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A Mother’s Joys & Scars: Co-Founder of Nyssa, Aubrey Howard, Shares About Her Unplanned Cesarean Birth

Aubrey is a co-founder of Nyssa and lives in Michigan with her six-year-old son. When she's not playing with her son, reading, or fixing up her log cabin, she works to create engaging and seamless digital experiences.

Here is her story.

I’m pretty sure that hospital maternity departments schedule progressively better nurses the closer patients are to the ‘zero hour’ of birth.

In theory, that’s amazing. I certainly want the best medical team overseeing that life-changing moment. 

In practice, this meant the nurse with poor bedside manner and the touch of an iron fist in a sandpaper glove was tasked with pushing a cervix-softening pill deep into my vaginal canal, kicking off what would be my three-day birthing extravaganza.

The pregnancy that led to the existence of my beautiful six-year-old boy was very wanted, albeit very unplanned.

Aubrey taking a side angle selfie of pregnant belly

That modern augur – the fine lines on urine-soaked plastic – marked the eminent change and magnitude of unknowns. Planned or unplanned, finding out you’ll have your first child dramatically changes how you observe the world around you, and the countdown begins.

Now, when I scrolled through my Instagram feed, it was with novel attentiveness toward former high-school chums, smiling through tears and exhaustion, triumphantly snuggling the little bundles that they had *just* heroically pushed out of their bodies.

I quickly absorbed terms like ‘empowered birthing,’ ‘breast is best’ and ‘vbac.’ I watched an inordinate number of videos in which women, held from behind by their shirtless partner, squatted in a pool of water as a dark form appeared and surfaced… Poof! A baby. The mother crying and laughing from sheer overwhelm.

As the countdown continues, the reality of what’s ahead sharpens focus. And, like every human I’ve ever met preparing to give birth for the first time, the countdown also made me scared. Scared of pain, scared of uncertainty, scared for the health of this new love living inside me. 

It’s fascinating how when we are feeling scared, there seems to be a compulsive, collective societal response to make us un-scared. Choruses of ‘your body was built for this – it will know what to do’ or ‘women have been doing this for millenia’ began to infiltrate many of my conversations.

(In case you don’t finish this: Never ever say any of these things to a pregnant person).

I sped through my pregnancy with mounting rapidity and cognitive dissonance. Yes, I’m about a foot shorter than my partner and he was over 9 lbs at birth… but I will access this magical experience of empowered birth. Sure, most women in my family have given birth via emergency cesarean… but I don't want any medical interventions. After all, it all really seems to be a matter of willpower. Of preparation. Of strength. Right?

Image of Audrey's son playing with friend

My due date – the first due date, at least – was Thanksgiving of 2016. I was terrified and excited as it came and went.  

At my next Doctor’s visit, they concluded that the first due date had been wrong. They pushed it back a week. I walked a lot, tried to get my partner to have sex with me (not to connect or enjoy, but because the doctor had advised that the best way to get a baby out is the same way it got in).

Due date pushed back one more week. 

Having lost all motivation, I spent the week on my couch with my friend, Cognitive Dissonance, watching Frasier and eating *a lot* of frozen custard.

Scheduled for induction.

A few days before my ‘appointment,’ exhausted, uncomfortable, I now woke up with unbearable itchiness. Using my phone to photograph the underside of my belly (now a blurry artifact of the stretchmarks I had so proudly avoided) and found red lines expanding. Like pulling the loose thread on a woven sweater. I was unraveling.

The induction date arrived. On the elevator, *hilariously* stressed about being late for what would actually be a week and a half stay in the maternity ward, I kept thinking about what my mom said about her c-section with me: ‘You had the most beautiful, perfectly round head.’

Image of Aubrey holding pregnant belly soon before c-section surgery

I looked in the stainless-steel reflection. When and how did my belly get this big? My mind flashed back to and fixated on one of my birthing classes where we covered the ‘cascade of interventions.’ When you say yes to one, more inevitably follow. My first intervention was the vaginal pill. The one delivered by Nurse Sandpaper. The reason I’m here, on this elevator, right now. 

I could talk forever about the process of my own emergency c-section. The back labor (which I hear happens more often when induced), how, lying on the operating table I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I’d had the same anesthesiologist for the last 36 hours (and was he falling asleep in his chair?), not being able to move or breathe while they pulled out my son…

Aubrey on operating table for cesarean

I could also talk about way that women are poorly served by the modern healthcare industry, how messed up it is that pregnancy is considered a pre-existing condition for insurance, the history of disempowerment of women to advocate for their own health, the breathtakingly abysmal treatment of women of color resulting in one of the most atrocious maternal mortality rates in the modern world…

All these things are so, incredibly important.

I was lucky/privileged enough to come out on the other side of my emergency c-section with a healthy baby, no complications, and well cared for by a team of kind and competent medical professionals (yes, I’ll even include Nurse Sandpaper in that count). But I also came out on the other side with a deep sadness. Did I miss out on an opportunity to connect with the primal forces of nature? To experience spiritual and physical transformation? Should I have done more prenatal yoga? Prepared differently?

Photo of Aubrey's Newborn Baby Boy

As it is wont to do, time passed. I learned to say, ‘vaginal birth,’ instead of ‘natural birth.’ Those worries became consumed by new, different worries. ‘Is it normal for my son to stick his finger up his butt?’ and ‘how the hell do modern families afford childcare?’ Etcetera.

But recently, a good friend’s sister had her first child. I asked how the sister was faring with her postpartum recovery, and my friend shared how saddened, how disappointed, her sister was. She’d wanted to give birth ‘naturally,’ and had to have her own emergency c-section.

Yes, the sister had big plans for the magic of birth. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that sadness, or for wanting to avoid medical intervention, or for disappointment when important events don’t unfold according to plan.

Photo of Aubrey with Grown Son

But there is a problem with the narrative of the ideal birth. With the guilt. With the notion that despite the pressure put on modern families to stay afloat, despite the chronic disempowerment of women in healthcare settings, despite all of this: women and birthing folks feel personal responsibility to ‘live up’ to what ‘their bodies are built for.’

This narrative doesn’t prioritize the health of parent and child. It doesn’t account for societal and political responsibility to care for those birthing and raising the next generation of humans. And it doesn’t equip us with the information that we need to not only make the best decisions for ourselves, but to experience less trauma (I, for one, didn’t go to the gynecologist for two years after the birth of my son. Thanks, Nurse Sandpaper). 

Aubrey's Son with Father and Friend

So, if you know someone who is about to give birth, listen to them, encourage them to learn more about advocacy in a medical setting, and do not tell them that people have been doing this for millennia. Because people have also been dying doing this for millennia.

And if you’re about to give birth: I may not have connected with the elusive ancient mysticism, but I can tell you from experience that there is so much magic waiting for you on the other side. And if you do end up having a planned or unplanned cesarean, yes, it is a major surgery (and I, for one, look like death warmed-over in all photos). But I’m alive. My baby is alive. And my vagina is in pretty great shape. (No thanks to Nurse Sandpaper).

Written by Aubrey Howard.
Black and White Photo of Aubrey with Newborn Son

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