By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Elizabeth Vick knew that the contractions she'd been having for the last month were normal. The official name for them is "Braxton Hicks," after the nineteenth-century doctor who first recorded the intermittent uterine spasms that often accompany the final trimester of pregnancy. But Elizabeth liked to think of the involuntary cramps as "baby hugs," a more maternal-sounding term that she'd picked up from an online forum, one evoking an image of two little infant arms giving reassuring squeezes to her womb. Photos pasted in a journal charted the growth of her belly month by month as it ballooned from the center of her 95-pound frame like a prize pumpkin.
A lithe twenty-year-old, Elizabeth felt little anxiety about the impending labor, a rarity for a woman carrying her first child. She had researched and detailed every aspect of the birth until it played like a home video through her mind. But her mental footage didn't include shots of a maternity ward: Her plan was to give birth in the bedroom of an apartment she shared with her husband in rural Douglas County. The birthing tub had already been inflated and inspected for leaks. Towels and a plastic bucket were laid out to sop up water and other fluids. A blanket was at the ready for swaddling. They even had string and clean scissors on hand to cut the umbilical cord.
Still, this birth would be remarkable not for what the parents had, but for what they lacked: experts. Elizabeth and her husband fully intended to deliver the baby themselves, without a doctor or midwife within twenty miles. Even the landlords who lived upstairs had no idea what their tenants were planning below.
While scouring dozens of alternative birthing books and as many websites, Elizabeth had come upon the concept of unassisted childbirth -- or "freebirthing," as it's known to the thousands of female devotees who've adopted this simple but radical approach. She found special inspiration in the writings of Laura Shanley, a Boulder woman who'd been Elizabeth's age when she'd had her first unassisted birth almost thirty years ago, with the support of her husband but against the wishes of the rest of her family.
One morning in January, Elizabeth woke up with a happy feeling. She asked her husband to stay home from work that day.
"Why?" Jason asked.
"The hugs," she replied. "They're getting pretty intense."
So I decided that with my next birth, I was going to give birth standing up over this little plastic baby bathtub," Laura Shanley says. "And I was going to catch him myself."
Sounds of awe and disbelief rise from the twelve women gathered in the upstairs room of a west Denver church. This is a meeting of the local chapter of the International Cesarean Awareness Network, a nonprofit that aims to reduce the national rate of C-sections, which has surged in recent years to a whopping 30 percent. Unlike Laura, most of the mothers gathered here sport five-inch-long scars on their abdomens. Some have avoided surgery in subsequent births by having a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean) at home with a midwife or in one of the few hospitals that allow the procedure. Only a couple of the women have heard of unassisted childbirth, and Shanley's presentation is opening everyone's eyes. Very wide.
"And that's when my water bag broke," she says, now describing the birth of her second child. "I really was not in pain. And then his foot came out and he was wiggling his toes around." The baby, she realized, was traveling the birth canal upside down. "And I said to my husband, 'What do I do, do I call an ambulance?'"
If they had called 911, Laura would undoubtedly have undergone a C-section for her breech baby. Instead, she employed her self-taught birthing techniques, remaining calm and trying to erase all the fear in her mind through positive "life affirmations."
"And little by little, his foot came out and his other foot popped out, and meanwhile I just wasn't doing anything. I did nothing," she says. Finally, she pulled the leg gently, gave a small push, and out slid the baby into the world. (Twenty-six-year-old Will Shanley now works at the Denver Post as a reporter for the business section.)
The stories of all five of Laura Shanley's unassisted births have a similar serenity. In contrast to most women, who describe labor as the most painful, lengthy episode of their lives, Shanley says that her deliveries involved little to no pain and only a few hours. Her 1994 book, Unassisted Childbirth, is based on her own observations; she has no formal training in gynecology or obstetrics. But since the death two years ago of spiritual midwifery proponent Jeanine Parvati Baker, who coined the term "freebirthing" in the mid-'80s, to replace the amateurish "DIY childbirth" -- Laura is considered the foremost authority on unassisted childbirth.
Every month, over 40,000 viewers visit Shanley's website, www.unassistedchildbirth.com, which appears on the front page of a Google search for "childbirth." Her site and a dozen others cater to a small but growing number of women who are bypassing the catalogue of obstetricians, nurses, osteopaths, doulas, midwives -- the birthing industry from its most formal to what's known as "natural" -- by conducting their labors without any help from professionals. Births become independent affairs, coached only by a husband or significant other, or endeavored completely alone.