Books that make a difference
Excerpt from Home Births: Stories to inspire and inform
Childbirth is one of the most miraculous and life-changing events we face. It is an experience that transcends the everyday and elicits some of our most primal responses. It has the power to redefine our very sense of self.
This book was conceived out of both a professional and a very personal interest in natural, active birth. On a professional level, as a student midwife, I felt that the book would be a valuable resource for women and their partners both in making their birthing choices and in communicating their wishes to those around them. On a personal level, it gave me the opportunity to express the wonder of natural birth at home, and share with a much wider audience the amazingly powerful effect of reading positive, affirming birth stories.
I was inspired in part by a speech I heard at a conference hosted by the Royal College of Midwives. Dame Karlene Davis, the General Secretary of the RCM, told us that as students we should ‘be political’, engage with the issues surrounding our chosen profession and stand up for those beliefs that we feel to be at the heart of maternity care. Insofar as I have chosen to create a work focusing on choice, and in particular on the minority who choose a home birth, this book could be said to be a political statement. I certainly hope that I am fulfilling her request by promoting home birth as a real choice for parents, even though, as some of these stories show, the decision is not always supported by the health professionals involved.
Grantly Dick Read, in his Revelation of Childbirth , was one of the first authors to declare his belief in empowering and improving women’s birthing experiences through education and information, hence ceding control of birth to women. It is in this spirit that I produce this wonderful collection of moving and intimate stories of real home birth experiences.
On a personal level, my twin sister and I fell pregnant only two months apart and so spent most of our pregnancies together. We discovered an insatiable appetite for everything and anything connected to pregnancy and birth, and in particular birth stories. We simply couldn’t get enough. Yet when we began to think of planning our births at home, we found very few actual stories to give us an emotional insight into what we could hope to expect.
Like many of the contributors to this book, we came across a number of dedicated proponents of natural birth who fired our enthusiasm all the more (see the list of suggested further reading at the back of this book). With some research online we found discussions on how to plan a home birth, and various academic descriptions of risk and benefits. But it quickly became clear that there is a relative lack of direct narrative that speaks to pregnant women and their partners on an emotional level. In today’s culture hospital birth has become the standard for normality, so inevitably the information available to expectant parents is largely based on this experience of birth. What we craved were real, in-depth descriptions of what women and their partners experienced in the home environment.
I discovered what became my bible in pregnancy when I came across a dusty, crumbling edition of Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery on the shelf in my mentor’s office while out working on a placement in the community. Reading it, I was swept away into a world of colourful, powerful, sensual, even sexual descriptions of the wonders of natural childbirth. It struck a chord in me that has been humming ever since: this is the way it can be; this is what women like me want, and indeed what some lucky women even manage to achieve in this modern world of technological birth. I wanted to tell the whole world about it, and so I set about doing just that, in whatever small way I could.
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The stories in this book have come from a variety of geographical locations around the UK (and one from far-flung New Zealand), and as such reflect a range of different viewpoints. Clearly only those who chose to share their experiences are represented, and as such this not a true cross-section of all of those who choose home birth. However, it was specifically not my intention to produce an academic work, rather to share with a wider audience the joy and wonder of birth at home.
The contributors describe their experiences in the context of the much wider social group to which expectant parents inevitably belong, incorporating a whole host of characters from friends, family and work colleagues to a range of health professionals. The term psycho-social support is wordy, but describes the need we all have to belong to and make use of the network of social relationships which surrounds us in our daily lives. Our social context has a huge impact on the choices we make, and these stories demonstrate the broad range of attitudes that people choosing home birth can encounter, from sceptical and negative to supportive and encouraging.
Several of the stories draw attention to the commonly expressed assumption that birth at home is inherently risky. Many authors were offended by explicit and implicit suggestions that they were being irresponsible, and that by choosing a home birth they were putting their babies’ lives at risk for the sake of their own preferences or aspirations. These stories demonstrate that, in fact, those who choose home births tend to be very aware of current research and are usually highly informed about the risks and benefits of their decision not to use medical facilities.
It was important for me to provide a realistic image of home birth, so as not to be accused of idealism (God forbid!), and there are a number of stories that depict planned home births where women subsequently transferred into hospital for a variety of medical reasons. Indeed, most of the contributors take pains to reassure the reader that, contrary to the image of reckless risk-taking, they are fully prepared to acknowledge if they need extra medical attention and would heed their midwife’s expert opinion and transfer to hospital if the situation called for it.
In looking at this decision-making process, as with other aspects of home birth, I felt it was important to include a section on partners’ perspectives. This is an area that is often overlooked, though I have found that partners enjoy talking about their birth experiences just as much as the mothers do. By including their side of the story I hope to address some of the particular concerns that partners reading this book may have about home birth.
What comes across in this section is the way in which home is often a much more inclusive environment than hospital for those with the dual role of partner and parent. It interests me that even though some partners describe feeling the lack of an active role in labour, they are evidently much more at ease in their own surroundings. They can engage in other activities to make them feel useful and involved (providing essential refreshments to the midwives, usually!). The photo essay is of particular interest, since I am told that it wasn’t always possible to take birth pictures in hospital at that time. These beautiful images might never have existed were it not for the fact that the parents chose a home birth.
I have chosen to include some stories from the 1960s and 1970s alongside more contemporary accounts in order to show how medical attitudes towards birth are constantly evolving. Although some of the attitudes and practices described are no longer prevalent, they show the constantly shifting face of maternity care and highlight the variety of choices that women are able to make these days.
One of the more practical considerations of home birth is the decision parents make about extended family being present. Several stories describe the choices families made as to whether or not they wanted their other children present during their labours and births, and also the choices children themselves made when asked their preference. In many cases, but significantly not all, the parents chose not to have their children present. Some explain that they simply didn’t want the distraction of having to focus on someone else’s needs at this crucial time; others share their anxiety that their labour might frighten their young children. However, more often than not, children are included in some part of the labouring process or are present very soon after the birth, and in every case this is seen as one of the great rewards of home birth. The opportunity for our children to witness and understand childbirth in a positive, empowering light, is surely a worthy ambition.
Some of the contributors to the book were themselves born at home; others describe how hearing the birth narratives of friends or relatives helped in forming their own opinions. These anecdotal references demonstrate the effect of positive story telling in action, which was one of the prime motivators in bringing together this collection for publication. The tendency of the media is to make drama out of significant life events such as birth and death, often by focusing on their negative aspects. Calm, even blissful, birth is relatively under-represented, which I believe seriously undermines parents’ expectations of their birthing abilities.
It has been heartwarming to discover how many women not only share my passion for natural home birth, but are willing to share their deeply personal experiences for the benefit of others facing this life-changing event. One contributor summed up her motivation in the letter that arrived with her stories:
I hope this book will help to change the attitudes of the vast majority who are too scared or view home birth as irresponsible to see that we are a very aware group of people who make the decision to birth where we feel safest and happiest… If my four very different births offer comfort or affirmation to just one woman who then goes on to deliver at home and passes that joy on by telling her story to others then I will feel I’ve made a real difference.