An Unassisted Childbirth Advocate Speaks About Midwives
by Laura Shanley
“Tick, tock, the game is locked and nobody else can play. And if you do we’ll take your shoe and throw it far away.” – Children’s Verse
My first indication that I was not going to be welcomed into “The Sister-hood” came in 1993. My book, Unassisted Childbirth, was about to be published and I decided to call a midwife whose book I had found particularly inspiring. As I gushed to her about how much I had learned from her book – to the point that I felt confident enough to give birth alone – I began to realize she didn’t share my enthusiasm for unassisted birth. In fact, she sounded outright hostile.
Perhaps I had caught her on a bad day, I thought. After all, didn’t she write that women should believe in their own abilities? Didn’t she encourage women to trust themselves when giving birth? True, she hadn’t specifically mentioned unassisted birth, but isn’t that a natural consequence of trusting one’s self completely? I hung up the phone and tried to ignore my feelings that maybe midwives were not going to be my best friends.
The following year I was invited to a “Birth Lodge,” a monthly gathering of women who were interested in homebirth. The lodge was held at the home of a midwife I had just met. It was actually her partner who had invited me, but she seemed open to having me there, as well. As it happened, the day of the gathering I was feeling particularly vulnerable. My book had been on the market several months and it was becoming obvious to me that it was not going to be a best-seller. In fact, newspapers and magazines were refusing to review it (one small local paper eventually gave it a bad review). At least, I thought, I can spend some time with women who will be supportive of my work.
As I shared my frustrations with these women, the midwife I had just met called me into the other room. “Can you please just speak to women individually,” she said, “and only to those who actually speak to you first? I like your book and believe in what you wrote, but if these women decide to give birth unassisted, I won’t be able to pay my bills.”
I was stunned. Instantly I burst into tears. I had not been proselytizing – nor do I do so in my book. At no point had I encouraged these women to fire their midwives. I had simply talked about my disappointment with not being recognized by the press.
“I have to go,” I said. She did not try to stop me.
In the years that followed I made several more attempts to become part of the homebirth community. I wrote to the organizers of birth conferences asking if I could speak. Surely, I thought, as a woman who has successfully given birth five times without medical assistance, I have something of value to offer these women. After all, I had humbly learned from midwives, and it would seem that they could humbly learn from me, as well.
Apparently I was wrong. The invitations never came, and eventually I stopped asking. Instead I put my efforts into putting up a web site and helping to create a community of women who were supportive of all kinds of birth – not just unassisted. True, the focus of my site is unassisted childbirth, and it is a subject I am passionate about. But I have no intention of doing to midwives what they – as a whole – have done to me. Each woman must decide for herself where she wants to give birth, and who she wants to have with her – if anyone.
However, I will say this to anyone who is considering hiring a midwife. If a midwife tells you that she understands your body better than you do, run from her. Yes, she may have a general understanding of how “a woman’s body” functions in birth. But she doesn’t know how your body functions, any more than she knows what turns you on sexually. Birth is indeed a sexual experience, and what works for one woman may not work for another. Every body is different, every woman is unique, and for that matter, every birth is unique. As the woman who will be giving birth, you are in the best position to know what works best for you. Just as you know what sexual positions you prefer, you will know what birthing positions you prefer, as well. Your body will tell you – if you listen.
If a midwife tells you that she is indispensable to the birthing process, run from her. Contrary to popular opinion, birth is not inherently dangerous. Infant and maternal mortality rates are high in third world countries not because the births are often unassisted. They are high due to poor living conditions and lack of food. Throughout history, healthy, well-nourished women have successfully given birth without medical assistance.
It amazes me that the same women who berate obstetricians for portraying birth as a dangerous ordeal, do the exact same thing when confronted with a woman who is considering having an unassisted birth. “Trust yourself,” the Wise Women say, “but not to the point of giving birth without me!”
Midwives are not the saviors of birth (as I’ve heard several of them say). They are not the exclusive holders of the “sacred knowledge.” They are not the “Goddesses of Birth” – unless they are the ones giving birth. Every woman is her own birth savior. Every woman has the sacred knowledge. Every woman is wise if she allows herself to be.
Are there good midwives? Yes, and occasionally I hear from them. But for a midwife to be “good” she must encourage women to believe in their own abilities as much as possible – even if that means that she may not be called for the birth. A good midwife knows when to hold your hand – and when to let it go. If she doesn’t know, tell her. Or better yet, learn to depend on your own abilities. Dare to believe you know how to give birth. Strive to become your own Birth Goddess because that, in fact, is what you are.