Extreme childbirth

Doula, schmoula: Adherents of "freebirthing" go it totally solo.

Published May 16, 2007 6:42PM (EDT)

Eat your heart out, Ricki Lake. Giving birth in your bathtub, drug-free, with a midwife and doula: To some, that's as crunchy and "natural" as it gets. But -- as the Denver Westword reports -- more mothers-to-be are taking "natural" to a whole new max. Dispensing entirely with medical professionals (and film crews), and sometimes even prenatal care, they are giving birth only with their instincts, cues from their emerging babies and support and information from the "small but growing" movement called "unassisted childbirth," or "freebirthing."

The grande dame of the movement -- which has been around at least since the '80s -- is Laura Shanley, author of "Unassisted Childbirth" (and keeper of the Web site of the same name), who went through the healthy births of five children with little more than "life affirmations." (One child, born premature in her bathtub, did not survive.) Shanley's belief is that women are the "true experts of birth."

Most of the piece profiles Shanley and other women describing their unassisted-birth experiences -- and, at the far other end of the spectrum, the inevitable quotes from doctors saying it's dangerous. Interesting stuff, to be sure. But to me, what's missing from the article (as often is in similar pieces) is the in between. Women describe their serene, painless, feral, transporting, lavender-scented birth experiences; "if only they'd been at the hospital" horror stories serve as the only real counterpoint. Quotes from free-birthers like midwives "all come with an attitude like, 'You'll do it my way, and if I don't feel it's safe for liability reasons, then we'll go to the hospital'" are left unexamined. Shanley talks about labor pain as a psychosomatic response to fear, including fear of hospital settings and of medical procedures. Fine. But how come -- in terms of reporting -- is it always either/or? Why do writers so often simply parrot such generalizations about hospital births and medical professionals (here, even midwives!) as cold and corporate? Why is a story about freebirthing "balanced" only with stories about its danger -- and not also with mention of women (like, say, me) who actually had nurturing doctors and warm, positive hospital experiences, with or without drugs? Who were not scared because that's the setting that made them feel most safe? I think that's one reason why debates about drugs vs. affirmations and homes vs. hospitals wind up being so, well, two-sided. Women have a wide, wide range of birth experiences -- and include those who view the "birth experience" itself far less important than the "parenting experience." Nodding to that, when it comes to reporting this kind of piece, seems to me only natural.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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