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Life Lessons from Surfing for a Natural Breech Birth

Who knew my life lessons from surfing would serve me well through natural breech child birth?

“He still hasn’t turned:” A (Long) Breech Birth Story

I was 37 weeks pregnant when I went in for a routine ultrasound. I was getting to the pointy end of my pregnancy; the part when your wild emotions make you simultaneously ecstatic to no longer be pregnant/meet your baby and terrified that you will soon be in charge of a brand new human who you’ve never met.

That day, the sonographer just happened to be a friend. We chatted while she goo’ed me up and rolled her sensor over my bulging belly.

“Oh no, he still hasn’t turned, this little guy is definitely breech,” she told me frankly. I thought to myself, “Oh wonderful. But what the heck does that mean? Aren’t we just going to get on with my normal birth plan?”

My friend walked me up to the delivery ward where I heard the high energy cries of other soon-to-be-mothers as I waited and waited. Finally, a doctor came in and told me the baby was frank breech, which meant that his bottom was sitting in my pelvis with his head upright, pushing into my ribs and lungs. Ah-ha! That was probably why I had such horrible heartburn. The doctor also told me my options. First, I could have an ECV, a procedure where a doctor tries to externally rotate the baby so that he is head down. This procedure ran the risk of breaking your waters early or molesting the baby so much that his heart rate would drop – both one way tickets to the nearest operating theatre. In the event that he didn’t turn (he didn’t in two different ECVs) or I didn’t end up with a C-Section as a result of the ECV, she told me it was time to book in my C-Section. I signed up for a Friday morning: July 26, 2019.

As the reality that I would likely have a C-Section set in, a very helpful midwife mentioned that there was one other option. She told me a doctor called Dr. Bisits facilitated natural breech births in Randwick. I later found out that I was very lucky that Dr. Bisits was just on the other side of the Sydney because the work Bisits does is extremely unique. Women from all over the world seek his help to deliver naturally, breech. The OBGYN who booked in my C-Section had never even seen a natural breech birth. At first I dismissed this idea as too risky and painful, but as the days past and the date for my C-Section loomed, I started researching this Bisits guy.

I dreaded having a C-Section because of surfing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a C-Section if that’s what you elect or what your circumstances dictate. However, I knew it would be extremely difficult for me sit still for six weeks. I’d stopped surfing after I went to Thailand at about eight and half months and was eager to get back moving and in the water. I was so fortunate my body allowed me to go that long, but honestly, I couldn’t wait to resume my salty endeavors. Of course, the idea of having a baby painlessly on a set date was appealing – less drama, less screaming, happy days – but I was anxious about being sedentary and having a longer road to rehab and surfing again.

Eight months pregnant in Thailand. There’s a little Makai in there!

Surfing life Lesson #1 – That Feeling in My Bones: Trusting Myself

With this conflict warring on in my hormonal mind, I set off to meet Dr. Bisits. After having an involuntary natural birth with my first child (and authoring the now famous line in my family, “where’s my f#$king epidural?”), I had my heart set on the full monty of pain relief. When I asked the golden question, he hesitated, asserting it would be easier if I had him naturally. He also said that I checked all the boxes for a natural breech birth: previous natural birth, small baby, no medical issues with baby or mom. At our second meeting, I got him over the line and got a yes on the epidural issue.

Dr. Bisits has crusaded in Australia to change the tides in favor of natural breech births. It’s common knowledge that doctors in the U.S. and Australia are increasingly quick to recommend a C-Section. Very few doctors learn how to handle a breech birth, despite the fact that hospitals invariably get a few unknown until presented breech babies. I did my research and like Dr. Bisits said, the risk of death to a breech baby born via vaginal delivery was not increased in comparison to breech babies born via C-Section. Dr. Bisits is trying to educate doctors that natural breech delivery is safe and teach them the tricks of the trade because he believes that vaginal delivery, when possible, is better for baby and mother.

Something in my bones told me I did not want a C-Section unless I absolutely had to have one. I talked the issue to death, did heaps of research, and too much worrying but I knew deep down what I wanted to do.

Once I knew that the baby would be safe, I called the hospital, cancelled the C-Section, and told Dr. Bisits to expect me. We both hoped I would not go into labor during rush hour traffic and have to cross the city to get from Manly to Randwick. He also told me that the coming weekend he would be holding a conference to teach the doctors from my local hospital about natural breech birth, so, “try not to have the baby on Sunday.” Roger.

Surfing life Lesson #2 – Controlling My Cavewoman Brain: Meditation & Breath

My first delivery was really tough on me. In retrospect, I think I suffered PTSD from the experience.

On November 11, 2014, I woke up at 5 am in active labor, got to the hospital at 7 am, and had Valentina by 7:45 am. I screamed at one of the midwives so badly that she never came back to visit us. I refused to sit down and instead paced the room until I gave birth standing up. I was shocked by the pain and even more shocked that the pain relief I’d envisioned wasn’t available.

So shocked that I remained unsure about ever going through the experience again and did not even attempt to get pregnant until over four years later. The fearful memory of that experience lingered throughout my second pregnancy. I faced the reality that at the end of all the baby growing, I still had to get him out. I knew that on that fateful day, not even my fight or flight instinct could save me. In fact, my cavewoman brain would only make things worse if it kicked into overdrive like it just saw a wooly mammoth in the delviery room. I had to come to terms with the fact that in childbirth, there is nowhere to run and no one to fight but yourself.

Childbirth offers a protracted version of that feeling you get when a huge set wave is feathering over your head and you know you just aren’t going to squeak under it. No one else can help you at that moment. You can’t run or avoid what’s going to happen. It’s just you, your fear, and something out of your control. You must chose how you perceive the situation and how you react.

Long after I left the hospital with my first baby, I felt fear and anxiety from the delivery room leach into other parts of my life, in particular, while surfing. I later learned and wrote about the fact that increased fear or anxiety is pretty normal for new mothers. However at the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around my mental state so I began a personal journey with my ultimate goal being handling my fear related to surfing. Little did I know this experience would not only teach me the tools to deal with fear in other parts of my life but also lead me to start the Sea Hearts Surf Club (this was when my fear obsession began).

In the months before baby #2’s due date, I mediated and practiced breathing techniques every day. I joined Kori Hahn’s Soul Sessions, a 8-week manifestation course that was heavily based in meditation. I tried to manifest a safe, quick, and fear-free birth. During this time, I was able sample many different styles of mediation, practice different breathing techniques and even create mantras, all of which helped me get control of my cavewoman brain.

The ability to calm my racing thoughts in times of stress has proved invaluable while surfing, having a baby, and parenting. During my second labor, I was able to retreat to a place of peace and calm by focusing on my breath. This made the contractions pass more quickly and made me feel stronger with every breath.

Nine months in, as they say.

Surfing life Lesson #3 – Training Hard & Letting Go

Besides the mental boot camp I put myself through, I trained physically throughout my pregnancy. At a minimum, I did some movement everyday. I spent all day in the water coaching the Sea Hearts in Lombok at five months. I surfed as long as possible until about eight and half months. I kept going to my regular H.I.I.T. class throughout my pregnancy up until a week before delivery, modifying the exercises to accommodate my changing body. I walked from Manly to Curly more times than I could count. Although I was tired and often grumpy, I felt strong and capable.

My physical fitness for the task was one of the reasons Dr. Bisits knew I was a perfect candidate for a normal breech birth and deep down, I knew I could count on my physical strength during birth. All along I worked out because it felt good but I was training for the main event, much like a race or surf contest.

Just as in competition, once I arrived at the hospital, it was ‘go time.’ When you put on your running shoes or contest jersey, your training is over. In that moment, you must let go, trust your training, and let yourself step into the flow.

In the early morning of July 26, 2019 (the date of my cancelled C-Section) my water broke. I was calm. I hung around from 3 am to 6 am, dropped Valle off at a friend’s house, and then drove through the cross city tunnel to Randwick at about 6:30 am. At the hospital, they allowed me to hang around in the delivery room so everyone would be ready when he was. I ate a falafel wrap and took a little walk around 10:30. By noon, I had a shot of morphine and started asking after my coveted epidural.

Surfing life Lesson #4 – Leaning into What Scared Me

I told the nurses, “bring me the anesthesiologist, I’m ready for the epidural.” The anesthesiologist, visibly pregnant herself, seemed nervous. She washed her hands three or four times before starting to prep my back for the epidural. At last, as she cleaned the area and gave me a local but I felt like it was time to push. I screamed at her to give the spinal to me anyway, but it was too late. As she moved away from my back, it immediately dawned on me: I was having another baby without pain relief.

I spiraled through a million emotions in less than couple minutes. Shock, despair, hopelessness, fear, and then confidence and conviction. I stood up and gathered every bit of mental and physical strength I could muster. In front of an audience of no less than five doctors, four nurses, and my partner, I pushed and yelled until the baby’s butt dropped out followed by his now unfolded legs. The doctor told me to push and his chest popped out. Finally, one last push and his head was free. All up, the entire delivery took less than ten minutes and I had a beautiful, healthy baby boy.

The difference between my first delivery and this one was when I found out an epidural wasn’t possible, I chose not to give up. I was scared shitless again but I kept breathing, focusing on a place of relative inner peace, and taking solace in the knowledge that this would all be over soon. This time I knew there was no need to resist.

With experience came knowledge and the ability to surrender despite my fear. Just like getting another wave after a bad wipeout, a second go at something that was terrifying can reveal that it wasn’t so bad after all. You can chose to get toppled and come up laughing. I choose to greet my worse fear – the pain of natural labor – and use it to my advantage.

Through this experience, I was also able to let go of the anger that I had towards the midwives and doctors during my first birth. The first time, I was so flabbergasted and furious that I didn’t get an epidural. The second time around, I am pretty sure Dr. Bisits told the anesthesiologist to stall, knowing that I would be much better off pushing naturally. But I’m not mad about it. My natural breech birth did not go according to plan, but instead, exactly as it should. The result: a perfect little baby boy who we called Makai.

I’ve learned that in surfing, childbirth, and life, my job is figure out what terrifies me. If I know what I fear, I can train and prepare for anything. This way I can beat the natural tendency to avoid pain and suffering and excel. In the end, I feel that things like two wave hold downs and natural breech child birth aren’t so bad and am able to tell the universe: “whatever is next, I’m ready for it!”

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