Birthing Alone

Why are some women choosing to give birth without any professional assistance at all?

The scene presents one of the more common archetypes of modern childbirth: a woman and her partner, unable to get to the hospital on time, deliver their baby at home or in the car, alone and with no help arriving until after the fact. For most pregnant women, the thought of finding themselves in such a situation is a troubling, even frightening one. However, a growing number of women are actually planning to give birth alone at home, without any type of medical assistance or professional midwifery care. Instead, these mothers are choosing an option which has come to be known as "freebirth," "couples birthing," or most commonly, simply as "unassisted childbirth" (UC). For these mothers, a quiet, peaceful birth at home, with complete privacy and perhaps shared intimacy with their partner and other children, is the only way they can imagine bringing a newborn into the world.

Laura Kaplan Shanley of Boulder, Colorado is a poet, the mother of four, and the author of the seminal book on this topic, Unassisted Childbirth (Bergin and Garvey, 1994). Through her book, which the Houston Chronicle declared as having "the most dangerous book title of 1994," and her Web site, The Unassisted Childbirth Page at: http://www.childbirth.org/bornfree/index.htm, Shanley has become something of a guru to women all over the world who are themselves choosing to have unassisted birth experiences. Shanley gave birth to each of her children at home without assistance. Her husband David "caught" her first baby, but Shanley chose to be completely alone for her next three births.

"Just as the ordinary house cat knows how to give birth on her own, so too do we," says Shanley. "Many midwives and even some doctors can help us reconnect with the intuitive mind that guides us in birth, but ultimately, we have the power to do it ourselves. As the great mystic Jane Roberts once wrote, 'Miracles are nature unimpeded.' When we stop impeding our natural, creative abilities, birth, and indeed life, become truly miraculous."

Emily (who, like several of the women interviewed for this article, chose not to use her last name due to what she perceives as a lack of understanding of her philosophy of childbirth) is a twenty-nine-year-old mother of two from Boston, Massachusetts who gave birth to her first child in a traditional hospital setting. However, after reading Shanley's book and communicating with other unassisted birthing families on a UC email list, she chose to have an unassisted birth with her now-seven-month-old baby. She says that her extreme unhappiness with the way her first birth went sent her in search of "a better way."

"We planned to have an unmedicated birth in the water at a very progressive birthing center within a hospital. We thought that this would give us the best of both worlds," says Emily. "But nothing turned out as we planned. I was in good, strong labor when we arrived at the hospital, but being around all the unfamiliar faces and people in and out of the room caused my contractions to slow and then stop. Eventually I agreed to a pitocin drip and then an epidural. I barely avoided a C-section."

Emily says that she suffered depression over her unsatisfying first birth experience for months afterwards. Then she heard another mother talking about Shanley's book at a new mothers' discussion group. Intrigued, Emily ordered the book and says that she read it from cover to cover in one sitting.

"I knew immediately to the depths of my being that giving birth alone, in a loving embrace with my husband and without distractions from strangers, was what I needed. It took very little convincing to get my husband to agree. Once he read the book, he was convinced too."

When Emily became pregnant again, she decided to see a homebirth midwife for all of her prenatal care, but she told the midwife from their first contact that she and her husband only planned to call during the actual birth if they felt they really needed assistance. When the big day arrived, Emily says that they never considered calling anyone.

"I went into labor almost as soon as my toddler fell asleep for the night. It was a really cozy, starry night and we sat on the porch swing for several hours as things got more intense. Labor is such a private time. It's not something I want to share with anyone except the people I know very, very well. Eventually I told my husband that I wanted to be in the dark, warm bathroom, so he lit some candles and turned on the heater in there. He left me alone and I ended up having the baby in the bathtub. I just sat and held her on my belly for a long time before I called out for Steve to come see. It was a magical moment," remembers Emily.

Shanley says that, like Emily, many women turn to UC after a traumatic hospital birth experience. "Often women who have had unecessary C-sections are drawn to unassisted birth," says Shanley.

Dana Marsten of Seattle, Washington became an enthusiastic advocate of unassisted childbirth by accident. Marsten, age thirty-two, had her first baby in the hospital, but her second birth--which was also supposed to take place at the hospital-- happened so quickly that she ended up giving birth at home in her own bed with only her husband present.

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