Cora’s belly birth
When life gives you a breech baby, cultivating a positive mindset can make a C-section a sacred experience, too
By Emma Frisch
“No more,” I groaned as my mother ladled a second helping of minestrone into my bowl.
“You sure?” she said.
“I can’t eat anything else. My stomach will explode,” I said.
“Oh, alright,” she said, taking the soup bowl back into the kitchen and returning with a massive fruit salad.
“What’s that!” I cringed, my squashed belly protesting from behind the baby’s head.
“More roughage,” said my mother. “It’s got lots of pineapple.”
Pineapple, according to the blogs my mother had been pouring over since she arrived, was a surefire way of inducing labor. But the main takeaway from her research was that copious quantities of roughage would build up into a massive bowel movement which would almost certainly make me go into labor, hence our fiber-rich lunch.
“Let’s go for a walk after you’ve had a nap. Exercise can get things moving,” she said as I chewed my way through pineapple, grapes, mango, oranges and apples cut into bite-size pieces.
I couldn’t blame her for trying to hurry along my labor. I had pushed back my C-section by a week after she’d made the four-hour drive to Ithaca, and I felt as if I were holding her hostage until I made The Decision: move forward with a scheduled C-section or wait until labor began and then have an unscheduled (or “emergency”) C-section.
“So what are you thinking?” she asked.
“Hire you as my personal chef?” I smiled, and felt my throat clench as I fought to hold back a wave of tears.
My second baby was lying in a breech position, just like our first daughter, Ayla. In the 21st century that usually means a scheduled C-section. So here we were for a second time, switching gears from a home birth to a hospital birth. It didn’t seem fair. A hospital VBAC (vaginal birth after C-section) was something I was open to, but Bobby wasn’t willing to take on those risks. And frankly, neither was I without his support.
After Ayla’s birth, I promised that if I ever had another breech baby, I wouldn’t go through the stress of trying to spin him or her. I would simply relish the miracle of growing a human inside of me, schedule a C-section, and be done with it. Yet, when I learned that this baby was also breech, I couldn’t fight the hope that maybe, just maybe, this baby would spin.
During the last six weeks of my pregnancy we tried every trick under the sun. Bobby and my mom took turns burning “moxa” sticks next to my pinky toes, I went to the local swimming hole to do underwater handstands, I painted pictures of my womb with a baby head down, I listened to “spinning baby” hypnosis soundtracks. And I even tried what I had sworn I wouldn’t do again – a cephalic version, the excruciating hospital procedure where the obstetrician forcibly tries to turn the baby into position.
Everyone had an opinion about why my baby was “upside down”: she/he wanted to listen to my heart beating, he/she knew something that I didn’t know and was setting her/himself up for a healthy birth, my uterus was tipped, my uterus was an unusual shape, my baby was head-strong, and so on.
The negative emphasis on a breech baby nagged me. The breech position didn’t seem normal, even though 3-4% of babies are breech; about 154,000 born in 2018. I couldn’t help feeling as if it were somehow my fault and that I hadn’t done everything I could to make things “right.”
My mamma and I sat at the picnic table enjoying the late summer sun, nibbling at the fruit. I held onto the last thread of hope that if I could go into labor naturally, the baby might have one last chance to spin before making its entry into the world. (After all, a friend’s baby had done just that!) And if the baby didn’t spin, going into labor would give me the satisfaction of knowing my baby was “ready” to be born instead of being suddenly plucked from the womb.
“You know,” my mother said as she rubbed my belly, “even though my doctor didn’t recommend it, I insisted on a vaginal birth with Sebastian. I felt I owed it to you three girls. How could I help you give birth when the time came if all I knew was cesaereans?” She looked me square in the eyes and said, “I’m here to tell you, it’s not worth it. It really isn’t.”
“I know, Mamma,” I sighed. My brother’s birth (a vaginal birth after two C-sections) had been difficult for my mom, and she didn’t see the point in going through labor and a C-section. Nearly every mother I knew whose labor ended with an “emergency C-section” felt the same way. For my mother, it had taken her longer to recover from a vaginal birth than both C-sections. This reminded me that my vision of a vaginal birth was only hypothetical. My OB and chiropractor both invited me to consider the benefits of a scheduled C-section: it could be calmer and less stressful, and I would have time to prepare for a positive experience. Was it possible that a scheduled C-section could be a better route for me and my baby?
My friend Emily Gold, a postpartum yoga therapist and teacher, encouraged me to reframe it. Many of her clients had adopted the term “belly birth.” Belly birth certainly sounded softer, without the negative connotations surrounding “C-section.” It also offered a simpler way of explaining to Ayla why we might have to leave her for a night or two when we went to the hospital. Ayla never did well when we were apart, and it was another part of the impending transition that had my stomach in knots. Welcoming a new sibling was one thing. But after Mamma and Daddy went away for a while and having me return physically out of commission? Eek. I comforted myself knowing that millions of families had thrived in the very same scenario.
Still, I couldn’t shake the conviction that a natural, vaginal birth was the Holy Grail for bringing a child into the world. Going into labor would surely help me experience at least some of the miracle of childbirth. I needed to get close to Nature to still the noises in my mind.
I set off for the nature preserve behind our house. I walked as far as I could down the trail to the dam, and sat on a rock to catch my breath. I started talking to my baby. “It rained heavily last week. The dam is full and pouring into the gorge. It’s white and frothy, and the sun is shining so that it catches the mist. It’s like there are little rainbows spiraling upward! From here it looks like we’re in a bowl of evergreens, and the sky is bright blue, and oh!, there are three red-tailed hawks circling over us right now!” My sadness slowly melted away with the realization that I would soon meet this soul and have the privilege of being his/her guide in this world.
I waddled down the trail to the swimming hole, and slipped out of my maternity dress. I slid into the creek and floated on my back, letting the cool water wash over me. Damselflies landed on my belly, their iridescent, indigo eyes seeming to bore into me with the question what is most important to you? I remembered my friend Sarah’s mantra: the best way forward is through. One way or another, this baby was coming through me, and what mattered most was a healthy birth for both my baby and me.
It was time to move forward.
I had been so attached to my belief about what was best, that I hadn’t been able to accept my situation and take the next step. I knew deep down that my baby wasn’t planning on spinning. I wanted a healthy birth. It was now clear that having weighed all my options, a scheduled C-section was the best approach. If I could cultivate a positive mindset, I could create a sacred experience, no matter what.
A flight of swallows exploded from the trees above, startling me. I waded back to the bank and heaved myself onto solid ground. Another family had arrived, and just as the children were charging into the water, the mother squealed, “water snake!” I turned to see the creature gliding through the water where I had been floating.
On the way home I called my midwife. “Monica, I’m 99% sure we’re going to the hospital tomorrow morning.”
She said soothingly, “Well, you’ve been so thoughtful in this whole process, and 99% is about as close as you can come to making such a hard decision. There will always be another side to the equation. Who knows, you might go into labor tonight! If not, I’ll see you at the hospital tomorrow morning.”
Though my mother and Bobby had been unconditionally loving and patient with me, I could see the relief on both their faces when I shared the news.
The next morning, Bobby and I kissed Ayla on the forehead as she slept and crept out of the house at 4:30am. It was still pitch dark as we arrived at the hospital. As we wheeled our overnight bags towards the brightly lit hospital foyer, I clutched my belly and doubled over, groaning.
“Bobby, wait!” He spun around, running back to me.
“What’s wrong,” he cried, bending down to look at my face. I burst out laughing and stood up. “Nothing. I just wanted to see what it would be like to arrive in labor.”
As we checked-in at reception, I noticed a snake – the symbol of modern medicine – stamped on the papers, uncannily like the one at the swimming hole.
While we were waiting to go into the operating room, Monica sent us pictures of the sunrise on her way to the hospital, a perfect crescent moon hanging above the horizon. She called it “baby moonrise.”
At 8:03 a.m., Dr. Surosky flew Cora over the blue curtain, landing her on my breast just seconds after she’d emerged from my belly, in the exact same breech position as her big sister – folded in half with a foot to each ear. She was instantly calm, so much so that the nurse wouldn’t stop vigorously rubbing her until she began wailing.
“It’s a girl!” I squealed, crying and laughing at the same time.
“She’s a redhead!” exclaimed Bobby, stroking the soft fuzz on her perfectly round head.
I spotted Monica snapping pictures through the window, smiling ear-to-ear. She had encouraged me to talk to Cora from the moment I stepped into the operating room, gently guiding her out just as I would in labor. I loved this suggestion, which had helped me stay grounded and centered through her birth.
As we were wheeled into the recovery room, I noticed a swallow tattooed on the inside of the nurse’s wrist. With Cora suckling at my breast, Bobby holding my hand, and my heart doubled in size, I knew that everything was right in the universe and our real journey was just about to begin.
9 ways to cultivate a joyful C-section
By Emma Frisch
1. Create a postpartum meal plan
Food is essential for aiding in a quick recovery. It was not something I was willing to compromise on, especially in the first few days in the hospital after my daughters’ birth.
A postpartum diet includes specific foods that support a quick recovery as well as long-term health and healing, nursing, and rest, while also keeping your family well fed. It prioritizes fresh, organic food, ideally from local sources. I recommend 40 Days for 40 Years - A Postpartum Guide and Cookbook and The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother by Heng Ou.
● Tell the hospital you do not plan to eat meals. This will dramatically decrease your bill.
● A couple weeks before your due date or scheduled C-section, prepare three meals and freeze them. Pack them for the hospital and they will defrost by the time you are ready to eat. You will have access to a microwave for warming food; pack a microwave safe dish so you don’t have to eat off styrofoam or plastic.
● Alternatively, ask family or friends to prepare and deliver meals to you in the hospital.
● Create a clear meal plan or guidelines for family members or friends staying with you, so they can help prepare postpartum-specific foods.
● Organize a meal train as a way for your extended network to support you. Don’t be shy about stipulating what you will and will not eat. Establish set times for meal drop-offs and curtail visiting hours to suit you. Loved ones from afar can offer gift certificates to your favorite restaurants or meal delivery services.
2. Find a trusted advocate to attend your birth
I found it essential to have an advocate who was not my birth partner, such as a midwife, doula, friend who is also an obstetrician, or family member who has experience attending births. You and your birth partner will be so focused on and possibly overwhelmed by the birth that it is extremely helpful to have someone tending to details that may slip between the cracks.
For example, do you want photographs taken of the birth on the other side of the curtain? Your advocate can help identify that person and make sure they have your camera when it’s time to enter the operating room. Do you want to save your placenta? Your advocate can make sure the surgical team has a cooler ready, and can then be responsible for getting it back to your house for proper storage. Perhaps even more valuable was having an advocate who was familiar with details we didn’t even think about, like whether to give our baby eye drops, since they wouldn’t be coming through the vagina and therefore would not exposed to the very things those eye drops cure. Ideally, your advocate will be someone you love and trust to help you make spur-of-the-moment decisions that are aligned with your values.
3. Demystify the experience
A friend who had planned a home birth surprised me when she asked me to share my C-section experience… in detail. I stammered, not wanting to scare her. She encouraged me to tell her so that she could be prepared if she ended up having a C-section. I admired her courage to collect and consider the facts in every potential scenario so that none would come as a complete shock. Until I found out Ayla was breech, I hadn’t even allowed myself to consider alternatives to a natural, vaginal birth. I’m so sensitive to information that I thought the best approach was to stay positive about my home birth plan.
I think a lot of mothers feel the same way: if we stay focused and optimistic, we can manifest the birth we really want! But when our birth doesn’t go according to plan, we can face major disappointment and even trauma. So don’t hesitate to ask your birth team to walk you through possible birth scenarios. You might also want to gain perspective from other friends and medical professionals about their experiences. (I hadn’t even thought to ask my dad for advice, a surgeon who has spent his life in the operating room!) Information can empower us to have more confidence in ourselves, our bodies, our babies and our birth teams.
We now know that there are myriad benefits to mothers holding their newborn babies skin-to-skin immediately after birth. I’m convinced this is why Cora was so calm when she was born. However, baby-to-breast is not practiced in every hospital, let alone following a C-section. Despite having a wonderful hospital 10 minutes from our home, we chose to work with an ob-gyn 50 minutes from our house specifically because he was a proponent of baby-to-breast after C-sections. After Ayla’s birth, a nurse carried her around the curtain, placing her on my chest 30 seconds after she was born. For Cora, Dr. Surosky flew her right over the curtain. Bobby and I reached up and pulled her down to my chest. (He prepped us and the nurses beforehand).
There are scenarios where this won’t be possible, for example if the baby or mother needs immediate medical attention. In the case where the mother cannot hold her baby, the father can hold the baby skin-to-skin until the mother is ready. If the baby needs medical attention and cannot be with either parent, skin-to-skin can be practiced as soon as the baby is healthy.
5. Vaginal seeding
The medical community is starting to discover that vaginal births have certain advantages that can’t be transferred to a cesarean birth. One of the issues with cesareans (aside from the general risks that can accompany major surgery) is that babies bypass the bacteria-rich environment of the birth canal. This means the baby misses the skin and oral inoculation with “friendly” bacteria, which can potentially boost the microbiome of your c-birth baby, leading to health benefits down the road, and potential health detriments without exposure.
If you have already had a cesarean birth and didn’t know about this, don’t worry. I was a C-section baby and nobody had heard of this in the 80s. It’s not the end of the world and there are loads of resources available for building a healthy microbiome at any stage of our lives.
Dr. Aviva Romm explains that vaginal seeding “means swabbing baby with vaginal fluids following a cesarean birth. These fluids are collected prior to birth: a sterile gauze is folded and inserted into the vagina and left to soak up beneficial vaginal microbiota for one hour.” I did this with both my girls, though instead of allowing gauze to soak for an hour, we used one of the hospital’s gigantic q-tips to swab and then stored the q-tip in a ziplock bag until we needed to use it. Then, when the baby is born, a nurse or midwife can help you swab the baby with the gauze or q-tip, starting on the mouth, lips and face and moving to the rest of the body, before proceeding to standard newborn examination.
If you plan to do this, talk to your doctor beforehand so that she can help you follow through.
6. Convert your space into a sanctuary
This suggestion only extends so far in the hospital, where there are lots of rules. For example, don’t try to bring in a crockpot for your meals or light candles for ambiance. Hospitals tend not to trust a recovering mother with much beyond holding her baby, let alone remembering to blow out a candle.
Instead of focusing on hospital ambiance, focus on self-comfort to feel soothed and pampered. I brought my coziest flannel cardigan to wear instead of the hospital gown. I also brought my favorite toiletries and made an effort to wash my face and brush my teeth twice a day (not easy to do when standing makes you nauseous). I kept my journal next to my bed to write whatever came up. We also made sure Bobby would be comfortable; your partner’s role is critical during the recovery period. He brought along a warm, comfortable blanket, his pillow and pajamas. (Oh, and earplugs, because see Tip 7.)
At home you’ll have much more liberty to make your bedroom a sanctuary, which is where you’ll be camped out for at least a week, with short visits to other parts of the house. Remember you are the Goddess. This is one of those rare times in your life when if you ask, you shall receive. No really, you must enlist as much support as possible. It took all my effort to relax and let others help me, and to ask for not only what I needed, but also for what I wanted.
- Collect every pillow in the house and choose your favorite four or five. If you don’t have that many, borrow or buy some. You will need to prop yourself up and maneuver into different positions to nurse, sleep, and relieve the soreness of your bum whether sitting or sleeping.
- Set up a bedside table with everything you need, namely: a pitcher of water and a cup or water bottle, a place for landing a meal and keeping late-night snacks, a good book and/or journal, and burp rags for spit-up, night sweats, leaky boobs and all the other moisture that seems relentless in those first couple weeks.
- Beautify the space you stare at. If it’s a wall, have art you enjoy looking at. If it’s the top of a dresser, adorn it with a bouquet of flowers.
- Refine your lighting. A bedside reading lamp came in handy along with a candle for ambiance and aroma (as long as someone else remembers to blow it out).
7. Post a troll at the door to your hospital room
Have your partner and visitors be your sleepguard. This person is responsible for telling anyone, and I mean anyone, who arrives at the door that you and the baby are alive and well, and sleeping, and not to be disturbed. Without a troll you will have nurses, floor attendants, housekeepers, photographers, specialists, lactation consultants, residents, and doctors appear at the foot of your bed every 15 to 30 minutes. It is impossible to recover quickly without sleep. Make sure your partner brings ear plugs for their sleeping shift at night, when they’re not trolling.
8. Reframe your story
When my friend shared the term “belly birth” with me, I latched on immediately. It felt simple and accurate, without any of the negative connotation associated with a C-section. The baby is born through the belly, just as other babies are born through the vagina. I also loved my midwife’s reframing of my own C-section birth as a “rescue.” My twin sister Dimity was blocking the way earthside and my heart rate plummeted with every contraction, so my mother had an emergency C-section that saved both of our lives (and hers). Find ways to describe your story that resonate with you.
9. Lean on your (sister-mamma-grandmother) tribe
No matter what kind of birth you have, your support network is indispensable. While there may be a few key men in your life who feel like a lifeline (ahem, my beloved husband Bobby!), the women in your life will be able to provide you with invaluable wisdom, strength, love, listening and more throughout the journey to birth and beyond. Many will be able to impart their own wisdom from experience. Others will simply be able to identify with the feelings that come up during such a vulnerable time. For both my daughters it was so helpful to be able to share my fears and worries, to bounce decisions off someone I trusted, or to simply cry, for whatever reason or no reason at all. Pregnancy and new motherhood are tender, emotional times.
Another way your tribe can support you is by helping you craft the joyful experience you envision. This can begin with a blessingway, where you perform certain rituals or activities to empower and support you - the new mother - on a spiritual, emotional, and physical level. This can include a foot bath with essential oils, a potluck brunch, painting prayer flags for the baby’s room, sharing mantras or blessings, or organizing logistics like a meal train. A blessingway is a space where you can feel safe to ask for what you want and what you need.
With both girls’ births, I carried the mantras and suggestions of my tribe into the operating room. The reminder to “breathe, surrender, trust” helped me stay calm and stop my body from shivering with nerves, or my mind spin out when the epidural set in and I couldn’t feel my legs. My midwife’s suggestion to talk to my baby and guide her out helped me focus on the miracle before me instead of being distracted by the doctor’s instructions to a nurse or intern.
Emma Frisch is the co-founder of Firelight Camps, a glamping destination in Ithaca, NY, and author of the cookbook Feast by Firelight. More recipes and stories at emmafrisch.com.