Friday, July 3, 2009

Twins by Surprise

Last night, sleepless, I found myself watching a TLC special called "Twins by Surprise." The show recreated the stories of four women who thought they were carrying singletons, but ended up with surprise twins. One of the mothers had her babies in 1979, before ultrasound was routine, two more were assisted by midwives (one home birth, one hospital), and one one had an unassisted homebirth.

It was an upbeat show — all the twins were born full term (or nearly so) and healthy — but the final story really bothered me. The woman who had the unassisted homebirth had no prenatal care and was relying on her obviously clueless husband's help. Both parents assured the camera that they had done all the necessary research and preparation, but I was skeptical.

I went and read some freebirth websites to find out what she could have been thinking. The sites I read had some good points, but also some very flimsy reasoning. I agree that routine birth is not a medical event and that doctors and hospitals do not always provide the best care. All five of my mother's children were born with the assistance of midwives, without drugs, and I fully intend to find a birth center for my own little Snapdragon.*

The part where the freebirth websites go off the rails is in their assertion that unassisted birth is a reversion to a natural state/historical norm. They cursorily acknowledge the existence of midwives, but all of the sites I read portray the choice as a stark contrast between strapped-down, knocked-out c-section and giving birth serenely and solitarily in a field of daisies. They draw facile analogies between quadrupeds and humans, implying that solitary birth is natural for women.

In fact, solo childbirth among humans is an historical anomaly. Social birth and bipedalism go hand-in-hand. In my other life, I am an historian and I can say for sure that throughout recorded history, solo births have never been the norm. It has been much more typical for women to be assisted by mothers, sisters, neighbors, and experienced midwives. Skillful helpers have soothed and served women in labor, encouraged them, and dealt with emergencies.

I am sympathetic to some of freebirth advocates' points: labor is natural, we are inappropriately socialized to expect suffering rather than competence, we need to listen to women and trust them.

But I don't think it follows that freebirth is the logical end of these beliefs. Many midwives and mothers — and even some doctors — are respectful and helpful, rather than overbearing and meddlesome. I don't think freebirth should be illegal because I'm staunchly pro-choice, but speaking for myself, I wish to be surrounded by caring, competent women, just as my ancestors were.**

*I have nothing against homebirth and think it's probably best for a lot of people — my major reason for prefering a birth center to a home birth is that I want to leave as much mess/bodily fluids elsewhere, rather than in my 700-sq-ft house.
**I do hope to have FB there with me, too — a feature of modern birth I fully embrace.

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