‘Free Birth’ The Story Behind The Headline

It is the controversial video that has been making the rounds on social media. A mum having a very gentle and calm home birth assisted only by the loving support of her partner and Doula. So now we ask why all the controversy? Why is this video getting so much hype and awareness that just on my facebook page it exceeded 519 comments!! Some good and some criticising this woman and mother that had chosen to do what instinctively she knew her body was capable of and that is having an unhindered birth. The controversy lays in the fact that Jessie, the mum in this birthing video chose to have no medical care provider present for the birth of her baby girl at home because she had no access to one. She decided to do what is called a ‘Free Birth’ where there is no medical care provider there for the labour and birth. With the circulation of this video came the backlash of the very much-debated topic of home birth and whether it is safe to birth your baby at home. I wanted to clarify this subject based on sound evidence and also give Jessie the chance to hear her background story and what brought her to the decision to have a ‘Free Birth’.

Home births were the norm and the way women birthed their babies till the very earliest part of the 20th century when we started medicalising birth and taking women out of the comfort of their own homes to a medical setting to birth their babies. Obstetrician Michael Rosenthal states “The first intervention in birth, that a healthy woman takes, is when she walks out the front door of her home, in labour”  This is where women feel the safest and where birth is undisturbed which allows the hormonal orchestration to take place to aid us in achieving a progressive and safe birth. According to the research we know that home birth with a midwife is considered safe for low risk mums, so why are we denying them this right? The answer doesn’t lie in criticising women who choose to have a ‘Free Birth’ but rather why is the maternity system so flawed that women feel like they have no choice BUT to have a ‘Free Birth’ as their options are so limited if they want to birth at home. As a Doula I do not attend mothers in labour when they choose to have a ‘Free Birth’ because that would be out of my scope of practice but I am not here to judge them on that choice but rather I question the lack of support they did not receive leading them to this decision. I myself chose to have a ‘Free Birth’ with my second birth and so I know first hand what Jessie went through and that this decision doesn’t come lightly.

Thank you Jessie for taking the time to speak with me and letting us get to know the woman behind the controversial video. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background…

I was born and grew up in Byron Bay, Northern New South Wales on an organic farm which my parents still live at and operate, a place I love going home to. I am the eldest of 4 children – our parents are amazing role models and very hardworking people. My parents encouraged us to be healthy and active and taught us the importance of having a good work ethic. I was milking goats and picking raspberries and macadamias before the school day! I was brought up to believe in my ability and that I was strong and capable by my incredible mother. I finished school and completed my Bachelor of Photography, majoring in Photojournalism and after work and travel settled in Port Douglas with my photographic business and amazing husband, and now our daughter Mahli.

When you found out you were pregnant, what were your initial thoughts regarding what you wanted for your birthing? And at what point did you start taking the steps to actively think seriously about what your birth would be like?

I was extremely excited when I discovered I was pregnant. This was just two weeks after conception. We had had a number of early miscarriages and to begin with and I didn’t want to get my hopes up. At first I didn’t even want to sneeze as I had this overwhelming feeling of protection and caution but the more tests I did showing that I was still pregnant the happier, more excited and I began to experience a huge respect for my body. At her 6 week scan when we saw her heartbeat I fell so in love with her and was so proud of her, I felt like we could breathe normally again – and that was the beginning of an amazing, enjoyable pregnancy. Ironically, my husband and I initially discussed an elective C-Section as soon as she was full term (38 weeks) due to him working away and potentially not being present for her birth. I looked at the risks and benefits and quickly realised that this was not the experience I wanted for myself or baby. I had to take into consideration that Brett would have to leave soon after the birth and I didn’t have family close by to help look after baby & I during the recovery period. I also learnt about the benefits of a vaginal birth for baby, mum and dad. So instead I began searching for a Doula who could be my birth support should Brett not have been there.

Did you do any childbirth education or preparation? Did you read any childbirth related books; did you speak with any care providers? Did you consider having a Doula?

I had private insurance so found an obstetrician to share our journey with. We were given the option of shared care by our GP because our nearest Obstetrician was over an hour away. We were denied a screening test and scan by our GP as we had elected NIPT, this caused us some stress and was our first experience of being told what we were ‘allowed’ to do and not having our needs and wants heard. For the sake of continuity of care from then on we visited the Obstetrician only and registered to have our baby with the private hospital he worked with. At 32 weeks we attended the first Antenatal class, the first question I was asked when we arrived was if I was booked in for a C-Section. At that point I had began my Hypnobabies program and was focused on a vaginal birth. The classes took us through 1st, 2nd and 3rd stage of birth and what was available to us for each stage including medication to augment labour and for pain relief. I also did private antenatal classes with my Doula (Shelly Langford) who spoke more about how your natural beta endorphins, given the chance work in harmony with your body to keep you happy, relaxed and explained how this also helped reduce pain. Among many of the books she loaned me was “The Down to Earth Birth Book” by Jenny Blyth which furthered my belief that I was capable to birth my baby through intuition and listening to my body. I was fit, healthy, had a lot of information on Mahli’s growth, position and overall health – she was very predictable and I was considered a low risk pregnancy with no medical issues of my own. I felt so great that I even photographed a wedding the day before her due date. I was thankful that she was 1 week late as it finally gave me a week to relax, focus and prepare all the smaller details.

What then brought you to the decision you made to have an unassisted birth at home?

I was part of a fantastic new program offered by the private hospital called Know Your Midwife. This was where you were allocated a Midwife that you could meet with and talk to at any point through your pregnancy and who would likely be present for the birth. Sadly our hospital couldn’t offer waterbirth, they had baths that you could labour in but you could not birth in. We didn’t want to be in the situation where we arrived at the hospital which was over an hour away only to be turned away so we had always planned to labour at home for as long as possible. I asked about the ‘rest and be thankful’ stage between 1st and 2nd stage and while one midwife said she believes completely in this stage in birth and life another indicated that it could be considered failure to progress. This is when I knew I wanted to give my body the best chance of a physiological birth with zero intervention. I didn’t want the pressure of time constraints as this causes stress that can stall birth. I wanted an undisturbed birth, I didn’t want my focus broken with the beeping of machines, bright lights and monitoring. Knowing that I was born in 1 hour 20, my husband and I realized that this could also be a possibility and we may not even make it to hospital so this would be when we started to seriously look at the possibility of a homebirth in the event that this became a reality. I started obsessively researching what risks were associated with this and what benefits, if any there were. This is where my doula presented me with many studies and evidence based research on the safety and benefits of labouring in a place you feel safe, loved and supported. How it allowed your endorphins and other important hormones to flow, how an intervention free birth could give your body the best chance of a physiological birth. We also had confronting and challenging conversations about what complication could arise. While she was happy to support any informed choice I made on birth and location she stressed that this was our decision and we were responsible for any complications as she was not medically trained or covered by insurance to assist. I exhausted all avenues of fnding an independent Midwife to be present while I laboured in case our labour was quick. This is when I discovered that there were no private midwives practicing in our region. This is when the next part of my research began, to learn what could go wrong and the likelihood of it. While I could never replace having an experienced midwife, I learned everything I could about infant resuscitation, steps to take with fetal distress, cord prolapse, transverse baby, shock, bleeding, shoulder dystocia and when emergency transfer was necessary. I was confident that Shelly with her experience of attending many births including bush births, freebirth, homebirths and hospital births and reading women’s body, movements and listening to her sounds and her training would recognise and training would make sure my emergency birth plan would be followed and carried through – we were to err on the side of caution. When I did go into labour we called the hospital so that they were aware and ready for us and my hospital bag had been packed the week before but our intuition was right and Mahli was born 23 minutes after her waters broke.

Was it only you and your husband present? How did your partner feel about that in the lead up to the birthing day and on the day? Did you feel he was well equipped with enough knowledge in the event that things didn’t go to plan? Or how best to support you?

It was my Doula Shelly, my husband Brett and amazingly our puppies (my beautiful purring cat had not left my side either) present for the birth. I remember asking my husband early in the pregnancy what he would do when my waters broke and his answer was to call an ambulance, at the time Brett and I both believed that the safest place to birth was in hospital and it is for some women. While one of my sisters and I were born full term and healthily, my youngest sister and brother were each born at 28 weeks. Homebirths, freebirths and even waterbirths are definitely not for everyone but the more research we did the more I trusted we were making the right decisions and the more Brett trusted my body. He understood that being in the private, safe, familiarity of your home played such a huge part in the birth process. He was happy to support my wishes in any way he could. I prepared two birth manuals for him, one contained what I would be going through during each stage and what he could do to help support me and the other contained information and steps to take in case of an emergency. As it turned out the day started like any other day – our air-conditioning had blown up so Brett was busy with the tradesmen, he would come to check in on me, dance with me, feed me, hold me and kiss me. I did not realise I was in actual labour (I didn’t experience contractions, just some pressure in my back) which I was trying to dance out. I told him not to call Shelly yet who was to labour with me at home as I felt I was a long way off the actual birth and I didn’t want her to drive all the way here until we were closer. He had his own intuition and called anyway, luckily as soon after Shelly arrived my waters broke.

Why did you choose to video the birth and then share it on social media?

As Shelly knew my wishes for an undisturbed birth she remained unobtrusive but offered water, massage and support when her instincts felt they were needed. Our photographer didn’t make it either so once I was in our bath Shelly picked our camera up and filmed our birth for us. Again another reason why I love her, she knew how important this was for me. Thanks to the article in the Daily Telegraph that criticised our decision to birth the way we did a lot of people believe the false information it contained and think that I am a ‘mummy blogger’ who shared our birth on Instagram. I actually haven’t. The way it came about was I had purchased some teas, tinctures and oils from another Doula and Herbalist in Melbourne, Julie Bell from Blissful Herbs in preparation for Mahli’s birth and I contacted her to tell her I had gifted a friend of mine some of the teas and herbs who had recently given birth and her feedback was that they brought her so much comfort and relief. She asked how Mahli’s birth was and I told her she was welcome to watch the movie. She viewed it and got back to me full of emotion. She was so happy and so proud that we had followed our instincts and had the beautiful birth that we did. She asked if she could share 60 seconds of it on her instagram page. I visited her page and found that it is a birth education platform – of all types of births. I had spent hours watching birth videos and live births during our pregnancy and wanted to ‘give back’ in a way to help other mums who were taking the time to research birth and their choices, options and to see that it does not have to be feared. That it can be a beautiful, amazing, rite of passage. An incredible and enjoyable experience. I spoke to my husband and we both agreed for it to be shared.

Were you surprised by the feedback that you received from the video? How do you feel about the feedback that you’ve received from TV reporters and the public in general to you have an unassisted home birth?

I hadn’t used instagram much up until that point and decided to download it onto my phone. I opened it up to find so many notifications that this 60 second clip had been ‘reposted’. The comments and shares were so positive and I received many messages from women thanking me for showing them that birth can be an enjoyable experience. So many of them had experienced birth trauma or birth rape and were pregnant and terrified to birth again. They didn’t realise they didn’t have a choice during pregnancy and birth. They just did what they were told even if it was against their wishes or natural instinct. I was surprised at the many different pages it was reaching but all of the comments were so supportive and positive. It wasn’t until The Daily Telegraph wrote their piece on it using false information and my words out of context that came from an email answering the reporters questions. This is where things spiraled a little out of control. Once the media (Social and TV) picked up on this article is when the criticism began. I began receiving messages in the early morning of August 14th asking if I knew we were on TV. Friends were sending me videos they had recorded of the segments and I was trying to delete all the tags and posts to my page on social media. I was feeling embarrassed and humiliated about the false information that was being spread about me and hurt by the hateful and angry comments which came from a place of fear, because we are made to think that all births are a medical emergency that need to be managed. I was called reckless and selfish. I was mortified that the most incredible, humbling, empowering moment of our lives was being used at click bait and sensationalised. I was being accused of many things but the saddest of all was that I was giving an unrealistic expectation of birth! Because I gave birth vaginally and peacefully in the privacy of my home. I did not expect such a normal, natural thing like our birth to receive so much attention: negative or positive. It was special to us but I didn’t at the time think it would be such a point of interest to so many. It has raised so many issues like WHY we free birthed, WHY we were forced to free birth, WHY do we have no access to an independent midwife? WHAT would have happened had we not prepared for an unassisted birth. I’ve discovered that there is a whole underbelly of birth professionals who are illegally assisting free births because if they don’t, no one will. WHY isn’t there a service to support a woman’s informed decision. WHY is it assumed that every birth must be managed? WHY are we working from the bottom up instead of the top down when it comes to the services that each individual woman will require? WHY are there so many countries in which homebirth is considered normal. WHY do people believe the safest place to birth is hospital – babies and women die in hospital as well. WHY aren’t women who trust their bodies, trusted? WHY is birth so feared? WHY couldn’t my hospital accommodate my birth wishes? Every woman has a legal right to have choice and autonomy over their body and baby during pregnancy, labour and birth, why don’t women KNOW this? I think it was irresponsible of the reporters to highlight their personal belief that I was creating an unrealistic expectation of birth – they preyed on the vulnerability of every mother and father who has experienced birth and affirm their fear around birth and inspire hate in them, to demonise and criticise our decision and to have our intelligence insulted and not verify the facts with me before airing a small glimpse of our birth video. And that’s all it was – a small glimpse – you can not tell from a 60 second video all the research and thought that went into our decision. Instead of reporting the real facts around the benefits of home and water births. Where is their duty of care? Where is their Code of Ethics? What if as well as being isolated I was suffering PND. What could this kind of negativity do to a new mum? Looking back at your experience and the decision you made to have an unassisted home birth do you think you would’ve done anything differently? And would you do anything different if you were to have more children in the future? There was a moment during all of this attention that I questioned what happened. Should we have gone to hospital at the first moment I thought I was in labour? Looking back at our experience I can confidently say that I was informed, made an educated decision based on research and evidence and we 100% did the right thing in planning for a potential unassisted birth. I can say with 100% certainly that we would not have had the same experience in hospital. I didn’t turn my back on the hospital, I wasn’t using our birth to make a statement. It was a decision we arrived at after spending a lot of time having conversations and doing an obsessive amount of research on. t was a ‘what if’ that turned into a reality. If baby or I were suffering exhaustion, or if I was in any kind of pain or distress or if it looked like complications were starting to arise then we would have gone to hospital. I was listening to my body, I felt safe and supported and as a result we had a very quick, easy birth that did not require medical assistance. Do I think it is an unrealistic expectation of birth. No. Is it for everyone? Defnitely not. Would I promote free birthing? No – it is an individual decision based on many factors. I wouldn’t have done anything different. We would love to have another baby. We don’t know if free birthing will be an avenue we will be forced into again or if we will have more options when that time comes. I do know that I will assess our options and make the safest decision. We didn’t just have birth goals we did everything we could to help facilitate the birth we had.

If you wanted to say anything as a takeaway message for expectant mothers what would that be? This is your time to voice your opinion as an empowered woman and mother and I want you to have a chance to let your story be heard. In your opinion should women have the choice to have an unassisted birth at home without be criticised for it?

I can’t speak for women who free birth by choice as we were forced into an unassisted birth. Women have the choice of an elective C-Section – they weigh up the risks and benefits and are supported in their decision. WHY aren’t women who choose to have homebirths also supported? Every pregnancy and birth is unique to the one before and the one that will come after. All of the WHY’s are not the fault of midwives. Midwives are amazing but their hands are tied when it comes to homebirths. They don’t have any support. Even within the hospital they are bound by the outdated policies that make up the red tape. Being registered with a private hospital came statistically with a higher rate of a C-Section. I was low risk with a very normal pregnancy but still they insisted in a cannula and could not let me birth in the bath. Birth is becoming so medicated – I am very ft, I am healthy, I’m strong. I know my body was made to birth my baby, I believed in myself and my ability and had no doubt as this is the way I was raised. If I had any instinct telling me otherwise I would have continue with the hospital despite my birth wishes. I did everything I possibly could to prepare myself for birth. Everything. I used every available resource: my doula, the hospital, evidence based research to prepare for the likelihood that we would be birthing at home and I am so glad I did. I can’t speak for anyone else and I can’t promote that homebirth, freebirth and waterbirth is for everyone (and I never have) but I hope out of all of this it helps women to realise it is their legal right to have choice and autonomy of body and baby during pregnancy and birth. Learn about how equipped your body is to birth. Learn what happens when your endorphins run wild! Birth does not have to be feared and it does not have to be traumatic. They can give their body every chance of a beautiful birth. Women who say they don’t have a birth plan because whatever is going to happen will should take their power back. Research what options you have, and whatever decision you make, whether it is a physiological birth in or out of hospital, a birth with all the ‘bells and whistles’, a C-Section, a homebirth or a free birth KNOW that it is your legal right to have choice and fnd someone who will support your informed decisions. Yes there can be complications and some in some instances births do need to be managed and in many cases it is the best option, for those we have the privilege of amazing medical care but it shouldn’t be considered a blanket medical procedure. Let’s not assume that it has to be for everyone. Why is it assumed we can’t birth our own babies? Why can’t we be given the chance to just do it on our own? And then have plans in place if there are complications. Every woman remembers the way she was made to feel during pregnancy and birth. This can have a lasting affect on her psychologically, not just in the days and months to follow but for the rest of her life. As my Doula Shelly said “We need to seriously look beyond just achieving a live baby and mother at the end of birth, for a better future and humanity we need to look at what the mother has to go through to truly achieve a healthy and safe outcome for both her baby and herself…it is her instincts and innate knowledge that drives her to seek out the safest way and place to birth her baby, but it’s the support she receives on whether she achieves a truly healthy outcome that she will be satisfied and happy with for the rest of her life”. We also need to advocate for the obligations governments have to provide maternity care that is accessible and affordable to meet women’s right to birth where she feels safest and provide medical assistance where necessary.

I have a video link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01vg1F0CfGg&feature=youtu.be ) reply to the Media that incorrectly told my story and a link to the petition

(https://www.change.org/p/the-dailytelegraph-and-today-show-apologise-and-report-the-facts-about-birthing-at-homerecruiter=85780088&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=share_petition&utm_term=share_sms_responsive) calling for an apology and the opportunity to be interviewed to tell my story and discuss the bigger issues surrounding birthing at home. There are almost 2000 signatures.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2742137/

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