Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Original Birth Attendants

I’ve often heard midwives say that midwives were the original birth attendants or that midwifery is the world’s oldest profession (or second oldest profession, as the case may be). Some also claim that we know midwifery is “natural” because even animals have “midwives.” And while I certainly give midwives credit for helping women give birth - both now and in the past - none of the above statements are true. The original birth attendants were friends or family members of the woman giving birth.

Judith Goldsmith writes in her book Childbirth Wisdom from the World’s Oldest Societies that, “Many students of childbirth, however, speak of the midwife as woman's first helper. In reality, though, even the midwife is a relative newcomer on the scene. In those tribal communities where birth is aided, the assistant is most commonly the woman's own mother.....A casual reading of anthropology does not always make these close family ties apparent, because often the European writer, seeing things in the light of his own background, referred to the person assisting the mother as the ‘midwife’ whether or not she was called this or considered as such by her own society. Further examination, however, reveals that the so-called midwife was very often a close relative of the mother, with no more special knowledge of birth than any other mother in the tribe. This underlines an important point: in a large part of the world, except in difficult cases, a birth required no more specialized help than the members of a woman’s own family could provide."

Michel Odent, M.D. echoes these sentiments in his recently released book The Functions of the Orgasms: “The concept of a birth attendant is more recent than is commonly believed, although a mother or mother figure was probably around when a woman was giving birth in primitive societies. This was mostly to protect the privacy of the birth woman against the presence of wandering men or animals. No doubt this is how midwifery began.”

Odent also claims that “Everywhere in the world there has been a tendency to dramatically alter the original role of the birth attendant, to deny the birthing woman’s need for privacy and to socialize childbirth. More often than not, the midwife has become an agent of the cultural milieu, transmitting its specific beliefs and rituals.”

Veronika Sophia Robinson, publisher of the UK magazine The Mother, expresses similar views in her book The Birthkeepers: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition: “We’ve been led to believe that midwifery is the oldest profession, but this is a romanticized notion, and not a fact. It is perpetuated by practitioners of midwifery and childbirth. When assisted and observed birth did start becoming common place in our history, the attendant was not a specialist in birth, but most usually the mother of the woman in labour.”

As far as animals, some do give birth in the presence of other animals (although most seek seclusion). But these animals cannot be considered “midwives” in any sense of the word. As with tribal cultures, the animals “attending” are simply other members of the pack or herd. You can be sure that none of these “attendants” are sticking their paws inside the mother animal’s vagina, or telling her when and when not to push.

So why does this matter? It matters because as unassisted childbirth grows in popularity, I and other unassisted birth advocates are hearing from more and more midwives and midwife supporters who claim that we’re infringing on their territory or that unassisted birth isn’t “natural.” Some even write that (in the case of an unassisted birth gone wrong) we’re “giving homebirth a bad name.” But the truth is, not only is unassisted childbirth natural, it’s also safe, provided a woman doesn’t live in poverty, and the birth isn’t interfered with either physically or psychologically. Throughout history, healthy tribal women have successfully given birth without medical assistance.

I recognize that many women find the presence of a midwife helpful in birth, and I hope that midwives will continue to be available - to those who want them. But birth doesn’t “belong” to midwives. Nor does it belong to doctors, the AMA or the state. Birth belongs to mothers and babies – and ideally to fathers should they choose to be involved, and it’s time this truth was recognized.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

An Unconvention and a new book about unassisted childbirth

I'm excited to announce that plans are in the works for an "UnConvention"! Featured speakers will include yours truly speaking about unassisted homebirth, Lee Stranahan speaking about unjobbing (earning a living without a job), and Sandra Dodd speaking about unschooling. Lee and Lauren Stranahan, the primary organizers, have put up a website and created an email list for those wishing to stay informed about this exciting event! I'd also encourage you to check out Lee and Sandra's personal websites.

I've only recently become aware of Sandra's wonderful work, but have "known" Lee and Lauren for several years. In addition to being unassisted birthers and unschoolers, Lee is also a writer, photographer and independent filmmaker. He recently quit his job as a graphic artist for NBC and is determined to earn a living doing what he loves. As a recent unjobber myself (in January I closed my nanny placement service), I'm especially interested in hearing what Lee has to say!

In other news, Veronika Robinson, publisher of The Mother magazine , has just released her fabulous new book - The Birthkeepers: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition. I can't say enough good things about this book! Veronika's words are both soothing and inspiring, as are those of the women whose lovely birth stories are featured in the book. Since I'm not much of a reviewer, here is the "official" description:

"The Birthkeepers is a personal invitation to birthing with ecstasy. Veronika Robinson, editor of The Mother magazine, reveals the three secrets to easy, natural vaginal birth. Through examining childbirth history ~ our evolutionary blueprint ~ and reading stories from modern day birthkeepers, we can begin to reclaim an ancient birthing tradition, and make birth safe and sacred again. Despite a dominant birth culture and media images which portray birth as deeply traumatic, painful, deadly and dangerous, this isn't how evolution designed our entry into motherhood. How we give birth, and the experience we have, isn't just a matter of luck or having the best medical attendants. We can all choose to give birth in peace, painlessly, and with pleasure. This exploration of unobserved (unassisted) childbirth shows that what's good for the birthing mother, is also good for the baby arriving birthside. The Birthkeepers is the first UK book on unassisted childbirth."

In the next few weeks I'll be adding it to my bookstore but for now those wishing to buy it can send me $25.95 ($21.95 plus $4.00 postage) via Paypal - If you're in the UK I'd recommend buying it from Veronika directly.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Orgasmic birth on "The Doctors" (CBS TV) 1/26/09

Last week I took a quick trip to Hollywood where I spoke ever so briefly about orgasmic birth on The Doctors (CBS TV). The show airs this Monday (Jan. 26th). Because it's syndicated, in some areas it airs on other networks. For local listings click here.

While most of the recent press I've done has been about unassisted childbirth, orgasmic birth is actually a subject I've long been passionate about. I first wrote about it in my 1994 book, Unassisted Childbirth and newsletter "Letters From Home." My article Orgasmic Childbirth has been on my web site since 2000, along with several other articles about the sexual nature of birth. In 2002, The Mother Magazine (UK) published my article Orgasmic Childbirth! What's the Secret? and in 2005, I was interviewed about it by the London Times. I also spoke about it in 1999 in the unassisted childbirth documentary A Clear Road to Birth and have done several radio shows about it over the years. Most recently, I was interviewed about it by the Huffington Post.

My interview for this show was quite short - I believe they asked me 3 or 4 questions. They may also be showing a short clip from my first homebirth. Of course, I would have loved to have shared more of my thoughts on the subject. But for the most part, I felt good about the interview and thought the doctors were fairly receptive to what I had to say. All in all, it was a fun trip!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Thoughts on 20/20's Extreme Motherhood show

Last Friday, "20/20" (ABC TV) finally aired their "Extreme Motherhood" show. All of the segments are now online (click on the videos in the articles): Unassisted Childbirth and Homebirth with Midwives, Orgasmic Birth and Long-term Breastfeeding. (There were also segments on "fake babies" and "serial surrogates" but they didn't interest me and I didn't watch them.)

The homebirth piece was quite short (5 minutes) but I was happy with how I was presented, and felt that the essence of what I wanted to convey came through! The beautiful opening shots of the mountains were taken near my home in Boulder.

There's been somewhat of an uproar in the homebirth community because there was no distinction made between unassisted and midwife assisted homebirth. This surprised me, as the producer had read my book (Unassisted Childbirth) and spent several hours (both on and off camera) interviewing me. I'm sure she knew they were two different things. Perhaps it was an editing mistake, or maybe they didn't feel it was important to distinguish between the two approaches to birth. Yesterday I wrote to ABC and encouraged them to do another show, specifically about unassisted childbirth. Actually, the producer that originally contacted me last year had hopes of doing an hour-long show completely devoted to unassisted childbirth. But apparently the higher-ups nixed the idea.

Most homebirthers were also disappointed by how Abby Epstein's birth was presented. Abby directed Ricki Lake's film The Business of Being Born. Because Abby transferred to the hospital (after going into labor prematurely and discovering that her baby was breech), her story was used as an example of a homebirth gone horribly wrong. While it's true that Abby was fairly panicky in the cab ride to the hospital, in the actual film I didn't get the impression that she or her baby were in grave danger. Her midwife felt there was a problem, and they headed to the hospital. In any case, I was glad to see the film mentioned, and thought Ricki did a nice job answering Elizabeth Vargas's questions.

The orgasmic birth segment was excellent! Debra Pascali-Bonaro, producer of the new film Orgasmic Birth, did a great job explaining the concepts behind the film. Amber Hartnell, whose incredible birth was featured in the film, spoke eloquently, as well, as did Christiane Northrup, MD, author of "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom." I was interviewed for this segment also, but didn't make the final cut. A couple good articles have been posted about orgasmic birth in the past few days: Orgasmic Birth: The Natural Reality Behind The Hype by Lee Stranahan for the Huffington Post (I was interviewed for this one) and Orgasms During Childbirth? It Happens by Yvonne Fulbright for Fox News.

I was pleasantly surprised to see my dear friend Veronika Robinson, publisher of the Mother Magazine (UK), in the breastfeeding segment! I didn't feel this segment was as positive as the others but Veronika spoke beautifully, as usual.

While the show left a lot to be desired, I was happy to see these subjects dealt with on national television. It was a good introduction, if nothing else.