An Interview with Unassisted Birth Advocate Laura Shanley

smbookcover2When we were researching unassisted childbirth before Baby Leone was born, I read Laura Shanley’s book, Unassisted Childbirth, from cover to cover, flagging pages for James to read as well. I borrowed the book from my friend Jenny (who’s pregnant with her fifth baby and probably wants it back). I dutifully returned all of Jenny’s other childbirth books right after the birth, but have held onto Unassisted Childbirth for an extra long time. It’s so full of wisdom and fascinating stories that I’ve found myself re-reading parts of it several times.

09laurakshanley1.JPGSo I’m especially pleased to welcome Laura Shanley on my blog today to talk about unassisted birth.

JM: Most people have never heard of unassisted childbirth, or never seriously considered it, because it’s so far outside the norm, in America anyway. When they do read about it, they think either, “Oh, that woman is CRAZY” or “Oh, she was just lucky!” or they get angry and insist that a woman who gives birth unassisted is endangering herself and her baby. What do you say to people who think you are crazy because you had your children without a doctor or midwife present?

LS: Usually I just try to explain it logically. Every other natural bodily function generally works beautifully unassisted–digestion, elimination, respiration, conception. So many of the problems associated with birth are actually caused by interference.

Most people can relate to this sexual analogy (which I am borrowing in part from Michel Odent):Imagine you’re having sex and everything is going beautifully. The energy is flowing and sexual excitement is building. But suddenly someone walks in the room, taps you on the shoulder and says, “Excuse me, what’s your social security number?”

Instantly you would come out of a creative, intuitive, artistic frame of mind and go into a rational, critical, thinking one. As a result, most men would instantly lose their erection, and sexual desire would probably cease for both partners.

This is exactly what happens when medical personnel are timing, measuring, counting or even simply observing a woman giving birth.

Observation changes all natural bodily functions.

Attempting to fall asleep or go to the bathroom with a crowd looking on produces the same result. When drugs, invasive medical instruments and strict time constraints are brought into the picture they hinder a woman from giving birth.

I believe two other factors cause birth to be problematic: poverty and fear. Most deaths in birth occur in Third World countries where people are often undernourished and don’t have access to clean water or proper housing.

All aspects of health are affected by poverty, not just birth. Anthropologists who have observed healthy tribal cultures throughout history have reported that death or complications in childbirth are rare.

As humans we are programmed to have a fight/flight response. Fear sends blood and oxygen away from the sexual organs and into the arms and legs so that we can fight or run from the supposed danger. Just as the face of a frightened person turns white, so does the uterus when a woman is disturbed or frightened during labor. Without “fuel” (blood and oxygen), the uterus cannot function correctly and numerous problems result.

This is why it’s absolutely essential that pregnant women face and overcome their fears prior to the birth.

Why would something as important as the continuation of the race be fraught with peril?

It’s not.

When people actually take the time to logically think it through, many of them understand that birth isn’t inherently dangerous. It’s our modern day conceptions that are dangerous, not being in labor and having a baby.

Laura and her partner David with their firstborn, John, who was born at home unassisted

Laura and her partner David with their firstborn, John, who was born at home unassisted

JM: In your book about unassisted childbirth, you write about how your parents reacted badly to your decision to have unassisted births. Was it hard for you not only not to have their support but to have them being actively against you (I think your mom actually called social services at one point, yes?)?

LS: I honestly think my parents meant well, but yes, it was very hard not having their support. For many years I actually thought my mother had called social services but recently she told me that she had called a visiting nurse in the hope that the nurse could help me with the pregnancy or birth if I needed it. It was the nurse who called social services after the birth when I had trouble breastfeeding.

Still, it was hard not having my family’s support and it’s painful to talk about it even now. I often tell people that I believe the greatest challenge to having an unassisted birth is dealing with unsupportive friends and family.

On the other hand, the lack of support can encourage us to look within. Like many other couples, my partner David and I found a previously undiscovered inner strength that has served both of us in so many situations since then.

JM: We were very quiet about our decision to have an unassisted birth beforehand because we felt worried that people’s negative energy would affect how we felt about what we had decided to do. When I was trying to find out about it I spoke with one woman who had her six children unassisted but had never talked about it before. Do you think women should speak up about unassisted birth, even if it opens them to being judged and maligned?

LS: I think it’s different for every woman and even for every pregnancy. Having a baby unassisted is a personal choice that we don’t have to justify or explain to anyone. Some women simply need to focus on overcoming their own fears and developing a strong sense of self. This is a big job in and of itself. But if a woman feels completely comfortable with the choice she has made and isn’t easily swayed by the fears and opinions of others, then I think she can do society a tremendous service by sharing her thoughts on the subject. It took me several years before I was ready to speak out about unassisted childbirth. And even then I was careful not to proselytize.

Unassisted birth was the right choice for me. But every woman has to choose her own path.

Laura Shanley cuddling her four children, all of whom were born at home without any medical assistance

Laura Shanley cuddling her four children, all of whom were born at home without any medical assistance

JM: If a woman is considering having an unassisted birth, how would you advise her to prepare?

LS: I generally share what worked for me. I encourage women to read unassisted birth stories and watch videos of women giving birth unassisted. I also recommend joining one or more of the UC message boards or email lists, as I think it can be helpful to connect with like-minded women.

I suggest reading my book, Unassisted Childbirth, or any of the other books on the subject.

When I was preparing for my births, I found Grantly Dick-Read’s book Childbirth Without Fear very helpful. I recommend that one, as well.

For women who are wanting to learn more about the basic physiology of birth, I recommend Heart and Hands by Elizabeth Davis or Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin.

But I have to add that though I think those books are informative and written with a lot of heart, I don’t agree with everything the authors write about how to deal with complications or even what constitutes a complication.

Most complications in my opinion—things like breech births, long labors, “retained” placentas—are often simply normal and even expected variations in childbirth that merely require a change of position, a change in attitude, or perhaps an extra dose of patience.

Women preparing for birth also need to honestly face their fears. Journaling can be very helpful. When a woman understands the three primary causes for the problems in birth—poverty, medical intervention and fear—most fears vanish.

The fears that remain can often be dealt with by utilizing visualization and affirmations, so I also recommend visualizing the labor and birth that you want, writing out affirmations to help you gain confidence (and practicing both the visualizations and the affirmations every day).

JM: You had your children John, Willie, Joy, and Michelle many years ago. Do you think that more women today are choosing to have unassisted births?

LS: Yes! Based on the traffic to my site, amount of email I’m receiving, and the growing number of UC web sites, books, message boards and email lists, I believe more women are choosing this option.

JM: I was really moved reading the story of how you birthed your daughter straddling a little baby bathtub by yourself without even your partner present. I don’t know if I could have the strength to labor by myself. Was that a life-altering experience for you?

LS: Absolutely. It was truly the defining moment in my life.

I’ve often said that with her birth I felt that I touched the eternal.

I’m not sure how else to describe it. But something within me changed the moment she was born and I really haven’t been the same since. Grantly Dick-Read says that childbirth should give a woman a feeling of exaltation and this is what I believe I experienced with Joy’s birth.

To an extent, I felt it with all my births but perhaps it was stronger with Joy because I was alone. I don’t necessarily believe that solitude is a necessary requirement, but in this case it was what I needed.

Sometimes having people present at a birth can be a comfort. But often they’re a distraction. For some reason with Joy’s birth I needed to be alone.

JM: A reader wrote to Mothering recently to say “Unassisted Childbirth” should really be called “Father-Assisted Childbirth,” if the dad is present and catches the baby. What do you think?

LS: I’ve actually never felt entirely comfortable with the term “Unassisted Childbirth” (my publisher titled my book) because I believe we are all assisted in birth, both by the larger consciousness (however you conceive of that—as God, Goddess, All That Is, Nature—or something else) and by our babies, who I believe are active participants. But it’s a term I use because most people understand that it means “not medically assisted.”

Yes, some fathers do assist as well, but in the type of birth I advocate, the mother is really the one calling the shots. The late Marilyn Moran was an advocate of what some people call “daddy deliveries.” She believed that the father “planted the seed” and he should be the one to receive the baby.

In one of her newsletters she wrote “You can depend on your husband. He has everything you need.” But this to me is simply one step above “You can depend on your OB/GYN.” It puts the power outside of the woman. And the fact is, some husbands can’t be depended upon.

Writer Jeannine Parvati Baker, who coined the term “Freebirth,” also believed that since fathers “are the ones who made this ecstasy possible,” they should be the ones to catch the baby. But I don’t necessarily agree. I absolutely encourage fathers to participate in birth, and if they feel motivated, to catch the baby, as well.

But the course of the birth should be decided by the mother. Only she knows what position feels best for her body, when to push, when not to push, things like that.

Ultimately, even when the father catches the baby, the mother is still the one who is giving birth. It’s time that mothers get the credit they deserve—not doctors, or midwives, or cab drivers, or even fathers!

JM: Thank you so much for taking the time to visit this blog. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

LS: Only that I think it is important to remember that birth is not a curse that is meant to be endured. When approached correctly, it is an incredible, life-altering experience that changes us in ways we never dreamed possible. This is certainly what it was for me.

Related posts:
The Story of Our Unassisted Birth
Adventures in Lotus Birth
Don’t Touch My Newborn With Gloves
Liberated From Prenatal “Care”

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27 thoughts on “An Interview with Unassisted Birth Advocate Laura Shanley”

  1. As a nurse, I care for women during their pregnancies. I find most of what we share in the experience together is primarily love and support. Some people like having information provided to them in nuggets rather than research it on their own. So much of it is passive. I teach them about nutrition, the developmental stages of their baby inside their womb, the huge advantages of breast feeding, and sometimes treat their UTI with a drug that is safe for them and the baby. Sometimes things go wrong; pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, or miscarriages. Together we try to identify these symptoms early so that we can manage them together and have a good healthy outcome for all. I try and provide options and support whatever decision they choose to follow. We listen to the babies heartbeat and it’s exciting! Sometimes there are complications and we deal with them as best we can; with compassion. In my view, it is not about control but rather about information. If I am honored with being chosen as the nurse practitioner to care for and provide information then hopefully I am a positive influence on that pregnancy. A supportive health practitioner can make a positive difference. Having said that I can certainly respect a woman’s choice to go through a pregnancy and delivery without any outside intervention other than nature itself. There should be no judgement here. At the end of the day, I marvel at the strength and courage of all women during pregnancy and delivery of their babies. It is beautiful and I am grateful to be a part of it. WOW!
    .-= Peter Chordas´s last blog ..not a dog treat, not chocolates, but widely available in moscow right now =-.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I am almost due (March 20, EDD) and articles like these (or blogs if you feel it most appropriate) are just what I need to read. I’m having my FIRST baby and it will be at home, unassisted, with only my husband to be present. I’m nervous only for the normal, motherly reasons and that’s hoping all goes well with my baby and myself. Other than that, I’m ready, physically and mentally. However, reading positive input such as this helps reassure me that everything IS going to be okay and that I will only gain so much more once I’ve accomplished this.

    Thank you again.

  3. How wonderful to read this. Laura is always a treat to hear from!

    I’ve had 4 unassisted births -all caught by me. I will have my 5th unassisted birth this fall. It’s absolutely a wonderful empowering experience each time. One that I do feel safe, comfortable and completely natural doing. The dynamic of labor and birth progression is lost to me in the company of strangers. I feel birth is sacred and private. Birth comes easily to me when my baby and I are left alone to do our work.

  4. I appreciate Laura’s view on childbirth and think it’s terrific that she had the birthing experiences she wanted. Still, I don’t think home birth is for everyone, including me (I have four kids, all of whom were born at the hospital — one with doctors and midwives, two with just midwives, and one with just doctors).

    As much as anti-home-birthers might characterize those moms who choose to deliver at home as being reckless, hippie earth mothers delivering their babies in patchouli-scented rooms, I think advocates of home birth can paint doctor-assisted childbirth with the same too-broad brush: thinking that hospital births are somehow these unhuman, antiseptic experiences where doctors dope you up, muscle your baby out of you, and then whisk it away and give it formula so you’ll never be able to successfully breastfeed. Alas, both scenarios are horrible stereotypes.

    There’s a 16-year span between my oldest child and my youngest, and through all those years and all the various medical personnel we’ve dealt with during childbirth, I’ve never once felt bullied or cowed into a decision regarding a delivery. And my sense of empowerment and accomplishment doesn’t feel diminished because I gave birth in the hospital. New life is a miracle however — and wherever — it arrives. In the grand scheme of things, the setting seems almost incidental.

    Thanks for posting this, Jennifer, and for inspiring me to write a response (even though I have no time to write responses!!).


  5. This is new to me, but I love the view of childbirth as a natural process that women are equipped to handle. On the other hand, midwives helping women give birth has a long history. They are mentioned in the Bible in the time of ancient Egypt, when they defied Pharaoh and wouldn’t kill the Hebrew baby boys. It does seem like the modern fear-based, technology-driven approach to childbirth is crazy. When I was born a million years ago (ok, only 50) my mother was discouraged from breast feeding and I was put on formula immediately. So there has been a lot of progress since then! Thanks for introducing me to something I hadn’t thought about or even heard of before.

  6. I think this is an important topic and I’m glad you are discussing it. I find it fascinating (not in a good way) that there is such a culture of fear around childbirth. I agree that it should be a natural function directed by the woman’s body who is experiencing it. I agree it is not for everyone. As someone who had 2 c-secs, I wish I had had the opportunity to explore other options in childbirth.

  7. We Americans tend to take for granted that what the doctors and other health providers tell us must be true, when often it’s just culturally determined. Instead of assuming doctors are right and following them blindly, women need to feel empowered to listen to their own bodies. I think it’s takes a while for most women to realize this. Had I lived in the US and had I birthed a fourth child, I might have opted for Unassisted Childbirth, although it does still make me a bit nervous. I don’t know that I agree with it completely, say for a birth with complications. My daughter-in-law has to have a C-Section for her second child. All kinds of things can go wrong with C-Section, too …
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..CinemaWHAT Takes Theater-goers to the Movies =-.

  8. Thank you so much for this interview and for showing us there is more than the widely accepted hospital birth option. As someone still considering if motherhood is in my future, I really appreciate writers like you helping others explore their options. Great work!

  9. great article. i would never choose an unassisted birth because i’m too chicken. but i certainly laud those who do!

  10. So interesting to realize that there are other options to assisted hospital delivery. I’d say it would be a HUGE defining moment to be able to give birth at home this way. What a powerful moment that must be!I do think it takes a LOT of conviction and bravery to go against the norm and follow this path.
    .-= sheryl´s last blog ..Why You Might Not Want to Sit =-.

  11. about talking about UC – when i’m pg, i’m more vulnerable emotionally, and i may not talk about it as much – right now i’m not pg, and i feel much more able to be vocal about my last two births, which were UCs..

    As for the daddy catching etc. I loved catching my first waterbirth baby – it was a fast labour, i was in the water, there was a nurse and a midwife watching but not touching. It was a great transition to the next two babies which were both unassisted childbirth. In our case, my husband is close by and prays for me, but i deliver the baby, i catch the baby, i deliver the placenta. He cuts the cord, and takes the baby when i get out of the tub. That’s how it works for us. I think hard and fast rules just don’t work with birth. We are all so different and have different motivations and desires. I love being the first one to touch my little children, i love just holding their head on the way out, and knowing that all is unfolding as it should, we’re almost done. I find it so inspiring to have that physical connection at the end of labour. I felt manhandled and invaded and exposed in my hospital births, and unassisted births at home, in water, with my husband is the way that i birth comfortably.

  12. I understand why women would chose to do an unassisted birth. I had three very different labor experiences and I must say the most amazing and empowering was went I went all natural (it was in a hospital and my nurse midwife had to chase away the nurses who kept wanting me in the bed). I felt exhilarated at the end, not even a bit tired.
    .-= MyKidsEatSquid´s last blog ..Green Eggs & Ham Sandwiches =-.

  13. Very cool interview Jennifer! Laura has such a breadth of experience on this issue. I chose to have my 4th baby unassisted after three births with homebirth midwives. It turned out to be my longest, hardest labor of 40 hours, and my biggest baby at 10 pounds 12 ounces. But at every point of doubt I checked in and really felt like nobody was going to get me out of this, and my baby and I just had to work through it. In that way the birth was very empowering. I’m expecting my 5th in July and am planning to birth the baby at home without an attending care provider. All I can expect is something different from what I’ve experienced before!

  14. I always enjoy reading interviews by Laura!

    We are and have been planning our free birth for a few years now, long before even trying to conceive any children. This is such an important part of childrearing for us, and we look forward to the day, daily!

    Thanks for posting this.

  15. I was inspired and intrigued by Laura some 10yrs. ago when I was preg with my first. Still, had him in hospital with midwife. Hated it, ended up having epidural & baby got sick. 2nd baby was born at home by “accident” unassisted. Wonderful. Had to call 911 because we didn’t have clamps for the cord tho! lol. 3rd baby was a completely planned and desired unassisted home birth. Glorious. This time we had clamps 🙂

  16. You are amazing Laura! Thank you for sharing what you do, without fear. SO empowering!! I am planning my first UC in a matter of weeks and am so grateful for the support your website and book have provided. Much love!

  17. This was a lovely interview. I had a chance to meet Laura Shanley in person and she gave me confidence to go forward with an unassisted birth. She was so kind and warm, obviously not crazy! I had a medical condition which did not allow midwives to legally assist me at home but I was sure I would be alright there. I had a lovely 10 pound son without any complications!

  18. Thankyou!! I love that you are so “out there” spreading the knowledge that we have more choices than just Dr or midwife! Although its not for everyone, I think everyone needs to know it is a valid safe choice!

  19. Knowing Laura’s story is proof that birth works by itself very well and fear, except that of others, doesn’t really play a part. Succintly put, she is a living example of the truth that birth is natural and good!

  20. Great interview! Learning about un-(medically)-assisted childbirth has opened up a whole new world for me. I am so grateful that I gained this knowledge years before I plan on conceiving my first child. It has sparked a passion in me that I didn’t realise I had for living life relatively unhindered; without solely relying on medical assistance and most importantly living without fear.

    It is funny to me that I have studied Psychology for many years and even after gaining my Masters Degree did not really grasp the concept that having worries or doubt and having fears are two separate things! Doubts and worries are a completely normal part of the human experience and can always be worked though. Fear, on the hand and just in my opinion is like a cancerous disease that require quite rigorous treatment before it can lie to you, spread and affect the other healthy things around it.

    I think that being in denial/avoidance, uneducated or even plain confused about your ancestry, natural human biology, sexuality and fertility can all interfere with your births. I just wish these topics were taught as a part of our mainstream sexual and reproductive education because young women ideally need to hear this important before even deciding to be in a sexual relationship.

  21. i read your story about delivering joy,and felt like i had finally found someone who understood.i decided that day to deliver alone(well with god and baby).it was the most powerful moment of my life.i did have to go hospital for stitches(is there an alternative for that?)they kept us for 2 hellish days (one of them was my birthday)because i opted not to have prenatal care.they all thought i was crazy but being there just reaffirmed my belief that birth doesn’t need intervention.your body really does know exactly how to deliver your baby.

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