Monday, February 21, 2011

I don't believe in Unassisted Childbirth AKA a rose by another name

By Lee-Ann Grenier

Two months ago I gave birth to my third child at home in what many would describe as an unassisted childbirth (UC) or freebirth. Throughout the pregnancy and up to his birth this is how I thought of it as I prepared for the arrival of our second son. I felt uneasy with the terminology and others I spoke to felt the same way. "Unassisted Childbirth" sounds reckless and cavalier; to some it implies a complete disregard for medical care even in the event of a true emergency. No one I know who has had a planned unassisted birth would avoid seeking appropriate medical care when necessary. In fact many women attempting freebirth have transferred to hospital when they felt it necessary. Sometimes it can be hard to separate from those who plan to birth without professional assistance and those who have their babies at home (or in the car, or Wal-Mart) by mistake. Media portrayals of these births where everyone is "miraculously fine" often confuse the issue.

The term itself causes some dissension among the families who choose this type of childbirth. The discussion usually centres around what qualifies as UC. Does having an unregistered midwife or a traditional birth attendant count? What if you have a doula, family member, or friend attend the birth? Some people even go so far as to define an unassisted birth as one where no one is present but the mother. Does a birth where one hires a midwife but doesn't call them count, or one where the couple camps out in the vicinity of the hospital qualify? These discussions can become very heated and polarizing.

The term Freebirth can be equally confusing but on a more emotional level. I find this wording invokes feelings of easy painless birth that, in my experience, can be quite deceiving. Free- from what, and for what, were concepts that I wrestled with both during the pregnancy and after the birth. Although a couple that chooses this type of birth might find freedom from the medical establishment, it comes with the heavy price of taking complete responsibility for the birth. There is the freedom to choose how one labours and delivers in this type of birth, but that can also be experienced by a strong woman in a hospital setting (with the right kind of support ;). There is the freedom to provide ones own care and comfort, but there is cost of doing so. The more I wrestled with these concepts the more apparent it became to me that the terms didn't fit.

My son's birth was not unassisted. We had friends come to help in the way that one needs with a homebirth. They dealt with the older children, fetched food and drink, provided warm towels, warmed up the pool and took pictures. We had friends light candles and provide us with their warm thoughts throughout the labour day. My husband supported me both physically and emotionally. We called upon the sage advice of a doula friend over the phone. At the moment of my son's arrival his birth was assisted by me; pushing him into the world, my husband; holding my body, and my dear friend Kirsten providing pushing support and calling the play by play. I suppose the biggest assistance came from the force or energy that created me and gave my body the ability to birth my baby (I call it God, but you have your name for it). So the question that came to my mind after he was born was how could I call this unassisted? Many asked and I felt hesitant to use these words in reply. I felt that if I said Elijah's birth was unassisted it would be very unappreciative of all the people who gave us their love and support on that day.

Elijah's birth was also not free. It was hard work, mentally and physically. It took a whole 12 hour day, and the toll on my body was (understandably) high. We paid a price for operating outside the system (imagine how hard it is to register this kind of birth) in terms of providing our own care and dealing with the feelings other had about our birthing choices. I will admit that we did have the freedom to let my son's birth unfold unhindered.

In the reflective moments since his birth I struggled to come up with the right words to describe the way in which we chose to bring our second son into the world. Eventually it came to me, what we had was a traditional homebirth. We called upon the support we needed to have the birth unfold in the way we wanted it too. If we had required it we would have sought the care of a midwife or the services provided at our local hospital. But we didn't, and this is how birth happened, traditionally. Sisters, mothers and women friends have been birth assistants for eons and at these births more experienced midwives or doctors were only called in when things got tricky, and in this way birth worked, assisted appropriately. So the next time someone asks me if I had an unassisted birth I'll say "No, I had a traditional homebirth." and leave it at that.


  1. I love it Lee-Ann. A Traditional Homebirth. Its perfect!

  2. Beautiful, Lee-Ann. Belated congratulation, and welcome to the world, Elijah!

  3. I think this is a lovely way to describe your birth! I also had an "unassisted" birth and have always felt a little uncomfortable with the term. (I don't feel there's anything wrong with the term in itself, it just doesn't fit my experience. I feel it's the woman's right to choose who (if anyone) attends her birth.) As my partner and doula were there to support me I feel as you do--that my birthing experience was not unassisted.

  4. I agree that the phrases we generally use are lacking. I've had "unassisted" births in which we called on various types of assistance in the ways that we needed, and I've never felt at home with the term freebirth. "Traditional homebirth" also may confuse people, but that is almost unavoidable. One can't walk around saying, I had an "Autonomous Unhindered Empowered Birth" so perhaps Traditional Homebirth is a good start.

  5. You know, I had not thought of it this way, though I've always disliked the term "unassisted" for many of the same reasons you do. I really like what you've decided to call it. I think that much better describes the attitude, the spirit and the heart of what we do.

    My first homebirth (traditional ;) ) was as you described, with my "sisters" and friends all around. My second was the same. They are experiences I wouldn't change for anything and I have always felt uncomfortable calling them "unassisted". They were NOT unassisted, they were self-directed.

    Hmmm. Traditional. I like it.

    Congratulations on the birth of your second child.

  6. Nice post Lee-Ann. I have to say though I am so ingrained in freebirth and unassisted birth that I find it hard to let go those terms. I personally don't see them as negative and having had 4 of them so far...well you know. But Traditional Homebirth does sound nice too :)

  7. Traditional Homebirth... it does fit SO much better! I hope to have my next one via Traditional Homebirth myself.

  8. That was a well written post. Thank you for sharing this. God bless you!

  9. Congrats on your birth and baby! I had my 6th baby 12 wks ago. It was my 4th UC (though I planned homebirths with all of them).
    I do see what you are saying, I don't particularly like labels and often say I parent by instinct rather than saying I practice 'attachment' parenting.
    But I will say, when I hear the words "traditional homebirth" I think of what is traditional as in our current society and time today. Most births throughout history occurred at home without trained attendants, but most homebirths NOW occur with midwives, so that is what I think (and I asked dh what he thinks when he hears the term and he said the same thing). Of course, really, it doesn't matter what terms a person chooses to use or what another person thinks ;0)

    Even though it is just dh and the kids here, and I pretty much do everything myself, I agree that I don't feel like I am 'unassisted' at all (God's, the author of birth, is always there with me). But I use terms like UC and Freebirth because they are familiar to people and people know, for the most part, what they mean (birth without a trained 'medical' assistant), and if someone needs me to define it further (was I completely alone? Did I have a doula there? etc.) I am happy to do that. It avoids confusion and for me that is important (because I don't like being misunderstood).

    After my 2nd UC a midwife who was helping me with the newborn screening called it a Family Birth, and I LOVED that term, so I tend to use it at times too as it is by far the most accurate to our situation. Of course that wouldn't fit with everyone either because some people have friends there . . . . though for some, their friends are like family ;0)

    I remember after my first UC, how I was just walking around the house, gave birth at night, no biggy, just a part of life (the party of family and friends happened after the birth). I felt very normal and not extraordinary (though others thought I had done some big thing). It was just natural and it is a shame that we live in a society and time where birth has veered so far from it's natural path that we have to give the normal births a label so people understand what we are talking about.

  10. I have struggled with the same concepts. I finally settled on a "husband/wife birth" similar to Marilyn Moran's book. I might call future births a "family homebirth."

    It was simply us, birthing our baby in our home. We didn't view it as an emergency or have backup for a just in case. We had family members there who cleaned and cooked...

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  12. GAVE ME CHILLS!!!!!! What you had was a homebirth ....yay.....we have quantified and qualified a woman cannot serve as a midwife without someone deeming her official, either....I say that throughout history midwives have been MAMs...Mother Appointed Midwives.....and women have been having babies at home long before it was known as home was just birth....with or without the community midwife....Carla Hartley

  13. I use the term family birth. Unattended or unassisted puts the emphasis on who is NOT there rather than on who is. You know Laura shanley's editor coined the uc term.... Before that I bet most people just said home birth with no mention of who was there or not.