“Hey, wanna see my C-section scar?” That’s not a sentence most people usually hear, or say. And, as a woman who had a C-section, it’s pretty easy to understand why.
There is no denying that my C-section might have been one of the worst experiences of my life. But at the same time, it was one of the most wonderful. The surgery can be a lot to wade through mentally, physically, and spiritually for a new mom. For me, it was no different.
I really, really wanted to have a vaginal childbirth. I wanted an Ina May Gaskin, baby at home, doula and midwife, Ricki Lake documentary-style delivery. When friends came over, I would explain to them with a snarky smile that the baby was born in this room. That’s the kind of birth I envisioned.
Instead, what I got was a bit of a harsh reality check—a doctor telling me that due to oligohydramnios, or low amniotic fluid, a C-section was imperative. I recall hearing scary clinical words like “incision” as I lie under anesthesia, feeling helpless yet awake, as if I was being gutted like a fish.
But on the other, very bright side, the result was a beautiful and healthy baby boy. Luckily, I also healed well without complications, aside from my experience with postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder and the definitive realization that I didn't ever want to go through that again.
After the birth, I felt devastated, and somehow as if I was the only woman who’d ever had a C-section before—which is of course far from the truth.
Postpartum hormone disarray is a heaping hot dish best consumed with company, but I plowed through it mostly alone. My busy husband floated us financially as I recovered and cared for the baby, and my family came from a long distance away for short visits to help when they could. But I spent many months with just my emotions and a tiny infant doubling as a hanky to sop up so many of my tears.
A week after my pregnancy, I returned to the ER, convinced something was wrong. I was experiencing what seemed like every emotional and physical postpartum symptom that the phone book’s worth of information (remember phone books?) the nurses sent me home with said to look out for—from stomach cramps, to nausea, to over-exhaustion, to anxiety, leg pain, back pain, and a persistent headache. These symptoms could signal anything from postpartum depression, to a bowel injury, to an infection, as I understood. So I went to the hospital.
The ER doctor, a woman about my age, explained comfortingly that she had had a C-section a year earlier. “It gets better,” she said. “You just had a baby a week ago! Give yourself a chance to heal.” For the first time since the birth, her kind words about our shared experience offered me a glimpse of what it felt like to be human again.
That interaction inspired me to seek out other moms who also had C-sections and talk to them about their experiences. There are loads of us.
Roughly 30 percent of births in the U.S. happen via C-section, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Talking to other mothers, I heard similar and comforting thoughts and ideas and a general remembrance of what is so important: Though the surgery is no foosball festival, it (thankfully) brought this particular group of women much loved children to show for it. Oh, and of course, a sweet scar.
C-section operations and their resulting scars are different now than they used to be. They aren’t typically vertical anymore, or as long, and they are now usually cut very low into the belly, just above the pubic line. You're unlikely to even get a peek at the scar on a mother in a cropped top or even a bikini.
For some, a scar can be a powerful piece of evidence, a snapshot of a story of having lived through a traumatic event. But when it comes to C-section scars, it doesn’t always feel that way.
In all my years on the planet, no one has ever boasted their C-section scar to me. In many circles, it seems odd for moms to show off C-section scars and say, “That’s where the baby came out!” It’s almost as if the scar itself is another vagina, and to display it would be inappropriate or unchaste.
However, for the group of women you’re about to meet, showing their scars was, in some ways, healing. It offered a chance for lively, therapeutic discussion about their birth experiences, which vary greatly from “not so bad” to “my worst case scenario.” It was courageous of them to reveal their scars, if for no other reason than it’s just not something women typically do—both because society doesn’t encourage it and because it can be scary to expose any vulnerability to the world. I know this for certain, because one of the women photographed is me.
Some of the women featured here had complications, others had a relatively smooth ride, and some are still trying to make sense of it all. Here are some of their post-surgery thoughts and perspectives on the operation, their advice to others, and, of course, the physical mark the experience left.
All photos were taken by Alex M. Smith.