Women’s emotional reactions and adjustment to cesarean birth vary widely. Although some women recover fairly quickly and accept the surgical birth as a necessary step to a healthy baby and to becoming a mother, others experience various degrees of sadness, disappointment, anger, violation, loss of self-esteem, guilt, depression, and sometimes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some women experience their birth as a traumatic event. Often they are not aware of how the trauma has impacted their life, their sense of self and their feelings about mothering. Because a newborn demands so much care and attention mothers often do not have the time to process these feelings and they can linger for a long time. It is normal for a mother to appreciate the fact that her birth by cesarean resulted in a healthy baby while still feeling sad, confused, or angry about the experience itself. Friends, family, and even partners of mothers who have had an emotionally difficult cesarean often do not understand why mothers don’t just “move on,” or why they “obsess” about their birth experience.
The effects of trauma after childbirth include flashbacks of the birth, nightmares, avoiding and feeling stressed by reminders of the birth, feeling edgy, and experiencing panic attacks. Often these symptoms are confused with postpartum depression by mothers, doctors and mental health providers.
It is normal for a mother to appreciate the fact that her birth by cesarean resulted in a healthy baby while still feeling sad, confused, or angry about the experience itself. Mothers who have an unexpected cesarean, have general anesthesia, or are separated from their infants are especially vulnerable. A mother’s satisfaction with her birth experience depends on whether or not she was included in the decisions made on her behalf, if she was treated kindly and with respect by her caregivers, if she received medical interventions she feels were unnecessary, and/or if she felt she was “in control” of her birth.
Friends, family, and even partners of mothers who have had an emotionally difficult cesarean often do not understand why mothers don’t just “move on,” or why they “obsess” about their birth experience. It is important that, whenever you are ready, you find the right time, a safe place, and a person you trust to resolve some of these feelings. It might be weeks, months, or years after your cesarean, or even during a subsequent pregnancy, before you will be able to talk about your birth.
If you are planning to have another baby and plan to labor for a VBAC, you will feel better about that pregnancy and birth if you first process your feelings about the difficult cesarean you’ve already experienced. Find out how you might be able to avoid the reoccurence of those events.
To help you resolve some of your negative feelings:
- Know that you are not alone; many other mothers have felt the same way.
- Trust yourself to know that you are a good mother, even though you may have very confusing feelings about your cesarean-delivered baby.
- Talk to your partner about how you feel without placing blame on his perceptions (he may be feeling powerless, angry, or distressed). It may help you to forgive each other for events that neither of you could control.
- Share your experience with others who are likely to understand and validate your feelings. This is an important step in moving away from a sense of isolation.
- Reconstruct your birth experience. Remembering your birth in detail using words helps to reduce any feelings of anxiety and distress you may feel. It can also change the way you see yourself and help you understand what actually happened as opposed to what you wished had happened. You can write about your birth or record it.
- Hold your baby or child in your arms and share the positive feelings and events of your birth.
- Obtain your operative records and go over them to help you understand the sequence of events if it’s important to you.
- Write or draw your feelings in a journal.
- Write letters to the people who affected you negatively. You don’t have to mail them.
- Join a cesarean/VBAC support group, or become part of an on-line group of mothers who feel as you do.
- Consider having a doula for your next birth.
- Remember that your friends or family may not understand your very real and normal feelings and may feel helpless or frustrated in trying to help you feel better.
- Unresolved issues can sometimes lead to clinical depression. You might need to reach out and seek professional counseling.
For additional information See “Support Groups” on this website.
Portions of this article are taken from Chapter 6 of Understanding the Dangers of Cesarean Birth: Making Informed Decisions.
Last updated, September 19, 2012.