Birth/Rebirth: Unassisted Childbirth

The floor was dirt, but it was clean….Even if Foua had been a less fastidious housekeeper, her newborn babies wouldn’t have gotten dirty, since she never let them actually touch the floor. She remains proud to this day that she delivered [twelve] of them into her own hands, reaching between her legs to ease out the head and then letting the rest of the body slip out onto her bent forearms. No birth attendant was present, though if her throat became dry during labor, her husband, Nao Kao, was permitted to bring her a cup of hot water, as long as he averted his eyes from her body. Because Foua believed that moaning or screaming would thwart the birth, she labored in silence, with the exception of an occasional prayer to her ancestors. She was so quiet that although most of her babies were born at night, her older children slept undisturbed on a communal bamboo pallet a few feet away, and woke only when they heard the cry of their new brother or sister. After each birth, Nao Kao cut the umbilical cord with heated scissors and tied it with string. Then Foua washed the baby with water she had carried from the stream, usually in the early phases of labor, in a wooden and bamboo pack-barrel strapped to her back. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Chapter 1

I am the oldest in my family and due to my breech position, I was born via c-section. Because of that first c-section, my two brothers were also born by c-section. I remember following my mom into the bathroom when I was small and seeing her scar. She was matter-of-fact about how I was born. My mom didn’t say much about any of our births, other than joking that, “If you hadn’t flipped around in that last month…!”

Popular culture filled in the rest of my birth-knowledge. I knew that panic and screaming was involved. I knew that the breaking of your water was an emergency. I knew I’d get an epidural as soon as possible.

I knew all that, until I took Anthropology 101 at BYU and read that passage above. Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, isn’t even about birth, but that’s the part that captured me. It didn’t make sense to me: how was she able to have calm births? How is that even possible? And yet, we’re both human, right? So birth can’t be fundamentally different for her and every other story I had heard, yes? I decided right then, that when I had my babies, I was going to do what it took to have the same peaceful birth: I was going to create the same circumstances. I was going to have my babies by myself: no doctor, no midwife.

A year later, I was newly pregnant with my first child. I hadn’t forgotten about my resolve to have my babies by myself. I prayed about it a lot. In prayer, I asked where and how I should have the baby and felt assured that everything would be ok and that I was given full agency on this matter. On my own it was!

In the early weeks of the pregnancy, I found that the library had a book by Laura Shanley titled Unassisted Childbirth. I read it all, checked out more books, did a lot more reading. Early in my second trimester, I had the opportunity to fly to Colorado and meet Shanley at her home. A few months later at a birth support meeting, I met a woman who lived  down the street from me who had birthed all three of her kids unassisted. Suddenly having a baby by myself wasn’t something people did on the other side of the planet. It was something people do in Provo, UT, just like me.

In my reading, I made a list of emergencies that would require hospital transfer and made sure my husband was “on board” and knew this list, too. I read a lot, discussed it a lot, and prayed a lot. I started doing my own prenatal care. We acquired a fetoscope to listen to the heartbeat, urine test strips to monitor glucose and protein levels, and started measuring fundal height and checking my blood pressure regularly. I learned how to determine what position my baby was in by kicks, heart beat, and feel.

Over 42 and half weeks after my last period, I found myself in labor with my daughter. It was hard. It was long. That was the worst part. Oh, and the back labor. The long labor and back labor combo was terrible. It kept coming and coming. My husband’s hands ached from shoving them into my back for the pain management. Labor had started in the evening and by the next evening, at the close of the first 24 hours, I felt abandoned by God. I remember thinking, “God, you said this would be ok. You have to make this ok. You can’t go back on that!” My husband gave me a priesthood blessing and in it, I was told to remember the strength of my foremothers and that their strength was my strength.

Then I went to bed. I knew I’d have my baby by the next morning.

I was wrong. I was in and out of sleep all night and by the morning, I looked at the new day ahead and thought, “I can’t do another full day.”  So I called a friend. She came over and brought me donuts and stayed with me, helping my husband with the back pressure. There were times when the labor got intense but I was so afraid of those sensations that I refused to let it continue. This prolonged the labor and it wasn’t until that evening that I finally got down to business and pushed that baby out. When I finally felt that it was progressing, I wanted it to happen as fast as possible. If I had a contraction during which I didn’t feel the baby descend, I made sure I pushed harder for the next one. And soon, I felt a ring of fire. Except it was more like a sting.

I reached down, and instead of a baby head, there was a bulging sack of water. My water had never broken. Next contraction, baby engaged. And after a few more, she was born in the caul, after 44 hours of labor, at exactly 43 weeks. Her head was molded and looked as if for most of those 44 hours, she tried to come out posterior. But she was pink and healthy and nursed right away. First Family Picture

With that first pregnancy, I felt very strongly to go unassisted. There was a reason I was so gripped with that passage from Anthropology 101. If I had hired a homebirth midwife, my care would have been transferred to an OB at 41 weeks and I probably would have been induced. The posterior baby and long labor may have been declared “failure to progress” and I may have needed surgery. There’s really no way to know, of course, but I do feel that I was led to unassisted birth especially for her birth. I came away from that long labor more confident in myself. And the next time I gave a talk in church, I assured my nerves, “I can do a twelve minute talk, after all, that’s much shorter than 44 hours!”

My son was also born unassisted. We moved to California when I was 30 weeks pregnant, and even though we had no break in insurance coverage, pregnancy was a pre-existing condition and I could not be insured. I worried that trying to find a midwife at 30 weeks would be futile; they’d have been booked full months ago. We went the unassisted route again out of default. I had been doing my prenatal care all along, so we were set for it. His labor was much shorter (7 and a half hours) and slightly earlier (41 weeks, 5 days), but the back labor was still intense. Unlike my daughter, he didn’t breathe as immediately as she did, but he did breathe. He had lungs so loud I was afraid the neighbors would wake up! People like to sleep past 7:30 on Saturdays, you know.

With my last baby, we had a midwife. The extra hands were helpful since I labored a work day, 9am – 4:15pm, and the two older kids needed lunch and all the babysitting I had arranged fell through. I still had terrible back labor that necessitated superhero fists in my back. She was born at 41 weeks and 4 days, my earliest and largest baby at 10 pounds. There were pros and cons to the midwifery care and if I have another, I’m not sure which route we’ll take, or if we’ll need a hospital. It’ll all depend on how it goes.

It is now almost seven years since I first read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and this past week was the first time I had reread that chapter in years. Reading it now I will say that my births weren’t as quiet and were speckled with a few expletives and a couple “Do I have to do this?’s” But even with those, I am glad I trusted myself and the Spirit in this.


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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14 Responses

  1. Rachel says:

    This is a truly remarkable post about a truly remarkable series of events.

    I love that passage you shared, and while I had not previously read it, I had read others like it. They helped me feel like I could give birth at home, when that felt like the best choice for me, but I never even considered doing it without women helpers.

    My back labor was bad, too. My husband is strong, but was sore for days after.

    • TopHat says:

      Condolences about the back labor! I first thought I had back labor because of the malpositioning, then thought for my second I had it because it was “fast”. After my third, I just think I’m prone to it! I hope you get some back-labor-free birthing time in the future!

  2. Melody says:

    Wonderful story/stories. I’m inspired by the womanly strength and courage you express throughout this essay. And the photo is fantastic. I want to say, “Congratulations!” like it happened yesterday. You’re amazing. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. EFH says:

    Wow! What a powerful woman.

  4. Emily U says:

    Lovely post, TopHat. I enjoyed reading about your process of coming to the decision to do your own prenatal care and give birth at home. And it’s great your husband was supportive of that. You both look so happy in the photo – although you must have been exhausted!

    I’m lucky enough to have relatively easy, short labors, and don’t really know what back labor even is, since I didn’t have it. Given my uncomplicated births I think I’m a good candidate for a home birth. I would like to have one if I ever have another baby.

    • TopHat says:

      I’m jealous of your lack of back labor! I have a friend who also didn’t have back labor- I can’t imagine that, but it sounds great! I tried Hypnobabies with my last and I think it would have “worked” better if I didn’t have back labor. If I have another, I’m going to look into sterile water injections.

      It does sound like you ‘d be a good candidate for homebirth. Good luck!

  5. Ziff says:

    Wow, TopHat! You’re amazing!

  6. EmilyCC says:

    I love this post! Watching Baby L’s birth was amazing and it was fun to read about your first.

    And, I think The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is such a great book. It’s what first inspired me to become a hospital chaplain. I enjoyed hearing how it inspired you.

    • Rachel says:

      Watching baby L’s birth was amazing. I was visualizing the moments when her head and body appeared while I was pushing out my baby C.

  7. spunky says:

    I believe you are the strongest woman I know! Your story blew me away, thank you so much for sharing such powerful and amazing experiences!!!

  8. Jane Pash says:

    Your story is incredible! 21 years ago tomorrow i birthed my first born daughter through a posterior labor in a hospital in Australia but refused all medication and intervention. She was born 8 hours after my waters had broken. I was so confused during the labor that i did not feel anything in my abdomen at all!! The pain was all in my lower back and i had no idea what “posterior” meant. It was not until later i read and understood. I was attending a prenatal water physiotherapist class before my second birth and she recommended that during the last 6 weeks of the pregnancy i spent an hour or two swimming each down (face down) and also sat in a an all four position each night and crawled whenever possible to try and avert a second posterior birth! She questioned me: if you were in a hammock would you lay face down?? i understood the reasoning and followed her guidelines for my next three pregnancies, which were all natural and did not have another posterior birth which was wonderful! My first 3 babies were born in Australia but my last in Texas, USA. I was so scared of being in a hospital and having doctors make decisions for me so i found a wonderful birth center with two midwives and had a water birth! It was the most truly spiritual birth i have had. It was incredible and mostly silent. The water was so peaceful and tranquil – the lights dimmed, silence except for a dear friend who sat and played gently guitar music and sang Hymns to me when needed for peace and focus. The experience was truly spiritual. Shortly after I had a medical emergency as the midwife detected some placenta had been left behind and i would not stop bleeding. Many would have suggested that i be rushed to the nearest hospital for emergency surgery. However, the midwife felt assured she could manage the situation and i was grateful not to lose the beauty of the moment. What followed was far more excruciating than the pain associated with birth! However, equally spiritual. As i refused pain relief, my friend suggested she would play the guitar and sing “Abide with Me” and I would gaze deeply in her eyes and she would sit closely and not lose eye contact with me. She told me when the song was over it would be finished. The midwife began the procedure and it felt so intrusive to have something entering my body when i had just followed my intuition and “expelled” everything. My body instinctively kicked out in the extreme pain and the poor midwife had a big bruise on her arm the next day. My friend beckoned me to focus and then in the calm of my friend singing the chorus to Abide with Me, I heard the midwife joining her in an alto harmony of the chorus. Tears of peace, joy, confidence and calm flooded my body and i wept with pain, but beauty and gratitude for the gift of women and the power of birthing with intuition.

  9. Rachel says:

    Tophat, I meant to add that when you first mentioned that you did your own prenatal care, I wasn’t sure what you meant. It was fun to learn about all of the research you did and skills you gained in that process.

  10. Brooke says:

    You are truly amazing, Tophat. And it’s so wonderful that you felt led to this birthing path! I deeply admire the way you took initiative and made your way through these experiences. It is a very empowering story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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