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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