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What is recovering from a C-section REALLY like? Moms speak out

"You have these weeks of pain and crying and joy ... it was weird and scary and I did not enjoy it."
/ Source: TODAY

Jenny Otto, a mom of three who is expecting her fourth child this spring, has had plenty of experience with Caesarean sections over the past few years: All three of her children have been delivered via C-section, and her fourth will be as well.

When she underwent the procedure for the first time in 2012, though, she said she was "just terrified."

"I didn't know anything about C-sections, and, you know, it wasn't my plan," Otto told TODAY Parents. "I always envisioned a great, exciting, magical experience ... but it ended up being a really scary, traumatic experience that first time. I was very scared to have more kids after that for a little while."

Jenny Otto has undergone three C-sections and will have a fourth soon.
Jenny Otto has undergone three C-sections and will have a fourth soon. Courtesy Jenny Otto

The reality of C-section recovery

Otto said that because she "was in perfect health" and had not had any complicating factors during her pregnancy, she had never considered needing a C-section, and her doctors didn't mention the possibility.

Dr. Jill Rabin, a professor at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research and an OB/GYN at Northwell Health, said women may receive different information about C-sections depending on where they are in the country, what care they are able to access and what research they do on their own.

Because C-sections are major surgeries, recovery usually takes six to eight weeks. Rabin said it's normal for C-section patients to experience symptoms like incisional pain, uterine contractions and hormone changes. (Women who experience symptoms such as fever or severe cramping, bleeding or discharge should contact their doctors.)

"It was weird and scary and I did not enjoy it."

What is C-section recovery really like for new moms, though? Several mothers opened up about their experiences with TODAY Parents in order to help other moms feel less alone and understand what to expect.

Shana Chartier, a mom of two, said she had an experience similar to Otto's with her first child: She was told she needed an emergency Caesarean section, and she didn't know much about the procedure at all. After giving birth, her daughter was hospitalized for several days, which only made the experience more upsetting.

"My biggest fear was being cut open while awake after getting a needle in my back. I did not want that," Chartier said. "And so I really, really held off with her, and the birth was really slow. ... It finally got to a point where she swallowed meconium and they had to do an emergency C-section and so it was awful. She couldn't breathe when she came out so they had to take her to a different hospital and for that recovery, I was alone."

Shari Medini, a mom of two, had felt prepared for her Caesarean section: Initially, she had planned to have the surgery because her first child was expected to be a breech birth. An ultrasound right before the procedure found that the baby had rotated, so she thought a C-section was no longer necessary and she attempted a vaginal birth. But the birth did not progress enough, she said, so she received a C-section anyway.

Medini said her recovery was extremely difficult and was complicated by the attempted vaginal delivery.

"The recovery was really rough with that one," Medini said. "Having been through days of Pitocin (a synthetic version of a hormone that induces labor) and failed labor, and putting my body through all of that ... and then having to have a C-section, I think it was a lot rougher on my body."

Otto said that just as she was unprepared for the surgical procedure itself, she also felt like she didn't know enough about what C-section recovery would be like.

"I was in so much pain," said Otto, who added that she also dealt with postpartum depression. "I felt guilty becasue I couldn't give birth the way I thought a mother should give birth ... and then I was in all this pain. They give you pain medication but I don't know — it's just hard, not knowing what you're going into. And then you have these weeks of pain and crying and joy, plus sadness, and it was weird and scary and I did not enjoy it."

Medini said that while she had a support system and was able to rest following her Caesarean section, it was difficult to recover from surgery while caring for a newborn.

"My first one was a colicky baby; he was very fussy. From the time he came out, he didn't sleep," Medini recalled.

It was even more complicated when her second child was born, also via C-section, because she now had a toddler and a newborn, but she said she was able to apply things she'd learned from her first recovery to that time.

Shari Medini said her C-section with her second child was easier because she felt more prepared for the procedure and recovery.
Shari Medini said her C-section with her second child was easier because she felt more prepared for the procedure and recovery. Courtesy Shari Medini

Dealing with C-section judgment

Medini, Chartier and Otto all said that on top of the physical difficulties of recovery, they struggled with feelings of inadequacy and judgment about delivering via C-section, even though the procedure is common: Rabin said that "about 20% of the time, labor doesn't go as planned," and she noted that one in three pregnant women in the United States have C-sections.

Otto said nagging feelings of judgment and guilt contributed to her postpartum depression.

"I felt like I let myself down, and my husband down, and my baby down, because I couldn't do it the 'right' way," Otto said.

Chartier said her daughter's complications following birth made her feel "guilty" about not initially wanting a Caesarean section.

"I wish I hadn't been so afraid of the procedure, and I think there is a lot of this constant judgment of mothers that I think permeates, no matter what you do," she said. "It really feels like you're always doing the wrong thing. ... I had some implicit biases that had been kind of thrown in my direction."

C-section experience: It gets better

Each woman interviewed for this story had at least one other child via C-section following their first experience: Chartier and Medini each have two children. Otto has three children and is planning to deliver her fourth via Caesarean section soon.

Otto said her first C-section experience was the worst by far, but each procedure afterward was much easier.

"My second one ended up being in 2014 ... and that was scheduled. The doctor talked to me about what to expect," Otto recalled. "I was still super nervous going into the second one, even though it was planned, because of how kind of traumatic the first experience was, but it was better knowing what to expect."

Medini said that during her second C-section in 2013, she felt more comfortable advocating for herself.

"With my first one, I was so nauseous that when they brought my son up to my face my words were, 'He's beautiful but I don't want to throw up on him,'" Medini said. "What I appreciated about my second C-section was ... the anesthesiologist was like, 'What would you have changed about your first C-section?' And I said I felt like I was going to puke the whole time, and he said, 'We can take care of that. Just say the word.' ...

"I was almost assuming those things were normal — like, 'Well of course, they're pushing my insides around, of course I'm going to feel nauseous,' but there's stuff they can do to help. Try to make sure that you're vocalizing what's happening or what you're struggling with, so hopefully they'll be like, 'Oh, we have a solution for that,' and things will go a little bit more smoothly."

As her fourth C-section looms, Otto said she's not "looking forward to the surgery itself," but she's also not at all worried.

"I know everything to expect, so I'm not nervous," she said. "I feel like it's kind of my territory. I'm just going to walk in there and be like, 'OK, I know what you're about to do.'"

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