Sunday, October 5, 2014

Thoughts on being spared


There's some kind of intense stuff about c-sections in this post so you may want to skip it if you're not up for that.

Having an unplanned, emergency c-section can really do a number on you sometimes, even months after it happened.

Yesterday I was at the Milwaukee Art Museum with Frank (more on that trip later) and I came across the beautiful painting above. It's called Olive Bagley, Mrs. Stedman Buttrick and son John and was painted in 1909. I read that the little boy is supposed to be about 4 years old.

I was looking at this painting, really loving it—it reminds me of Mary Cassatt's work—when I made the mistake of reading the little descriptive plaque on the side. From the plaque I found out that this portrait was posthumous—Mrs. Stedman Buttrick had died in childbirth shortly before it was painted.

I knew that childbirth in past centuries was often dangerous and even fatal. At my mothers' tea recently, out of the five moms present, two had pre-eclampsia and two had medically necessary c-sections. In other words, four out of five of us would likely not have survived childbirth if we weren't living at this particular time in history. The fifth one of us, by the way, naturally birthed a 10-lb. baby with no drugs, and she is my hero and I aspire to be like her someday. But still. Four out of five of us. I know that is not statistically normal, but that is the statistics of my friend group.

So while I knew childbirth was always dangerous, I didn't think much about it until something about this painting brought it home in a way that I hadn't thought about before. I looked at that beautiful little boy, and at his warm and happy mother, and then I thought that she did not live to raise him. She and I were both in life-threatening childbirth situations, but I made it, and she did not. I began to tear up looking at them and I had to walk quickly away.

That got me thinking about the survival rates for c-sections in general. The only c-section I can ever remember hearing about in pre-modern times is the one from Macbeth, the character Macduff who was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb. When I got home, I made the worse mistake of googling c-section history. I came across this very well-written and informative site that told me c-sections were historically a last-ditch effort to save the baby after the mother was already dead, or close to it. In particular, I learned this:

In our society now women may be afraid of the pain of childbirth, but they do not expect it to kill them. Such could not be said of many women as late as the nineteenth century. Moreover, most women now expect their babies to survive birth. These are modern assumptions and ones that cesarean section has helped to promulgate. An operation that virtually always resulted in a dead woman and dead fetus now almost always results in a living mother and baby -- a transformation as significant to the women and families involved as to the medical profession. [emphasis added]

For women throughout most of history, a childbirth like mine would have meant death. So when I was confronted with this picture of a woman who died in childbirth—a woman who looks strong and sensible and kind—whose name was Olive—who, just like me, was a loving mother to her little boy—I honestly couldn't quite handle it.  I still can't. So I am sitting here wide awake at 2:23 in the morning when my husband and baby have been asleep for hours because I cannot stop thinking about why I was spared and she was not, and the monstrous unfairness of it.

All I can think is, Why? Why was I spared and not her? Why am I lucky enough to live in a time when c-sections are safe? Why did I survive childbirth, when most women in my situation would not have?

I don't have answers for those things. I don't know why I live at this time. I don't know why Frankie and I were spared. I feel so grateful, but honestly, I also feel a certain guilt—not guilt for having a c-section (I know it was unavoidable) but guilt that I am one of the few who came out alive from an experience that killed so many women of the past.

In a way, I feel as though I have a new lease on life. It is strange to realize, months after the fact, that you survived something that should have killed you. I want to appreciate and savor this life, when I consider how close I came to losing it. Life is a gift. Motherhood is a gift. Modern medicine is a gift. I hope I never forget those things.

I thought that writing about the birth would be the catharsis I needed to get over it and move on. But five months later, I'm still staying up nights struggling with it. I don't know, is that weird? I wonder when I will finally get over it. In any case, as I look at my life and think about how close I came to losing it, I am inspired to make the most of what I think of as a second chance. And for that mentality, that desire to make the most of every day and to deeply enjoy the life I've been spared to live, I am very grateful.


  1. I think that God works in very natural processes. So, those women that died in childbirth back then, it was just part of the natural process that they were born in that era and again part of a sad reality that they died in childbirth before the technology was available. God can bring good from these physical evils, such as possibly the woman receiving her reward for giving her life for her child in Heaven.

    Thank goodness to God for the amazing technology that spared your life.

    I don't think God chooses one woman to live and the other to die. He lets the natural process of life unfold and has given man the intellect to develop technology over time and sometimes man uses that technology for good (ie c-sections) and sometimes for bad (IVF).

    I imagine that God eternally rewarded many of those women who gave up their lives to have their babies. And He will reward you for the suffering you experienced in your own labor and for raising souls to be with Him in Heaven forever.

    1. You're so right, Andrea, in saying that God doesn't choose one woman to live and another to die. Thank you for reminding me of that! Thanks also for pointing out the bigger picture—none of this would make much sense without remembering Heaven, right? Thanks for such great points to think about. :)

  2. I don't think it's at all weird that you're struggling with your traumatic birth still. It was a trauma...your whole system needs time to recover! I wonder if there are any post-C-section support groups in your area? I've heard they can be very healing and helpful. I just read that St. Catherine of Siena's parents lost HALF their children in infancy...it makes me feel sick to think about. I think we experience particular crosses in the time period we're placed and infant/maternal mortality was definitely one during that time (well, most of history until modern med and sanitation). Definitely makes me so grateful for the lives and health of my babies!

    1. Nicole, you bring up such a great point about how different time periods in history come with different crosses. I've been holding onto that thought. Thanks for describing it so eloquently!

  3. I admire your courage and eloquence in working through your complicated post-c-section emotions. I can definitely relate. And I'm definitely very grateful for modern medicine. :)

  4. Don't usually comment, but this was a fantastic post, Tess. Beautiful to think about. ~Lauren Mann

    1. Thank you, Lauren! That really means a lot.

  5. Maybe it's good that these thoughts are keeping you up at night, rather than feelings of frustration about not getting the birth you envisioned? Healthier, at least?

    These specific thoughts actually haven't really occurred to me much. I've thought more about how lucky I am to live in America, with fantastic health insurance. There's so many countries in the world without NICU facilities at all and so many Americans who would be nearly bankrupted by a NICU stay like Claire's...