Before having my son, a vaginal birth seemed like the only choice. I tsk-tsk’d “medical intervention” and argued my uneducated opinion about how birth is “so natural” and should be experienced that way, mostly to cover my fear of major surgery (aka a c-section). Sure, an emergency could arise requiring a c-section, but of course, that should be avoided at all costs, right?
I had heard from other women and read articles outlining the slow recovery from c-sections. I heard about women being sedated through their child’s birth and waking up hours later to meet their child. I read about not being able to sit up, needing to wait to shower, risk of infection, six week recovery, blood clots and other possible complications. And most of all, I was terrified by the idea of being sliced open. I decided early on that a c-section was not something I would consider.
What I hadn’t heard about were the potential long-term side effects of a vaginal birth. I went into my birth expecting that I would be up and moving that same day, showered, and on my way to being fully recovered in six weeks. I wasn’t prepared for the level of tearing that would occur, for those first moments with my son to be distracted by being sewn back together, for the amount of blood loss, for the discomfort that can come with using the bathroom after, or for the level of internal and external damage.
Now I’m obviously not saying all vaginal births result in these issues (Does Vaginal Birth Damage The Pelvic Floor?). In my case, my son’s heart rate began dropping drastically and the doctors and nurses became focused on the goal of getting baby out safely. The doctor told me I was only at 9 centimeters dilated and would need an emergency c-section if we could not get my son out fast. I agreed to begin pushing. The doctor used her hands to attempt to manually dilate the cervix to 10 centimeters and then attached a vacuum to my son’s little head, pulling so hard that her arms were shaking while I pushed as hard as I could to force my son out. After two strong attempts, he did in fact come out.
My son was blue, but he was alive. My eye and one of my son’s eyes were both red with broken blood vessels from the pressure. I had level 3 (out of 4) tearing that took a significant amount of time to stitch up. I was sore for weeks, and as the weeks and months passed, I continued to experience a level of discomfort. I didn’t think anything of this at the time, other than, why doesn’t anyone tell you about this!?
We want to think of the vagina as this amazing elastic organ that can stretch to accommodate a 8 pound baby and return to normal six weeks later as though nothing had ever happened. Maybe that’s why it hadn’t occurred to me that this wasn’t the typical recovery experience until a year had passed and I was still experiencing pain and discomfort. I had been checked by an OB/GYN for my six-week follow up, my primary care who is a nurse practitioner when I expressed these concerns, and an OB/GYN my primary care then referred me to, none of whom found any reason for concern. The OB/GYN expressed belief that the symptoms I was experiencing were due to my IUD and scheduled to have it removed, but the symptoms persisted. It wasn’t until I was seen by a specialist at the Women’s Center for Pelvic Health and Reconstructive Surgery two years after my son’s birth that I finally started to get some answers.
While a vaginal birth may be entirely natural, the vagina does not come out unscathed. After suffering in silence for several years, I finally learned about things like high-tone pelvic floor dysfunction, vulvar vestibulitis, and Levator Ani injuries, which occur in more than 30% of vaginal births. Many women experience symptoms such as urinary or fecal incontinence, sexual dysfunction, and/or vaginal pain after birth.
Why must women suffer in silence? My husband and I took several birthing classes through our hospital. What to expect AFTER the birth was never discussed. While we seem to have no trouble discussing c-section surgery, postpartum depression, or breast feeding, the vagina remains entirely neglected. Again, at the six-week follow-up exam, postpartum depression and breast feeding were discussed at length, while the possibility of long-term damage or improper healing of the vagina was never even mentioned.
If my experience can help just one other woman, I’m willing to put myself out there to tell you that my vagina is broken because I refused to consider a c-section. My vagina is broken because the doctors and I forced my son out in such an unnatural way, just so I could have a “natural birth,” and now I regret it.
The good news for any woman who may be suffering is that these injuries can be treated, often with internal physical therapy and time, but first they must be diagnosed.