“Mom, where did the seaweed find a job?” My 8-year-old daughter read from a list of jokes that she’d prepared for me.
“Where?” I asked, smiling at her and trying not to moan.
“In the kelp-wanted ads!”
I threw back my head and roared with laughter. I’d recently read that laughter can help ease labor pains. And at that moment, as I was trying to ride the wave of a contraction, my daughter’s silly joke was the funniest thing I had ever heard.
A Warm-Up or the Real Thing?
You would think that after giving birth to three children—one in the hospital, one at home with a certified nurse-midwife and her assistant, and one at home with a lay midwife and a medical doctor (there as a friend)—I would’ve known whether or not I was in labor.
But in all honesty, I wasn’t entirely sure. I’d been having light contractions all morning. Was I in labor or were these just Braxton Hicks: the warm-up contractions that, according to the American Pregnancy Association, last between 30 seconds and two minutes and that serve to tone the uterus and increase blood flow to the placenta?
My husband had left to bicycle the kids to school. I set my professional camera up on a tripod and took a photograph of myself holding a handwritten sign with the words, “Coming Soon?”
In fact, it wasn’t until I sat down to work—I had an article due for a major women’s magazine—that I realized that I was in full-blown labor. I couldn’t concentrate on the story I was writing. So instead of sending a final draft to my editor, I asked for an extension.
But here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t pack a hospital bag. I didn’t call a midwife. And I didn’t phone any relatives, friends, or a doula.
As crazy as it may sound if you’ve never thought of having a baby outside of the hospital, my husband and I—after many months of soul-searching, meditating, reading books, and talking to moms—had decided to have our baby by ourselves, unassisted.
Unassisted childbirth, also known as free birth or sometimes do-it-yourself (DIY) birth, is when a mom or an expectant couple chooses to have a baby without the assistance of a doctor, a midwife, or any other professional birth attendant.
“Women who choose this route want to give birth in their own time and their own way, free from any government or insurance or hospital-imposed restrictions,” said Laura Shanley, 64, who has been an advocate for natural childbirth for more than 40 years.
“Even most midwives have a list of requirements that they’re supposed to adhere to. Many states have restrictions on VBACs [vaginal birth after cesarean], multiples, or a breech birth. The midwife has to choose if she wants to answer to the woman or the state, and even the kindest, gentlest midwives will go against the mother or their own intuition because they’re afraid of losing their license or even going to jail.”
No Numbers on Unassisted Birth
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the 3.75 million babies born in the United States in 2019, some 38,506 (a little more than 1 percent), were born at home. In the same year in Oregon, where I live, about 2.4 percent of babies were born at home. However, there’s no reliable way to track the actual number of unassisted births in the United States, planned or unplanned.
Though the CDC doesn’t collect data on unassisted birth, there’s reason to believe that the number of home births increased in 2020 and 2021, as many hospitals stopped allowing pregnant women to have their loved ones with them during labor and started requiring women in labor to wear masks, even if they tested negative for COVID-19.
“We’ve seen a lot of families birthing at home, without midwives, and they invite as many educated people in their family as they can convince to be there, they learn as much as they can, and they kind of piece together what they can do,” Tayo Mbande, a doula based in Chicago, told a reporter from US News & World Report in March.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, as well as for other reasons, unassisted births may also be on the rise in other countries as well. One study conducted in April 2020 by a team of researchers in the UK found that roughly 5 percent of pregnant women, women who had recently given birth, and their partners had considered or were considering unassisted birth.
According to the British newspaper The Guardian, since the National Health Services suspended home birth services in March 2020, more birthing couples than ever before feel as though their only choice is to have an unassisted birth.
Choosing to Birth Unassisted
We often hear about babies born so quickly that their parents don’t make it to the hospital, such as Susan Anderson, a Florida mom whose baby Julia came so quickly that the midwife rushed out to the parking lot to help her deliver. There was also the Brookline, Massachusetts, mom, Arielle Chernin, whose baby, born on Aug. 18, came so fast that she delivered in the bathroom, as reported by ABC’s WCVB5. Then there was the mom who gave birth on the side of I-805 in Southern California recently, after the car that was taking her to the hospital overheated, KGTV reported.
Those precipitous births sometimes end up being unassisted because of circumstance, not design. It’s much less common to hear about families, such as mine, that make a conscious and informed decision to have their babies on their own, privately, without birth attendants.
Audrey Bird and her husband Peter are one such unassisted birth family. Trained as a midwife, Bird gave birth to her first baby in the hospital and her second child at home, unassisted. When their second baby was born, the Birds lived in a small town in southern Utah, just 20 minutes away from a hospital. They knew the hospital was there if they needed it, but they felt that they would have a better, safer experience by themselves.
That second birth wasn’t easy. Audrey had some heavy postpartum bleeding after her daughter was born. While a doctor may have treated that as a crisis, she and her husband—who was working as a deputy sheriff at the time and had been trained in emergency childbirth—knew just what to do. He helped her out of the birth tub, massaged her uterus (to help it contract and stop the bleeding), and gave her an anti-hemorrhage drug.
Their reasons for giving birth to their third child, Piper, without any professional assistance were both practical and spiritual. By then, the family had moved to a remote island in Alaska. Going to the hospital wasn’t really an option.
“We live 150 miles from a road,” Audrey Bird said when I interviewed her by phone a few years ago. “You have to fly in, and then cross over on an hour boat ride to our house!”
Practical issues aside, Bird also felt that an unassisted birth was a better, gentler, more natural option.
“As a midwife, when I attend a birth, I sit back,” Audrey said. “I allow the mom’s body to do what it needs to do. I’m there as a lifeguard in case something happens. Usually it doesn’t. Most parents [who choose unassisted birth] are very well educated on it, they know what the risks are and how to identify those risks, and they know what to do if something comes up. For me, when I have an unassisted birth, my husband knows what to do. We are paying attention the entire time to the baby’s heart rate and to our instinctual feelings. We are prepared. Birth generally happens the way it needs to when it is undisturbed.”
That baby, whose birth was actually filmed by a Lifetime television crew for a show called “Born in the Wild,” was born face up on an outdoor platform surrounded by aspen trees. As idyllic as this sounds, Piper’s asynclitic presentation (which is when the baby’s head is tilted and not centered on the cervix) made it a difficult birth. Audrey said she vocalized through it, and though the birth was longer and harder than she expected, it was worth the effort.
“This is how people used to be born all the time,” she said. “It was beautiful and grounding and humbling. My daughter was born face up and she saw the trees and the birds and the glow from the sun. I just love that.”
‘I Felt Safer at Home’
Two of Brogan Metcalf’s and her husband Chad’s three children were both born unassisted. And the Metcalfs, who live on Wallops Island, Virginia, wouldn’t have had it any other way. Their first child, who’s 7 years old now, was born in the hospital, where they felt bullied by the nurses and doctors.
“There was so much that I disliked about that experience,” Brogan said. “I hated the hospital setting and being told how to birth—as if they somehow knew more about my body than I did.”
So when the Metcalfs became pregnant with their second child in 2016, they decided to have the baby by themselves. Brogan spent the most intense part of her labor in the bathtub, her toddler Dalila by her side.
“She was so calm, just taking it all in,” Brogan told me.
While Brogan remembers that she started to fall apart during transition, just before pushing (at one point, she yelled at her husband to just “pull the baby out!”), Dalila wasn’t worried at all. After two pushes, their baby boy, Lincoln Grey, slid out into the water. No pulling was necessary, but her husband did need to gently lift off the cord, which was wrapped around Baby Lincoln’s neck.
“Oh, baby!” Dalila crooned.
“Even though I manifested my birth dream,” Brogan later said in a blog on my website, “I was surprised how calmly and perfectly it all happened.”
When the Metcalfs found out that they were pregnant again, Brogan was excited to have another unassisted birth.
“There was no other way, going back to the hospital was not in my cards,” she said. “I felt way safer at home.”
Still, that third labor was unexpected. Brogan said she had more fear around the birth, and the labor lasted much longer than she thought it would—about 15 hours. Mila will turn 2 years old in October.
Looking back, Brogan realizes that her labor began at dawn, but her contractions stalled after her two kids got up for the day. Twenty minutes after her kids were in bed, Baby Mila was born. She was squatting in the middle of the living room with her husband supporting her and a pillow underneath her, candlelight flickering around them.
“I was really present and connected,” Brogan said. “My favorite part was when I saw her. We didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl. I cried like a baby. I just looked at her and was sobbing. It was the most beautiful thing.”
“Our bodies are amazing,” said Brogan, 33.
Shanley, whose four children were all born unassisted, agrees. While she can quote studies and statistics that show that home birth is as safe or safer than hospital birth, for Shanley, having an unassisted birth is about faith. Faith, she said, is at the heart of her work.
“We do have inner guidance. We do have inner health,” Shanley told me. “We are guided just as any animal is guided. We need to trust that. I never felt alone when I was birthing my children. I always felt a presence that was there helping me.”
For Shanley, the largest obstacle to having an unassisted birth was negative self-talk and fear. If we step out of the way and let our bodies do what they’ve been designed to, labor becomes easy, she said.
“Just as you have faith that there is a loving God that knows how to grow a baby inside you, that God—or larger consciousness or whatever you want to call it—knows how to complete the process, if we can relax and stay out of the way,” Shanley said. “I believe you have to not trigger your fight/flight reflex, and then your body knows how to deliver your baby. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out, difficult process.”
Learning About Unassisted Birth
So if you want to learn more about unassisted birth or are even considering having your baby by yourself, where would you begin? I started by talking to freebirth and homebirth families—some who had incredible, empowering, life-changing birth experiences; some who ended up transferring to the hospital; some who eventually changed their minds and hired midwives.
I also read Shanley’s “Unassisted Childbirth” cover to cover, twice, (full disclosure: my daughter’s birth story is included in the most recent edition of Shanley’s book,) in addition to a 76-page manual called “Emergency Childbirth” that an unassisted-birth mom recommended. And I met in person with no fewer than five local homebirth midwives, as well as with some of the families whose babies they delivered.
I was impressed with those midwives: They had vast experience and expertise. But I also realized I didn’t want or need a midwife at my birth. Even though I was over 40 and would have been categorized as “high risk” by an obstetrician, I wanted to have my baby my way, on my own terms, without considering anyone else’s opinions (or paperwork) and without any interruptions.
And that’s just what happened. Just 3 1/2 hours after Athena told me the kelp joke that had me roaring with laughter, our fourth and final baby was born in our bedroom, slipping quietly and calmly out of my body and into the world.