with his years of experience and medical training, expressed concern that my son would get stuck inside of me. And knowing now how big he was, thank goodness I did listen.
“Even so, I really did mourn the loss of the ‘traditional’ birth experience that I had imagined and prepared myself for, especially with a planned C-section and no laboring. I felt cheated out of this huge part of the journey to motherhood, in addition to feeling like I had failed in some way. It gives me a lot of empathy for women who are experiencing infertility and/or are unable to carry a pregnancy, or those unable to breastfeed.
“Let yourself be sad, or angry, or relieved, or whatever feelings you want to have about it. So many people said, ‘Once that baby's here you won't care,’ and that was so untrue and unkind. I did care for a while afterwards. In fact, I still care or I wouldn't be so passionate about speaking up and normalizing this particular birth experience.
“More real talk: Don't be a martyr! Take your drugs and stay ahead of the pain. Say yes to any and all help, and prepare yourself for not being able to do much for the first week or so. Someone will likely have to bring the baby to you. It was actually a blessing in disguise for me. I had to let go and trust that my son was being cared for, and my husband had the space to step up and figure it out without my anxiety micromanaging him.
“Get up and walking as soon as you're able. The incision will heal with time and the pooching goes down. Be kind with yourself. Most importantly, your body is incredible in its ability to heal and, with time, minimize the memory of the pain so that you're willing to do it all over again. Trust it. Trust yourself, trust your partner, and trust your medical team.”
“I wasn’t expecting a C-section. It was the last thing I wanted. Physically, I am fully recovered. I can backbend now, and I was truly surprised at how small my scar was. It’s crazy to think that a baby came out of there. Mentally, because I was unsure about what recovery would look like, I am still haunted by the fact that I didn’t have a natural birth, but it would be even worse to be haunted by my baby.”
“The actual surgery was similar to what I expected, but I had a very strong reaction. As they were perhaps cleaning my abdomen, I felt something and I panicked. This is where my experience turned sour. I think if someone said, ‘This slight feeling is normal, you’re OK, take deep breaths,’ that would have helped. The rest of the delivery I was incredibly loopy and was babbling nonsense. I was unable to hold my daughter for a long time and was not too cognizant.
“I would not recommend a C-section, but I think that’s because I would not recommend any surgery unless you need to have it. My body has been through a lot and has changed so, so much. And it sure is tired, but it sure is strong.”
"I was arrogant about the way I intended to bring my baby into the world. People told me, 'Throw your birth plan out the window, because it’s not as easy as that.' But I was determined to have a vaginal birth. I skipped over all the C-section reading material. My mom had six kids. I thought to myself, I’m going to shoot this baby out like a dart and hit the bull’s eye.
"Giving birth was an extremely humbling experience, and one that I’ll never forget. They say things like, 'Mother Nature makes you forget the pain so you’ll do it again.' Almost two years out, I still have not forgotten and I don’t know if I ever will. In a way, I don’t want to, because the C-section was part of my son’s birth story, and I want to remember it all.
"I handled being afraid by grilling my ob/gyn. I asked her, 'So, how many C-sections a year would you say you have done?' She was very patient with me. She said, 'I don’t know exactly, but I think I probably did about 150 this past year.' That was comforting for me to hear. I figured, with those kind of numbers, she probably knew what she was doing.
"I made peace with the fact that what came next was essentially out of my control and searched for inner calm, because I wanted to bring my boy into the world with his mom in a positive, relaxed state. But I couldn’t stop myself from shivering through the entire operation. When he came out, they laid him on my face. I have never been happier in my life.
"My advice would be to read the C-section stuff. Understand there’s a chance that it might happen. Create a mental place where you can feel good about that possibility. Prepare for your birth plan to get a monkey wrench thrown in it. Hope for the best. Things happen. Having a C-section birth doesn’t mean you messed up somehow. You did nothing wrong.
"Also, cook many nourishing meals in advance and freeze them before the baby comes. You will wake famished, often at 3 A.M., and want something to eat but won’t have the energy to do anything more than toss a block of food into a stove or microwave. Give yourself a lot of time to heal in all ways; two years or more is not out of the ordinary."
“I remember [during my pregnancy] talking to the nurse practitioners and I was like, ‘I really don’t want one.’ I can’t put my finger on why I thought it wouldn’t be good to have a C-section. I think you just have things in your head that don’t seem to really come from anywhere. Then we went to a class that explained the various birth types, and we saw a 3D animated video of what a C-section is like. I turned to my husband and said, ‘This doesn’t seem like anything to worry about.’
“I was having contractions and then I went in at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I was five centimeters. I got an epidural and I pushed for about four hours, but the way he was situated, he was not going to come out that way. By that time, about 4 A.M., I felt like my oxygen was depleted from holding my breath and pushing. It wasn’t even a concern. I was like, ‘Let’s do it!’
“I was in the hospital for four days and could barely move. There was a sign in our hospital room that said there were brownies, and my goal was to walk to the nurse’s station and get one. They weren’t that great, but I made it.”
“At my 38 week visit, everything was fine. At my 39 week visit, my doctor wanted to do a sonogram. I thought that seemed kind of weird, but she said, ‘That’s what I thought.’ Between week 38 and 39, my son had totally flipped around. I had been doing inversions in yoga and I asked if that could have affected it. My doctor laughed at me, but I still kind of think that had something to do with it.
“That was a Tuesday. She was next on surgery that Friday. On the one hand, I was thrilled that I knew I was meeting my baby on Friday, but on the other hand, I was like, ‘This could not be further from what I wanted.’ To actually know the day, to know that my parents in Massachusetts could be there when the baby was born, those aspects were great. We blasted out to all our friends, ‘Our baby is coming on Friday!’ There was also a nervousness, though, in knowing exactly when he was coming.
“We got to the hospital, we checked in, and it was nice to have everything be calm. It was a beautiful Spring day. I like to be on time. I was in the pre-op getting ready and my doctor came to check in and she’s like, ‘We’re just going to do an ultrasound to make sure the baby is still breech.’ My husband joked, ‘You’re not going to send us home if the baby has turned around?’ and the doctor said, ‘Yes, I am. We don’t do surgery unless it’s absolutely necessary.’ And we were like, ‘Everyone we know knows the baby is supposed to come!’ He hadn’t flipped.
“The surgery wasn’t terrifying to me. I’m not a super scaredy cat; I was really, really excited. My experience was different because I knew a few days ahead of time. It didn’t happen during labor. But the adrenaline of knowing he was coming was really exciting. It’s all I thought about. My husband was there, and that was great. Everything else happening didn't matter.
“Overall, it just wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. All that matters is that your kids are healthy. The daily stresses of motherhood far supersede the visions of what you wanted.”
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.