Baby's Day Out

Childbirth goes solo.

But though such episodes run high with peril and drama, they do not represent the average home birth. They do not represent official home births at all.

Since 1989, when Colorado's health department began collecting data on birth attendants and delivery locations, the number of home births has steadily risen from under 400 annually to over 700 in 2005. The vast majority of those babies were delivered by the fifty midwives who are certified in Colorado. Statistics show that there are no greater rates of complications or death associated with assisted home birth.

Midwives aren't the only ones catching babies at home, though. That same year, 88 births were listed as being attended by the husband, 47 babies were delivered by the women themselves, and 90 labor assists were credited to "Other," a category that could include anyone from a relative to a taxi driver. While some of these out-of-hospital, non-midwife births can be attributed to accidents or were necessitated by poverty or geographic isolation, many were by choice.

The lone birther: Elizabeth Vick gave birth to Ani without a doctor or midwife.
Tony Gallagher
The lone birther: Elizabeth Vick gave birth to Ani without a doctor or midwife.
Feel the painless: Laura Shanley is considered the foremost authority in the freebirth movement.
Tony Gallagher
Feel the painless: Laura Shanley is considered the foremost authority in the freebirth movement.

Rixa Freeze, a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, is writing her thesis on the very unstructured freebirth movement. "By its very nature, there is no professionalism involved, because nobody's making money off of it," Freeze explains. "Nobody's advocating a necessity to become trained through an organization, because the whole idea is that this is not something that you need specialized training for -- because it's an inevitable, involuntary bodily function."

It may be an inevitable function, but childbirth is such a definitive moment in the lives of women that it can shape how they view the world and how they wish to present themselves as mothers and people. "A lot of women talk about unassisted birth as kind of being part of a larger paradigm shift in which they realize, 'Wait, we don't need to be slaves to authority figures,'" says Freeze, who delivered her daughter unassisted last fall. "We can take responsibility for our own life, become autonomous. Mothers know what's best for their children in all ways."

But the medical and legal communities do not necessarily agree with that philosophy, and many freebirthers operate in secrecy. Tips on how to avoid trouble with authorities fill the forum boards. Sometimes, freebirthers will obtain "shadow care" from doctors or midwives by visiting them for prenatal checkups without revealing that they have no intention of going to the hospital or calling the midwife once labor begins. Others avoid prenatal visits altogether, referring to them as "scare care" because they feel they'll be lectured or coerced into having a hospital birth.

And some keep it quiet for fear of bigger problems. In Nebraska, it is a misdemeanor for a husband to deliver his child in a non-emergency situation. And in 2005 in Florida, Mara McGlade had just delivered her second baby unassisted when she started hemorrhaging. She was taken to the hospital, where she died two days later. McGlade's mother-in-law and sister-in-law were convicted of practicing midwifery without a license and sentenced to two and a half years in prison last November.

"A lot of women don't even tell their family members that they did it unassisted," says Freeze. "Some will say they have a midwife, because they are their own midwife, and so it alleviates the fear of family members, and they feel like they're being semi-truthful. Some women actually never apply for birth certificates, or do it much, much later in the game. So even if you are actually looking at birth-certificate data, it's not very reliable."

Jenny Hatch, who runs a website devoted to unassisted childbirth, blames the medical community for pushing mothers to the fringe. As a Mormon, she hoped to have a big family with as many as twelve children -- but had a C-section for her second child. "It left me feeling very demoralized and afraid and concerned about having any more vaginal babies," Jenny says. Since most hospitals have policies against allowing VBACs -- sticking to the adage "once a Cesarean, always a Cesarean" -- she was looking at ten more surgeries.

"For those women who were not very educated with their first births, they kind of got railroaded into surgery with their first, and with their next baby, they are hitting this wall of opposition," she explains. "Unless you're highly educated and willing to take on the risk of an unassisted birth, you have no choice."

After fighting with doctors and nurses to allow her third child to be born vaginally, Jenny vowed that she would never deliver in the hospital again. Her husband, Paul, wasn't against the idea of a home birth, but his wife's insistence that they do it without even a doula or a midwife made him very uncomfortable.

"And that debate almost killed my marriage," Jenny says. "The birth issue has really taken us to the depths of our relationship. What Paul eventually came to was that it was my body and I was the one who had to give birth, and he supports my rights of self-determination to give birth how, where and when I feel comfortable."

So in 1996, they chose the upstairs bedroom of their townhome in Louisville as the site for the birth of their fourth child. The three-hour labor was so quick, and the eleven-pound boy arrived with such force, that the umbilical cord snapped and the baby wasn't breathing. Jenny was also hemorrhaging deep in her uterus. Emergency personnel were called, and baby and mother were taken away in separate ambulances. Both survived, but the family was shaken.

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