Since having Max by elective c-section, I’ve had quite a few requests for advice from people who, like me, suffer from tokophobia, and who – also like me – think they want an elective c-section as a result of that, but then find themselves scared to death by all of the information they’re given about the process. You know, that bit where the doctor’s all, “Well, sure, I mean a c-section could be a good way to deal with your fear of childbirth, but it could also be a good way to die in a pool of blood: still want to go ahead with it?” Yeah, THAT.
Now, obviously I’m not here to tell anyone what to do (So, spoiler alert: this post will probably be a bit of a ramble…), but as I’ve had a few messages recently from women who are really struggling to decide whether or not to go ahead with their c-section request, today I thought I’d just jot down a few quick thoughts on the subject: and, as is generally the case with me, anytime I say I’m going to write a “quick” post on something, it ends up being twice as long as War & Peace, so, you know, apologies in advance…
[Trigger warning: this is presumably clear from the context, but there wasn’t a way to write this post without talking about some of the risks of childbirth, so, if you’re dealing with tokophobia, proceed with caution…]
I always knew I wanted to give birth by c-section: in fact, if NHS guidelines hadn’t been updated in 2011, giving all women the right to choose how they give birth, I don’t think I’d have even considered getting pregnant – THAT’S how scared I was. I wrote about the reasons for my tokophobia in this post, so I won’t bore you with them again, but suffice it to say that I. Was. Terrified. What’s more, I felt very, very alone in that terror: I knew, of course, that tokophobia existed, and that there must surely be other people out there who felt exactly the same dread of birth I did, but, well, it’s not exactly what you’d call dinner-party conversation, is it? Fear of childbirth is, I think, something most women experience, to some extent or another: for me, though, it was a full-blown phobia, which is something very, very different.
Unlike most of the Instagram mummies I followed, I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to experience childbirth: I didn’t consider it some kind of rite of passage, and I knew I wouldn’t be any less of a mother if I didn’t push the baby out myself. I know a lot of women feel like they’ve “failed” somehow, if they don’t have a natural birth, but while I’m not knocking that point of view – we’re all entitled to feel however we feel, after all – I also can’t pretend to understand or relate to it, either, which meant my decision wasn’t clouded by any feelings about the “right” or “wrong” way to give birth. As I kept on saying, I wanted a baby, not a “birth experience”, and all I really cared about was that we both got through it alive – and, ideally, in the least traumatic way possible.
So, I was absolutely sure I wanted a c-section … right up to the moment I met with my consultant to request one, and left the appointment telling Terry that, actually, the baby would just have to stay where he was forever, because I could see absolutely no possible way of getting him out without one or both of us dying. So THAT was a fun car ride home, for sure.
Now, I should probably add here that my reaction to that appointment had absolutely nothing to do with my doctor. She was lovely. She was supportive. She made it clear, right from that very first meeting, that if I really wanted an elective c-section, I would get one. She also, however, said she wouldn’t be happy to give the procedure the go-ahead until she was sure I was aware of the risks – so I left hospital that day with a thick booklet called, ‘Here Are All the Ways You Might Die During Your C-Section!’ – or, you know, words to that effect – and the absolute conviction that I would enter the Guinness Book of Records as the first woman to remain pregnant for the rest of her life. Like, I could just cross my legs or something, right? Or keep him in there by sheer willpower? I would have to figure something out, anyway, because one thing I was sure of was that, following my chat with the consultant, and a quick flick through the information she’d given me, there was absolutely NO CHANCE I’d be willing to risk having a c-section.
Which brings me to my first – and possibly ONLY – piece of advice to anyone considering having an elective c-section for tokophobia:
Don’t trust what the NHS tell you about c-sections.
Which, OK, is probably just a little bit more emotive than I intended it to be, so let me clarify: when I say you shouldn’t trust the NHS on this, I’m not saying the information they give you is incorrect – not at all. It’s also not particularly balanced, though: and, for someone trying to decide between two, equally terrifying, options, that’s just not very helpful.
When I requested my c-section I was told about all of the risks associated with the procedure – including some that are very unlikely to actually happen – but absolutely NONE of the risks associated with a vaginal birth. And this is incredibly problematic, because, by only providing one side of the story, and comparing the risks of one option with the benefits of another, the information you’re given provides a very skewed perspective. In fact, when I started to research it myself, I quickly came to understand that the NHS were essentially comparing emergency c-sections (Which are generally riskier than planned ones, for obvious reasons, and which I was very keen to avoid…) with perfect vaginal births. Which I guess would be fine if all vaginal births were perfect … but they’re not, are they?
Actually, statistics show that 90% of women will tear to some extent during a vaginal delivery. That’s not a small percentage, and yet it’s not something you’ll be told upfront when you’re considering your birth options – or, at least I wasn’t, anyway. I know there are currently discussions underway which could require doctors to explain the risks of both types of delivery to expectant mothers, but, when I was pregnant with Max, that definitely wasn’t the case. Had I said I wanted a vaginal birth, no one would have tried to talk me out of it on the grounds that there was a 90% chance of injury during delivery: they DID, however, list every single possible complication of my planned c-section, no matter how remote a possibility it was, and, whether intentionally or not, that had the effect of seriously making me doubt my decision. In fact, I left the doctor’s office that day essentially believing that there was a safe, easy way to give birth, and a difficult, dangerous one – and that I was choosing the latter.
Which just isn’t true.
And, I mean, YES, there are obviously risks to having a c-section, just as there are risks attached to any kind of surgery. There are also, however, risks associated with vaginal birth: and those are the risks the NHS won’t tell you, even although many of them are the SAME risks you’ll find with c-sections.
I was told, for instance, that, if I had a c-section, there was a possibility that un-named complications could lead to me having to have a hysterectomy. Now, to be fair, my doctor DID tell me that this was unlikely: what she DIDN’T tell me, however, was that the same is true of vaginal birth – i.e., if something goes catastrophically wrong, you could end up having to have a hysterectomy REGARDLESS of the method of delivery. At the time of writing, a woman telling her doctor she wants a natural birth will NOT be told, “Oh, but have you considered the fact that you might end up having to have a hysterectomy if something goes wrong?” A woman requesting a c-section, on the other hand, WILL. At least twice, if memory serves.
I was also told about the risk of me haemorrhaging during the operation: and, again, yes, sure, that COULD happen (Spoiler: it didn’t.) during a c-section… but it could ALSO happen during a vaginal delivery. This is anecdotal evidence, of course, but I can think of at least two women who had dangerous levels of blood loss during vaginal deliveries: neither of them were warned about it beforehand. It just isn’t done.
And so it went on. The surgeon could accidentally damage one of my internal organs while getting the baby out. The baby could be cut by the scalpel. The zombie apocalypse could come to pass while I was lying on the operating table, and, if it did, guess who would be the first one to “turn”? (Er, OK, maybe not that last one. IT COULD HAPPEN, though.) And let me be clear: there are obviously some c-section risks that DON’T apply to vaginal birth (DVT, infection of the scar, etc)… but there are also some risks associated with vaginal births that don’t apply to c-sections: tearing and future incontinence being the main ones that spring to mind. These, however, were risks I had to find out about myself, because they weren’t brought up during the referral process, or at any point in my antenatal care. And sure, that could be unusual, I guess. If the emails and another messages I’ve been getting are anything to go by, though, I somehow don’t think it is: because, what I keep hearing, is that women who request a c-section for tokohobia are being led to believe that they’re making a very dangerous choice, when there’s a totally safe choice they could be making instead. And, I’ll say it again: that just isn’t true.
In the end, of course, I did decide to go ahead with an elective c-section. Why? Well, I gave some of my reasons in this post, but there were a couple of factors that helped make up my mind. The first was simply that, once I’d calmed down a little after my initial meeting with my consultant, I put the information she’d given me to one side, and did my own research. What I came to realise is that, while there are obviously risks associated with any type of surgery, planned c-sections are, for the most part, very safe. The NHS’s own website actually states this, although it’s not something they seem keen to tell you in face-to-face meetings. I also came to realise that there would ALWAYS be risks, regardless of how I chose to give birth, and that, ultimately, it’s just a question of deciding which risks you’re willing to live with, and which are going to be deal-breakers.
In my case, my deal-breakers were the possibility of me having to be induced (Which wouldn’t have played out well for me, as it could’ve involved me being in hospital, on my own, for a long time while I waited for things to get started…), or requiring a general anaesthetic, which is sometimes necessary during an emergency c-section, and which I have a full-blown phobia of.
So, in a way, I chose an elective c-section in order to avoid having to have an emergency one… which, OK, sounds pretty crazy when you put it like that, but it made sense at the time. (And yes, I was warned that there was no way to guarantee that I wouldn’t need a general anaesthetic: having a planned c-section gave me the lowest possible risk of needing one, though, and that had to be enough for me.) It still makes sense now, though, to be honest, because I must have read hundreds of birth stories during (and before) my pregnancy, and one thing I learned from them was that, while all vaginal births are totally different, most planned c-sections seemed to be pretty similar, really. There are no guarantees, obviously, and there will always be someone who ends up having a totally different experience (Hey, are you guys as sick of all of these caveats as I am by now? Thought so…), but, my personal opinion is that a planned c-section is the closest you’ll get to knowing more-or-less how your baby will enter the world: and, as I got closer to my due date, that was a huge comfort to me.
My best advice to anyone considering an elective c-section for tokophobia, then?
Do your own research – don’t just rely on the one-sided information you’ll get from the NHS.
Work out what your deal breakers are, and which risks you’re willing to live with.
Meet with the staff who’ll be carrying out the c-section, if you can. One of the most helpful things for me was being given a tour of the labour and delivery ward, in which I was walked through exactly what would happen on the day, right up to the moment I entered the operating theatre. Seeing everyone go about their business, completely unfazed, helped me realise that while, for me, having a c-section was the scariest thing I’d ever done, for the hospital staff, it was totally routine, and something they do all day, every day. (We also got to see a new baby just seconds after birth, and that was pretty damn amazing too, it has to be said…)
Understand that there is no “easy” option when you have tokophobia. Honestly, I wish I could say there was a moment when I thought, “Yes, that’s it: I’m totally sure I’m making the right decision here!” but there really wasn’t. I had doubts right up until the moment I heard that first cry in the operating theatre: and, if I were to do it all again, I’m pretty sure I’d have exactly the same doubts and fears. The fact is, if you have tokophobia, there isn’t really an EASY way to give birth: however you do it, it’s going to scare you – so the only thing you can really do is to work out which method will scare you the least, and make your peace with that.
Above all, though, I think my main piece of advice would be to remember that this too will pass. I know that’s one of those things people say, and that you’ll probably just roll your eyes and think, “Yeah, yeah: easy for you to say!” but it’s true. I spent literally YEARS worrying about childbirth: it was the hardest, scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And yet, here I am, nine months later: and while I won’t claim that it’s just a distant memory, because I can remember it in vivid detail, it DOES feel like something that happened a long time ago. It passed, is what I’m saying: and it passed safely, and without drama, just as I’d hoped it would. And, of course, if I’d opted for a vaginal birth, I could be saying exactly the same thing: we will never know. As I said at the start of this post, I’m not here to convince you one way or another: I’m just here to tell you why I decided an elective c-section was the right choice for me, and why I’d – most likely – chose one again, if I were to have another baby. (Which, HAHA, NOPE.)
As for you, well, ultimately, you have to make your own decision, of course: but, whatever it is, if posts like this one help you feel even a little bit less alone in your fears, then that’s good enough for me.