University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
$10,000 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion
Story: A perpetual optimist, Siobhán Gibson is a mother of four sons that has been dealt a lot of tricky cards in her life, from an abusive ex-husband to family deaths to traumatic pregnancies. In her day job at an oncology clinic, she counsels hundreds of patients with cancer. But every day, she comes into work with a grin on her face and an open heart for her patients and comes home to spread the same warmth to her rambunctious boys and husband Jason. “Every day I tell people that they’re dying, so I want to be that breath of sunshine. But being that perky breath of sunshine is exhausting.” Her one respite from her selfless life? Pole dancing. Though she didn’t expect her path to lead to it, she has been dancing at a studio in Novato, Calif. for 3.5 years and has been growing in her love for it every day. It pushes her to be active, express herself and finally do something that’s just for her. “It’s good for my body. It’s good for my soul,” she said.
Caption: Siobhán buckles in Reid, 6, Ryley, 9, and Jasper, Reid's twin, as the family heads to the grocery store. She endearingly calls their minivan the “clown car.” With young boys, it always takes more time than expected to load everyone in.
The twins’ birth was a traumatic one. At nearly 38 years old and a belly double the normal size, Siobhán was put on bedrest at only 14 weeks pregnant. At 29 weeks, complications caused the birth to become a medical emergency and she went into cardiac arrest. As soon as she came to, the doctors decided to deliver the twins early. The epidural then sent her into a stroke.
While she was unconscious, she needed to be cut hip to hip if the babies were to survive. “Usually, everyone who gets a C-section has this really cute bikini scar. Mine is not that. I have a massive, beautiful one,” Siobhán said.
Ryley scales to the top of Siobhán’s dance pole in the master bedroom. Siobhán stumbled into pole dancing in January of 2019 when she saw a new studio in her small town, “Entangled and Sway,” that she thought was for tango classes. After realizing what it really was, she decided to go for it anyway, thinking it’d be a fun way to reclaim her body after such a destructive pregnancy. She became hooked and now dances three times a week in addition to the practice she does on the home pole her husband Jason bought for during the pandemic.
Pole dancing also became a way to stay body positive and for Siobhán to express herself with her quadruple-postpartum body. “It’s really hard sometimes to not compare myself to other women. But I have to remember that they didn’t have four children,” Siobhán said. “I don’t even weigh myself anymore. It’s not worth it.”
After losing all her core strength from the pregnancy, Siobhán has come a long way in her pole dancing abilities. She had also been a dancer throughout her childhood, so it’s empowering to reignite her love of dance through pole. She had been working on this particular move for a long time and now executes it on the first try. “Pole is great! On my 44th birthday I learned how to twerk!” Siobhán said.
Pole dancing came at the perfect time in Siobhán's life. “I love my children and I love what I do at the clinic, but I needed something that was just for me,” she said. “Something not dedicated to my children or to dying people.”
Siobhán takes a break from the constant demands of motherhood while the twins nap downstairs. “One thing about this house is that it’s never quiet. You really learn to appreciate those moments where it is,” Siobhán said.
Siobhán leaves for her pole class as the twins and her husband Jason bid her goodbye by clucking like chickens. She did this “chicken dance” one day with her oldest son as a joke when her husband was leaving the house, and it stuck. Now, every time someone is leaving, the kids run up and down the driveway flapping their arms and clucking until the person leaving is out of sight.
Siobhán meets with Joelle Margolin for a coffee outside the clinic. Margolin is one of Siobhán’s hundreds of cancer patients that she helps counsel. The medical system is dense and confusing, taking yet another unnecessary toll on patients who are already dealing with so much. Described by her friends as a “bleeding heart social worker,” Siobhán makes the perfect shoulder to lean on. Margolin said, “I’m a lawyer, I’m not a dumb person. But even I wouldn’t have been able to navigate any of this without Siobhán.”
Siobhán curls her 16-year-old Finn’s hair while Jasper horses around on his mom’s at-home pole. Due to HIPAA regulations, Siobhán can’t talk about her work life with her family and therefore has to keep the heaviness of the job to herself. “I know so many dead people. My kids don’t know any of them,” Siobhán said. “One of my favorite patients actually died today. I’m really sad, but have to just keep going.”
Reid (left) and Jasper stand with their Mama and the photo of her bedridden at only six months. Less than a month later, the babies were born weighing in at three pounds and four pounds.
Siobhán and the twins cuddle together on a lazy Sunday morning at home in Novato, Calif. on Sunday, May 22, 2022. She said that she stays positive through everything going on because ultimately what matters most is her family. "We tried for just one girl," she joked. "But instead I got these two more boys and I wouldn't want it any other way."