The Original Birth Attendants

I’ve often heard midwives say that midwives were the original birth attendants or that midwifery is the world’s oldest profession (or second oldest profession, as the case may be). Some also claim that we know midwifery is “natural” because even animals have “midwives.” And while I certainly give midwives credit for helping women give birth - both now and in the past - none of the above statements are true. The original birth attendants were friends or family members of the woman giving birth. Judith Goldsmith writes in her book Childbirth Wisdom from the World’s Oldest Societies that, “Many students of childbirth, however, speak of the midwife as woman's first helper. In reality, though, even the midwife is a relative newcomer on the scene. In those tribal communities where birth is aided, the assistant is most commonly the woman's own mother.....A casual reading of anthropology does not always make these close family ties apparent, because often the European writer, seeing things in the light of his own background, referred to the person assisting the mother as the ‘midwife’ whether or not she was called this or considered as such by her own society. Further examination, however, reveals that the so-called midwife was very often a close relative of the mother, with no more special knowledge of birth than any other mother in the tribe. This underlines an important point: in a large part of the world, except in difficult cases, a birth required no more specialized help than the members of a woman’s own family could provide."

Michel Odent, M.D. echoes these sentiments in his recently released book The Functions of the Orgasms: “The concept of a birth attendant is more recent than is commonly believed, although a mother or mother figure was probably around when a woman was giving birth in primitive societies. This was mostly to protect the privacy of the birth woman against the presence of wandering men or animals. No doubt this is how midwifery began.”

Odent also claims that “Everywhere in the world there has been a tendency to dramatically alter the original role of the birth attendant, to deny the birthing woman’s need for privacy and to socialize childbirth. More often than not, the midwife has become an agent of the cultural milieu, transmitting its specific beliefs and rituals.”

Veronika Sophia Robinson, publisher of the UK magazine The Mother, expresses similar views in her book The Birthkeepers: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition: “We’ve been led to believe that midwifery is the oldest profession, but this is a romanticized notion, and not a fact. It is perpetuated by practitioners of midwifery and childbirth. When assisted and observed birth did start becoming common place in our history, the attendant was not a specialist in birth, but most usually the mother of the woman in labour.”

As far as animals, some do give birth in the presence of other animals (although most seek seclusion). But these animals cannot be considered “midwives” in any sense of the word. As with tribal cultures, the animals “attending” are simply other members of the pack or herd. You can be sure that none of these “attendants” are sticking their paws inside the mother animal’s vagina, or telling her when and when not to push.

So why does this matter? It matters because as unassisted childbirth grows in popularity, I and other unassisted birth advocates are hearing from more and more midwives and midwife supporters who claim that we’re infringing on their territory or that unassisted birth isn’t “natural.” Some even write that (in the case of an unassisted birth gone wrong) we’re “giving homebirth a bad name.” But the truth is, not only is unassisted childbirth natural, it’s also safe, provided a woman doesn’t live in poverty, and the birth isn’t interfered with either physically or psychologically. Throughout history, healthy tribal women have successfully given birth without medical assistance.

I recognize that many women find the presence of a midwife helpful in birth, and I hope that midwives will continue to be available - to those who want them. But birth doesn’t “belong” to midwives. Nor does it belong to doctors, the AMA or the state. Birth belongs to mothers and babies – and ideally to fathers should they choose to be involved, and it’s time this truth was recognized.

Posted on April 19, 2009 and filed under unassisted childbirth.