Interview with Laura Shanley-Author of "Unassisted Childbirth"

Laura Shanley is a free-lance writer, birth consultant, speaker, poet and author of the book Unassisted Childbirth. She is also the mother to four children who were all born at home without the help of doctors of midwives.  I had the opportunity to read her book and wanted to find out more about who she was, her philosophy, and her work.  Lucky for me she was more than willing to answer a few questions which I have shared here with you.  Enjoy and please share your thoughts!


SS: What prompted the new edition? What were the biggest changes? Were you super excited that Michel Odent wrote the forward?


LS: My publisher asked me to write the new edition. While the first edition certainly hasn’t been a best-seller, it has been steadily selling since it was first published in 1994. This past year a French publisher bought the French rights to it and asked me to write an updated version. This, combined with the recent rash of media attention (“20/20,” “The Doctors,” “Good Morning America,” the Washington Post, the New York Post and others) prompted my publisher to ask me to write an updated version, as well.


The second edition isn’t drastically different from the first – although somehow it ended up taking me a year to write it!  I included new statistics, birth stories and references to new articles.  I also included quotes from authors whose books have been published since the first edition – Laurie Morgan (The Power of Pleasurable Childbirth), Zuki Abbott (This Sacred Life: Transforming Our Life Through Birth), Lynn Griesemer (Unassisted Homebirth: An Act of Love), Veronika Robinson (The Birthkeepers: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition), Sarah J. Buckley (Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering) and others.


As far as Michel Odent’s forward, yes, I was very excited!  I had asked him to write an endorsement (which he had done for the first edition) but was absolutely thrilled when he offered to write a forward!    


SS: Did any of your research for the new edition turn up anything shocking or hopeful?


LS: I have kept up with the birth trends and statistics over the years, so nothing I read recently surprised me.  I have always been hopeful, despite the deplorable c-section rate.  Little by little, things are turning around.  The recent report from the CDC was very encouraging (29% increase in homebirths between 2004 and 2009).


SS: I love your book and I love that it’s about more than just UC.  You say right in the beginning you are not preaching that your way is the right way and that you support women whatever they choose.  Your message if I am reading it correctly is that these choices should be based on what the mother wants not what she is expected or told to do or based on fear.  That UC is not the way it should be done but a way it can be done.  Changing the culture of birth starts with the individual-do you sense a shift happening. Is it different from when you first wrote the book?


LS: I do sense a shift.  I now get letters from around the world from women that are choosing to give birth at home, either unassisted or with midwives.  Women are tired of giving their power away.  They’re discovering how easy birth can be when they have the correct mindset and believe in their own abilities.  The internet has certainly helped women to make this shift.  Not only are there numerous informative websites and inspiring videos, there are message boards, email lists and of course Facebook where women can connect with like-minded women.


SS: Do you feel like there is more information out there about Unassisted Childbirth then there was when you first wrote the book. Are you more supported when you talk about your choices now then you were then?


LS: Yes.  Prior to the publication of my book, there were several self-published books and newsletters about unassisted childbirth but not many people had heard about them.  This all changed with the internet.  Having my book published by an established press was also helpful in that it was initially picked up by the major bookstores (Barnes and Noble, Borders, etc.) and purchased by numerous libraries. 


Unfortunately, it didn’t sell well in the stores, so now (for the most part) it can only be purchased online.  But the concept is not as shocking to people as it once was, simply because there are more people both talking about it, and successfully doing it.  Still, of course, I have my detractors.  What is most hurtful to me are the negative comments – or outright omissions -  from those in the homebirth world who ONLY support midwife-assisted homebirth.  Many of the websites that claim to give women “all their options” in birth fail to mention unassisted childbirth.  The fact is, it is a valid, legal option that more and more women are choosing.     


SS: What do you think about the “Unassisted Childbirth Movement?” Is it a movement or just a going back to the way it should/could be?


LS: While there have certainly been women giving birth without medical assistance since humankind first appeared on this planet, I actually believe that “unassisted childbirth” as I envision it, is a new way of giving birth.  Michel Odent writes that childbirth has been culturally controlled for millions of years.  Yes, women in tribal cultures were giving birth without medical assistance but their births were often controlled by other members of the tribe.  In many cultures the mothers were treated badly during labor due to superstitious beliefs about women and birth.  Babies were taken away from mothers within minutes of birth and women were not allowed to breastfeed for several days because colostrum was believed to be evil.  In some cultures, newborns were given whale blubber and bread to eat, and dung was rubbed into their umbilical cords.  These practices sometimes led to death for the mother, the baby or both. 


Of course, this didn’t happen in all cultures.  There were many tribes where the mothers and babies were treated well.  Still, poor living conditions - lack of food, clean water and proper housing - often led (and still lead) to high infant and maternal mortality rates.


Women today who are choosing to give birth unassisted generally do not live in poverty.  They are also not bound by tribal rules and practices – unless they accept the current cultural beliefs surrounding childbirth, which are dangerous in their own way.  The women who are successfully giving birth unassisted today have freed themselves from both physical and psychological interference.  This is why I believe that “unassisted childbirth” is not simply a return to the past.  It is a leap forward, a new way of giving birth that is both safe and immensely empowering.    


SS: There is a spiritual component in your book. A sense of faith in something larger-a connection between body and mind and thoughts.  It is almost like an underlying theme.  Do you think women misplace this trust and that instead of finding it within themselves or in the process or nature or whatever you want to call it-they are placing their trust and faith in doctors and technology? And if so, what can we do to turn that around? Can we change the culture of birth?


LS: Absolutely.  It is being changed now and will continue to change as women awaken to the tremendous power that is within them.  For those who are struggling to free themselves from both their own limiting beliefs, as well as those of society, I recommend reading books that deal with the concept that we create our own reality.  The Seth material by Jane Roberts and the Abraham material by Esther and Jerry Hicks were extremely helpful for me.   


SS: I was working with a group of women yesterday and we were talking about self-doubt and fear. They all mentioned that deep down they felt safe, that they trusted their bodies but that from time to time this fear and self-doubt would surface. We talked about how internally the knowledge that birth is safe and that they will know what to do is there but that external influences can come in and create self-doubt and fear. What advice do you have for them?


LS: Here again, I think it gets back to understanding that we create our own reality according to our desires, beliefs, intentions and expectations.  Until you understand the power of your own thoughts and feelings, you will continue to feel vulnerable.  When you understand that your beliefs literally create your experiences, then you can begin the process of honestly facing what it is you believe about birth.  Do you believe it is inherently painful and dangerous?  Do you believe that women’s bodies are poorly designed or that nature or Goddess/God is uncaring or incompetent?  Or that perhaps our bodies are simply a mass of chemicals that accidentally came together for no particular purpose?  If so, it’s understandable why you wouldn’t trust your body to give birth safely without doctors, drugs and machinery to assist you.


If, on the other hand, you believe there is a loving, intelligent consciousness behind and within life that has created women’s bodies with the specific intent to reproduce (among other things), then it is much easier, in my mind, to relax, let go, and allow your birth to unfold in its own time and in its own way.  Some people may object to bringing spirituality into what they see as a physical process but for me it was key.    


SS:  We create our reality. You talk about our body responding to our thoughts and even go so far as to say birth is only dangerous for those who think it is. We are SO overwhelmed in our culture by images and stories about birth being dangerous-even our doctors tell us all about the “dangers.” How can we protect ourselves from those views. It’s powerful when it’s all around us-what can women do to reverse all that “deep conditioning” as Michel Odent calls it?  You say in your book that we can choose to believe otherwise. Is it that easy? To simply chose to think differently?


LS: I am a big believer in belief suggestions or affirmations.  During my first pregnancy I gave myself suggestions on a regular basis: I believe I’m not afraid, I believe I love myself, I believe I trust myself, I believe I am not guilty, I believe I deserve a good birth, I believe I am not ashamed of my body or my sexuality, I believe I have inner help.  I also visualized myself giving birth easily.  My births ended up exceeding my expectations!


SS: As a childbirth educator we want families to make informed decisions which means knowing the risks and advantages to every situation.  I am currently reading a book that encourages educators to inform parents about everything that could go wrong. The idea being that if everyone is prepared then when something less than "ideal" happens they will not be in shock and they will be better prepared to deal with the situation. What do you think about that? Do you think that lessens fear or creates more fear?


LS: On the surface, of course, this sounds like a wise and practical approach.  However, because I subscribe to the belief that we get what we focus on, I personally do not encourage people to learn about everything that can possibly go wrong in birth.  Instead I try to educate them as to why things sometimes go wrong, and from the research I have done, I believe it can be traced back to three main causes: poverty, unnecessary medical intervention, and fear which triggers the fight/flight response and shuts down labor.  When these factors are eliminated, nearly all women can give birth safely and easily with little or no help.


SS: If you could tell mothers one thing what would it be?


LS: Try not to do too much.  Birth isn’t a function of the conscious mind.  The same consciousness that knew how to grow your baby from an egg and a sperm into a human being, knows how to get it out. Our job is simply to relax and allow it to happen. 


SS: Do you have any advice for those of us working with women as doulas and educators?


LS: Encourage women to believe in their own abilities as much as possible – even if it means they may not invite you to their births!  Robert Mendelsohn wrote, “Never forget that the New Doctor’s goal is to work himself or herself right out of business, so your dependence on the professional should diminish every day.”  The same can be said for doulas, midwives and childbirth educators.  If you truly want to help women, encourage them to believe in themselves, not in you.  All the support a woman needs is already within her.  If she has forgotten this, and needs/wants some outside help, then lovingly help her.  But do not insist that your presence in birth is essential.  In the long run, this will not serve you.  After a birth a woman shouldn’t say, “I couldn’t have done it without you!”  Instead she should say, “That was easy.  I could have done it without you!”  Then you will know you have done your job well.        






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