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.