By Maggie Lecky-Thompson
** This article first appeared in the Healing Homebirth – issue of Birthings 2018 **
“There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.” ~ Kubler-Ross (1977)
This article explores ideas around the concepts of homebirth and healing. It is a very personal perspective and accordingly only a few influences are referenced! I hold the notion that homebirth has the potential to be a healing experience for those who have known trauma, loss and/or grief. I hope that by airing these ideas we (who want so much to see homebirth perpetuate) can gain inspiration and confidence for the task of healing homebirth and traversing this ‘road less travelled’ (Peck, 1978).
Remarkable potential for healing after a personal loss lies in the familiarity, sense of security and memories of simple domestic life that the home provides. There are so many memories of normality woven into the walls of a home. We are usually unaware of these small, meaningful factors until, or unless, we are hospitalised and we feel their absence sorely.
It is unquestionable that the social choice of having a baby at home is endangered and thus in need of protection. Birthing at home has grown evermore contentious in Australia since the end of World War 2. Each preceding generation of my family till the late 40’s was home‑born. My eldest brother, now 75 years old, was born at home. My next brother, just three years later, and me, another 18 months later, were born at cottage hospitals in Sydney and weighed over 5.5 kilos. Each of these later births occurred in a midwife’s home of four beds where the midwife would call a doctor in for the birth.
My mother was given gas for the birth of my placenta; she always believed she’d birthed a twin, not a placenta. She’d hoped for another son as she thought girls would be difficult (you can see I was!) and so mourned for this ‘other’ baby. She called me “Mark” when I was in in her good books (Hmmm!). It was a typical third birth: fast and furious with a joyful reward in the sense of accomplishment. However, my birth was ultimately marred by practices of the day (i.e. anaesthetised for delivery of placenta) that interfered with our bonding for a lifetime. Like child abuse, it only takes a seemingly small deviation from what is natural and right carer behaviour to destroy the empowerment that birth should be, to ‘throw a spanner in the works’ of attachment and, as in the case of child abuse, negatively impact on mental health.
When there has been an experience of trauma and/or loss we seek to close the wounds it’s opened. We seek to heal. Physical wounds seal over but scarring occurs. We assume it’s the same process when it comes to emotional wounds. The mind craves peace and respite from the anguish when we have had an experience that has left us feeling irrevocably changed for the worse. We hope it will ease or go away, but it’s not so easy; healing the spirit is much more complex. Sometimes the trauma is in the unconscious, obscured memories to sometimes be revealed in the birthing and postnatal days.
I became a Social Worker after I was deregistered as a Midwife. It was my first experience of university as a student and it was healing for me. To immerse myself in study was a pathway away from of all of the losses: my livelihood, my practice and assumed life long career, and my home; as well as the burden of humiliation and shame.
I discovered I could be equally as passionate about a whole range of social reforms and activities aside from childbirth. It was a privilege to counteract the years of what felt like persecution with this new childhood, where no one was going to die or be harmed. The most serious questions I faced were, “Will I get my assignments in on time?” and, “How many HDs can I get!” I sought fieldwork placements unrelated to midwifery and learned more about other social movements and my former career as a midwife in that broader perspective.
Birth is a social event, it is not a medical procedure. It’s a journey a woman or a couple embarks on where they hope to emerge well‑armed for their lives as parents. While few might express this, it’s a fundament of our biological instincts. Yet this is effectively obscured in today’s conservative political climate by hospital propaganda of fear, and false popular understandings of our bodies’ capacities; it is necessary and an immense triumph to extend our boundaries of pain and endurance for the ongoing requirements mothering asks of us.
Historically and to this day this social event includes caring for a member of our home or community through the rite of passage of motherhood, and of welcoming a new member into that community. When we partake or share in these vital experiences our lives are enhanced. We all feel a positivity that comes from knowing that by sharing a lot of love and energy, we have the innate ability to survive ANYTHING that can be placed in our paths. Our potential for healing is elevated when we are in familiar surroundings, amongst people who love us; those we know and trust. It is similar to the connection between people who have shared similar trauma or loss, and it helps us to make steps to firstly understand and make sense of what has happened to us and then to work out how we can live with it.
The grief of loss, be it a spontaneous miscarriage or a termination, the loss of a full term baby, the loss of a dream that falls short of a fulfilling birth experience, or the loss for a midwife of a beloved career, will involve pain and sadness, and the quality and nature of this bereavement may be different for each of us. We know about the stages of grief, that they don’t necessarily occur in the order the wonderful Elizabeth Kubler- Ross (1977) predicted, and that there isn’t always a much craved for end-date to mourning. The degree of grief may equate with the investment we put into our expectations of an experience, or it may not. Grief may completely blindside us. Take for example the couple with an unplanned pregnancy who assume their lives won’t change and then, when the pregnancy ends prematurely, their feelings of loss are huge and accompanied by a sense of guilt and bewilderment.
“Inasmuch as there were no external results, it might be supposed that nothing of importance could be happening within. (However) …pregnancy involves more than physical changes. The bearing of children is a biological task. The roots of the maternal instinct reach back into the deepest layers of a woman’s nature, touching forces of which she may be profoundly unconscious. When a woman becomes pregnant these ancient powers stir within her, whether she knows it or not, and she disregards them only at her own peril.” ~ Harding (1970:155).
My interest in midwifery matters inevitably influenced my honours thesis in my Social Work degree. I chose to examine how practitioners in a post abortion bereavement agency conceptualise and integrate spirituality into practice. My findings in this research showed that there are fundamentally three ‘interventions’ that can assist in the processes of grief: metaphor, ritual and storytelling. These interventions don’t necessarily heal the hurt, bring resolution or eradicate the past experience. However, the findings of my thesis revealed “the spiritually derived and theoretical basis for the use of metaphor, ritual and storytelling techniques” as powerful tools that had the potential to help. I additionally reported that referring to these three elements of metaphor, ritual and storytelling were equally as helpful in other areas of loss and grief that I encountered as a counselor in social work.
Whilst I won’t explore metaphors and storytelling any further here, I do want to share sociologist Bocock ‘s ideas about rituals:
“Rituals relate to key areas of our lives – to our sense of community or lack of it; to social cohesion or social conflict; to the human body, death, birth, illness, health, sexuality; and to symbols of beauty and holiness… (Rituals) deepen our experience of ourselves, our bodies and of one another.” ~ Bocock (1974: 24).
“… Rituals relate people to their bodies in ways, which few other social actions do… by using their bodies to express feeling and ideas. This use of ritual is therapeutic and healing, emotionally and bodily.” ~ Bocock (1974:36).
To the question of how we can heal homebirth. I’m not sure it can be restored to its historical ‘Call the Midwife’ depiction as the most appropriate and loved-by-many option. The question calls for modern actions for our time.
In my short life-span, compared with the entire history of home birthing in Australia, I have witnessed and been part of awful court cases that rocked our movement and took away the livelihoods of good women and men. Some will remember the wonderful Victorian GP homebirth champion Dr John Stevenson who, upon being deregistered in the early 90’s, chained himself to a court arena and went on a hunger strike (he was no longer young and never really recovered before he died). All of those caring carers, devastated and their wisdom lost to their communities.
Many other midwives and doctors have come under intense scrutiny and suffered at the hands of our bureaucracies, yet managed to emerge still able to practice, nonetheless wounded and shaken in confidence.
It’s still happening! The persecutions continue and many forget or are afraid to be kind; to remember that midwives want to help, they make choices in assisting at births that in hindsight may be heavily criticised. While their protective behaviour may not enamour them to others, they are human and suffering and deserve kindness, if only because of respect for karma: next time it might be you.
I believe the answers to understanding and working towards a more positive trajectory for the right to birth at home, without creating dangers for pregnant women, lie in examining other social movements over the past 70 years, both within Australia and abroad. Social movements usually succeed, but only after long and hard fought battles. Like female emancipation (i.e. the right to vote and for equal pay), the US civil rights, today’s gay rights to lawful marriage and recognition of our aboriginal peoples’ right to land and respect for their culture, the current battle for homebirth is uncertain, as is our movement’s future.
Political leanings and social change can occur, and it’s often astounding when it does. For example, I remember when the Berlin wall came down I took a beloved apprentice to the airport to fly home to Germany to celebrate with her brother; we were so amazed to see it happen in our lifetimes! Do hold onto hope, hope theory (Snyder, 2002) is so encouraging.
To bring about change only takes a few determined, hard-working people, with the right oratory and means to influence others to a more positive outlook and appreciation of homebirth. Perhaps social media will work for the movement as it did for Obama. Perhaps Birth Time, the wonderful film being made by Jo Hunter’s remarkable team, can turn the tide of repression, suspicion and persecution and overcome the prejudice and fear mongering evident in the media, popular press and the courts. This demeaning process is evident in the rulings that demand austere measures of independent midwives. No other profession is required to account for their practice by enforcing the draconian and punitive reporting that is necessary of privately practicing midwives to provide care.
I believe it won’t always be a downward trend. There will be more successes, great news stories, fabulous filmmaking, famous people choosing homebirth and shouting it from the rooftops and victorious breakthroughs in our influence to improve hospital birth options, all of which will serve to legitimise birthing at home. I don’t know where help will come from, just like in the toughest of labours, but I do know that rituals, storytelling and reminding each other of metaphors such as I’ve given, are important for the survival of individuals and communities in the homebirth movement as a collective.
Instead of viewing the movement of homebirth as sick, or in need of healing, we can apply a different lens: one that anticipates that survival is about adapting and being able to change. We must also remember the importance of keeping a steady course. Keep publishing, keep supporting and keep holding space for each other. Celebrate each beloved baby’s entry to our planet with ritual and storytelling; each small domestic triumph of every woman who claims her right to be in control of her birth and its environment.
1. Kubler-Ross. E. (1977) On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families. The Macmillan Company, New York.
2.Peck, M. Scott. (1978) The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth Simon & Schuster, New York.
Title inspired by Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”, first poem in collection Mountain Interval (1916) “…two roads diverged in a wood, and I…I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” Henry Holt & Co. New York
3.Harding, E. (1970) The Way of All Women. Harper Colophon Book. New York
4.Bocock, R., (1974) Ritual in Industrial Society: A Sociological Analysis of Ritualism in Modern England, George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London
5. Snyder, C.R., Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind. Psychological Inquiry 13, No. 4 (2002), pp. 249-275
Maggie’s career as a midwife spanned 30 years, 20 of those as a homebirth midwife. Attending over 1200 births, Maggie was a founding member of Homebirth Access Sydney, commenced to support others like herself and to find midwives prepared to attend their homebirths. She began the Australian Society of Independent Midwives in order to lobby governments, and published its newsletter The Communiqué to liaise with and support other independently-practicing midwives in Australia. Maggie provided apprenticeships for twenty-two midwives.
Maggie was deregistered as a nurse and midwife in 1998. She then studied to become a social worker, employed in mental health crisis work. She likens this work to midwifery, noting both careers are all about helping people out of tight spots! Maggie retired from paid employment in 2016 and now lives happily on Sydney’s northern beaches.