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.


Mallory said...

Thank you for putting this information out there. I think mothers need to understand this!

Cindy said...

Say it louder, Laura!

WiseWoman said...

You're being way too nice, Laura.

A midwife with a big ego is not helpful to dilation.

Lisa2dutch said...

I love the unjustified arrogance of all of these 'professionals'

God forbid that during my pregnancy, some woman/midwife told me to my face, that my choice to have a natural unassisted birth was very wrong or nearly a crime, I dont know if I could keep myself from slapping her.

It is insecurity and the influence of society leading the 'Sheeple' of the world to doubt themselves and to rely way too heavily on other people telling them what to do. (just so happens, that those ‘other people’ are making lots of money off of you in the process) The Sheeple are too afraid and scared to do it on their own, natures way.

A gal I know is pregnant and she nearly lives at the hospital now and wont stop having scans, since she found out that she was pregnant. This is because she's a hypo-condriac. The sad shame is that our 'modern' human society encourages that type of behaviour instead of empowering its people with real knowledge.
Thank you Laura for your knowledge and for your effort.

sociallyskilled said...

Well said! I loved your conclusion, that birth belongs to moms, babies, and sometimes dads.

Unknown said...

I agree with this article, I have given birth unassisted twice, once to my two yr old daughter and now to my two month daughter, my family and friends call me "supermama" and I have remained humble however I feel a strength and courage in me that no other situation could have provided to me, I completely recognize the importance of keeping birth private and not having a doctor or midwife telling what to do and how to do it, some of my female counterparts have had difficult birth experiences while I have never allowed the fear to take over the sacred aspect of birth.

Laura Shanley said...

Thanks for all the great comments, gals! I've been hesitant to criticize midwives over the years because I know that in most cases their hearts are in the right place. But it seems that many of them are taking on a savior mentality in an attempt to rescue us from our supposedly incompetent selves. They reject Big Brother (in the form of ACOG or the AMA) but don't realize that in many ways they're becoming Big Sister. No, we don't need "new and better authority figures" in birth. We need to believe in our own abilities. The good midwives realize this, and encourage women to be as self-sufficient as possible. The savior midwives try to take over and then scold us if we reject their offers of "help."

Ish said...

Thank you so much for writing your latest entry Laura. I think I shut myself off to the hysteria until I gave birth to our 3rd child a daughter unassisted 11weeks ago and then all of a sudden so many people came out of the woodwork against everything that just felt so right to me for us this time.

I felt so raw, to even talk about our journey seemed taboo we have a healthy baby 'just as well nothing went wrong'. Much of my mothering life I have spent around other birthing activists including midwifes and now I was the so called reckless one. It was as though I should be ashamed to have not worked through my apparent issues and found a midwife. The thing is now looking back our daughter knew all along this was how it was meant to be and all I had to do was inform myself and trust our instincts together so for me it was a huge learning experience, a journey in believing in myself and trusting what I felt was right.

I am appalled that midwifes who claim to be with woman would be mocking UC, claiming it is because 'they have seen things go wrong'. I have never been one to criticize either but right now I am seriously questioning those I considered true midwifes with a heavy heart.

It is often said that women who choose to birth unassisted do so for many reasons but rarely are they actually even close to the mark of the real reasons and if they can get past this mentality that birth belongs to the keepers then maybe us women would be listened to clearly.

Maybe a tad jumbled here feeding at keyboard so have a bit of breastfeeding brain.

I also wanted to share with you our birthing journey in the hope that maybe someone else finds some light through our journey

With Love

Laura Shanley said...

Congratulations, Laura! I briefly looked at your blog (your family is gorgeous!) and will go back and read more later. Regarding midwives, it's too bad that so many of them are doing to UCer's what doctors have done to them. They don't understand the concepts behind UC, and in some cases are actually siding with doctors in condemning it. UC requires a change in consciousness, and this is something that many people fear. But those who are able to truly internalize these concepts and create the birth of their dreams are forever changed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Unknown said...

What about situations where the pregnant mother has no mother or other close female family member nearby? I know hiring a midwife is not a real replacement for family, but it still seems like there has to be some alternative for those without family.

Laura Shanley said...

If the mother feels she needs support, she can ask a friend to be with her. And it doesn't have to be a female. I had 3 friends at my first birth and all of them were male. If a woman truly doesn't have any friends or family, and she doesn't feel comfortable giving birth alone, then a midwife might be the next best thing. But only if the midwife didn't insist on adhering to government rules and regulations. Thanks for your comments, JenJen!

Anonymous said...

This was very informative and helpful. Something just didn't seem to make sense that midwives were always around. Thanks Laura.

Sarah said...

Months later, but I really enjoyed this article. VERY well done, beautifully articulating my thoughts exactly! I really appreciate how you've - intentionally or otherwise - taken on the roll of Public Defender of Unassisted Childbirth and the Woman Who Choose It! You give us all a good name!

Laura Shanley said...

Thanks so much, Sarah!

e. said...

wow. this is exactly what i've been TRYING to say to everyone who thinks i need a midwife. haha
thank you thank you thank you for this!

Claire Hall said...

Hi Laura - I met you at the Trust Birth conference in LA this year - I am Claire - a midwife from Australia. Thank you so much for your post (JF directed me here this evening). You have expressed so much truth and I wish more women could hear it and take it on board.
My journey has been a round about one - from nursing, to intensive care to midwifery (found my love) to home births and now to supporting women in their choice to unassisted birth if that is what they desire.

(Even in my midwifery practice, I spend all my time in pregnancy getting to know women so I am not a stranger in their space. No VE's or pushing directives from me.)

I have come under much fire for going public with my views - that birth belongs to women, not midwives, and now see it as my life's work to have it come to fruition for women "midwife" each other in their communities. I also call doulas and mothers present at births "midwives" in the true sense of the word - with woman. No qualification necessary - just supporting what the woman wants.
Midwives as "professionals" is what is wrong. Convincing the world that midwives needed a medical education, even an accredited "midwifery" education is where medicalised birth took its last ground. The idea of a hired professional at such an intimate time just seems unnatural doesn't it?
Sorry for such a long comment - just wanted to say - love your work.
Many blessings
Claire Hall

Laura Shanley said...

Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful comments, Claire! I so hope we get to meet again!

AmericaoCanada said...

I loved the article! While I didn't have my dream 'unassited' birth with my son, I do hope to in the future.

I have felt strongly about birth for awhile, and am currently reading a 'midwife' book. While I do enjoy the book, and how it is written, I find that it does sort of raise the midwife up a bit, and lower the woman a little. Perhaps not intentinally... but it makes me slightly turned off to midwives.

I sort of want to be a midwife, but I disagree with how they are more 'doctors' on the go noawadays. I'd love to live in a village and be a sort of mother's helper. Unfortunately that is not how our modern world works so I may not do anything.

Birth does belong to the mother, and she can do it. Fear, illusions and doubt are in probably 99% of the cases, the only real problem.

Laura Shanley said...

Great comment, AmericaoCanada! I agree! Thanks for sharing.