Gwen’s Birth, By Sarah Manton-Hollis

Gwen’s birth story starts a few years before she was born.  I’d had three miscarriages previously and a thyroid condition so had ended up starting this pregnancy being closely monitored in a fertility clinic. I then transferred to a high risk Obgyn at about nine weeks when it seemed to be going well.  As time went on we started going to Bradley classes and getting educated about our birth options and it became clear by the third trimester that I was no longer high risk.  So we found a great midwife (our Bradley teacher) and decided to have a home birth which we both felt really good about.

I was quite excited to test myself and put all the preparation into practice.  My husband had been ‘coaching’ me in breathing through the pain of a tricky yoga pose every morning and I was leaning to relax into the pain instead of tensing.  I’d also been listening to hypnobirthing recordings and reading a lot of books about natural childbirth.  I was also interested in the sexuality of giving birth and just excited/scared/intrigued to do this when the day came.  I felt like I was going through the process with my husband and that giving birth would be a great bonding experience for us too.  I felt like I was learning to trust him and let him help me.

However, the baby was breech and had been for some time so the home birth midwives wouldn’t take us on until she had turned.  My doctor suggested trying a ‘version’ at her hospital but couldn’t tell me who would be doing it and wasn’t very optimistic about the prospect of it working.  She wanted us to schedule a c section at 39 weeks.

We really didn’t want to do this.  The one thing I knew I didn’t want was a c section, I’d heard about all these unnecessary c sections and felt like I had armed myself with the information to avoid this.  I did everything I could to turn the baby – standing on my head in the swimming pool, playing music opposite the head, putting cold near the baby’s head and heat the other end, everything on the spinning babies website including lying upside down along an ironing board leaning off the sofa, acupuncture and chiropractic work three times a week, moxibustion on my little toes… But she was still firmly breech.

My childbirth education teacher told me about a doctor in New Jersey who was know for his success at doing versions and also that he did breech vaginal births too. We went to see him and trusted him immediately.  He said the baby was small, there was lots of fluid and he was sure he could turn her. In fact, he would have done it then and there in the office but the cord was around her neck a little so he wanted to do it in the hospital to be on the safe side.  This was Monday.  We booked an appt for the version the following Monday when I would have been nearly 37 weeks but the doctor said he was hopeful she would turn naturally by then.  We had a brief chat about vaginal breech births and gentle c-sections in case it didn’t work or something went wrong but the doctor was sure it would all be fine and I’d get my natural homebirth. Great.

The following Saturday – Jan 23rd – I woke up in bed next to my husband feeling particularly rested and cozy.  Snowstorm Jonas was in full swing outside but it felt very quiet and calm.  Then, as I lay there, there was a little gentle ‘pop’ in my belly.  I went to the bathroom and felt water running down my leg.  My water had broken.  It was happening.  It was 2 days before I was due to have the version so she was still breech.  Excitement, fear – my brain flicked through what this would mean.  Officially the only doctor I had was the c-section Obgyn.  I had toured her hospital twice but had made up my mind I wasn’t having the baby there.  But what else could I do?  I texted my doula.  No reply.  Called her.  No reply.  Texted my midwife and said I didn’t know what to do but that I was thinking about asking the New Jersey doctor to do a vaginal breech birth.  I wanted to avoid a c section at all costs.  I had been in control of this so far, I could still get what I want surely.  I called him and he soon called back. I said,  ‘I know we only just met briefly but would you consider delivering my breech baby vaginally this morning?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m at synagogue and was supposed to have lunch with my daughter but sure, if you can get there in the snowstorm I’ll do it. Text me when you decide for sure.’


I sat there on the sofa and got very scared. The baby wasn’t moving much.  What if there was something wrong and we went to the hospital further away and it was too late?  The big hospital has a great reputation treating premature babies.  But I’ll be straight into a c section without my doula being allowed in and the baby’ll be taken away straight afterwards, all the things I was scared of and determined to not let happen.  I just had a bad feeling about this hospital which was more important than anything.  I cried a bit, I looked around a the living room where I had been visualizing my birth and knew that whatever happened it was not going to be that.  I texted the midwife again. She said drink juice and lie on your side and see if she kicks.  There was a tiny bit of movement.  I still couldn’t get hold of my doula so texted our standby doula who lived around the corner and I knew was an amazingly supportive person.  She asked if I wanted her to come over and I said yes.  I google mapped the distances between the two hospitals and NJ was only 5 mins difference so I decided to go there and do a vaginal breech birth.  Great.  We hadn’t made a birth, plan, we hadn’t packed a bag, I was shouting at my husband to get stuff together. My dressing gown, a soft blanket, a pillow.  He typed up and printed a birth plan.  The atmosphere was very tense, I was taking my anxiety out on him.

The doula came over, smelled my pad to confirm in was amniotic fluid and asked if I wanted her to come with us to the hospital. Yes I did. Meanwhile my original doula had got in touch ( she hadn’t given me her on call number yet as I was only 36 weeks) and said she would also head to the hospital and take over if she could get there in the snow storm.  We called an uber.  I walked down the stairs to our apt, in front of everyone else, racing to get into the cab despite all the snow and slipperiness.  I wanted to make sure the baby was ok.  It was so snowy there was no one on the westside highway at all.  It was beautiful.  I managed to be present and the doula kept talking to us and listening to my worries.  With her there I felt the pressure ease between my husband and me – I felt connected to him again.  But I was mourning my home birth.  Two days before I had been to a ‘Choices in Childbirth’ event where a lady had described this scenario – having to have a c section as her baby was breech and mourning the home birth she had planned.  She talking about giving herself time to feel the emotions.  It helped so much having heard this and I let myself morn and feel everything in the cab.  The cab driver missed the exit and reversed on the freeway as there wasn’t a single car around in the snow.  It felt like the world knew something momentous was going on.


By the time I  reached the hospital I was feeling positive and excited.  I trusted this doctor, it would be ok.  I remember reading a birth story about a vaginal breech birth where the midwife had told her ‘you’re going to get huge’ and the mother used this as a mantra and did indeed get huge and pushed the baby out no problem.  We got into triage and they hooked me up to machines.  There was a tv and lots of light in the room.  So different to the other hospital.  We could see the snow falling through the window.  I sent a couple of texts cancelling my evening plans and not telling them I was in labour. The midwife texted to ask if I wanted her to come too! The doctor would be here soon.  In the meantime my contractions were 3 mins apart.  Was I feeling anything?  Not really. Mild period pains.  I concentrated on relaxing. we were both excited.  The anesthesiologist came in and talked about a c-section.  I’m doing a vaginal breech birth so I wont need that.  And I’m going to do it naturally so wont need you at all- thanks.  He was not convinced but I let him say his piece.  I also said I wanted my doula and my husband in the room if I did have a c section and he said that wasn’t allowed but I insisted the doctor had agreed I could have that ( which he had).  They wheeled me into another room and the doctor came.  Without saying much he did a really painful examination.  Was he trying to turn the baby now?  It seemed so.  I breathed through it.  My original doula had now arrived and held my hand.  This is how labour was going to be.  I had passed the first test.

Then the doctor said, ‘I’m afraid the baby’s feet are right at the mouth of your cervix.  I can literally feel both heels.  If you try to do a vaginal birth now the feet will come through before you’re fully dilated and the head may get stuck.  Its too dangerous.  I’m sorry.  This is the only case where I cant do a vaginal breech birth.”  Then he pointed to my doula and said – “do you trust her?”  Yes. He asked if she would like to feel the feet as well to prove that he wasn’t making it up.  Would I mind?  She put on gloves and felt them.  She said it was so clear that’s where they were.  He wanted to be sure I knew he wasn’t doing the c-section unnecessarily.   In retrospect this was a really special moment.  I’m so glad he did that.  It also gave me a minute to process what he was saying.  So what now?  I’d have to have a c section.   He would perform it. Right now.  Couldn’t I wait a while until labour progresses in case she turns?  I’d heard that it could happen during labour.  Not when your water has already broken he said, and he had tried really hard to turn her manually.  Ok?  Yes. I trusted him.  But could I please have my husband and doula both in there?  Yes, that would be fine. So that was it.  It was happening immediately.

They started shaving pubic hair (with a blunt razor, the most painful part of the whole thing) and getting my husband and doula into blue suits.  It was like a well oiled machine, everything was happening quickly around me, like they had all been waiting in the wings ready to spring into action.  I had prepared myself for a marathon and was now about to have this quick experience I’d barely thought about.  The only similar thing I had to compare it to was the d and c I’d had with one of the previous pregnancies that had lost the heartbeat.  I had been so scared about the anesthetic but it had been totally fine and easy.  I am grateful for having had that experience.  However I was shaky and edgy and for some reason they wouldn’t let my husband or doula in the room while I had the needle put in my spine for the anaesthetic.  I shed a few tears not for pain but because it all felt overwhelming.  I wish I had had someone else there with me as this particular guy was sarcastic and not very comforting.  He tied a heat pad to my arms so I had to keep them straight out.  My husband and doula came back.  They put a sheet up quite near my face and I worried I would panic and not be able to move.  But I had my people there.  They told me what was going on.  I just felt warm and relaxed. The doctor came in and kind of narrated a bit of what he was doing.

Then in a very short time she was out.  My husband saw her come out bum first and then they brought her round to me.  I couldn’t hold her or put her on my chest but they put her face right next to mine and my husband came in close too.  She was red and crying and covered in vernix. I could touch her face.  I just kept saying ‘hello little face’, ‘hello baby’.  I didn’t feel very much different to a few moments ago but there she was.  It had been so quick.  The doctor sewed me up and I went into recovery.  Very soon i had her back with me and the doula helped me latch her on and she fed for 40 mins.  My husband remembers both our faces lighting up the first time she latched.  She was 5lbs 3oz, so tiny, yet she knew how to do this.  I kept her close as long as I could despite vomiting a lot from the drugs, then she want with Richard and I had her back when they moved me to my room.  The next few days were filled with breastfeeding and lactation consultants and hand expressing and syringe feeding.   My doula got snowed in and had to stay til the morning.  She was a lactation consultant and helped me so much.  Because we were not at the big city hospital, my husband got to stay in out room and helped so much too.  I was walking within a day.  I had some referred gas pain in my shoulder but apart from that my recovery was really good, I easily walked out of the hospital and up to our 4th floor walk-up apartment a few days later – not like the horror stories I had heard about c-sections.

Reflecting on it now, I think I was being looked after somehow.  All the meditation and relaxation and preparation I’d done beforehand, helped me be ready for the challenges of being a new mom and certainly was not wasted.  For a while I held onto the feeling that I didn’t really go through childbirth, that I hadn’t had a chance to prove I could do it like other moms, that I somehow ‘cheated’ and was ‘cheated out of’ that experience.  But really its just a lesson in giving up control and letting my daughter Gwen show me and teach me to be open to what its needed rather than what I think or thought I needed to do.  I am so glad I exhausted all the options before having a c section so have zero regrets.   It took some courage to make that decision on the sofa to go to NJ and I’m proud I did that.  Some things I might have considered that didn’t happen were delayed cord clamping and skin to skin immediately after birth, even in the operating room but I feel like with birth you cant be perfect.  You have to just do everything you can, or what you feel you can do in the moment and forgive yourself the rest. And 14 months on as I am writing this and Gwen is chuntering away with my husband in the other room and about to end her nap and toddle out here to me, I know that I will continue to make brave choices and miss the ideal choice and uncover choices I had no idea existed as she and I both continue to grow up.

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