Choosing a Home Birth: One Mom Shares Her Story
Elizabeth Keeney admits that her rural Vermont roots and the fact that she didn't used to wear makeup may make her sound a little bit "crunchy," but these days, the 33-year-old mom of two is a self-described "city person" and social worker at a public defender's office in the Bronx. With her own mother having gone through two C-sections and numerous co-workers opting for medicated, hospital births, it's very possible she could have gone that route when she got pregnant with her first child four years ago. But instead, she decided to plan a home birth.
Elizabeth talked to The Stir about how she came to this decision and why she feels it was one of the most empowering experiences of her life -- one she chose to repeat when she had her daughter two years later.
What led to your decision to have a home birth the first time around?
Before moving to New York, I had two friends who had planned to have home births, and that was the first time I had even heard of anyone having a home birth. It wasn't something that I had any sort of awareness about. Actually, both of those friends ended up not being able to have a home birth [due to complications], but after that, it was in the back of my head. It seems like there's a pretty good chance that if you go to the hospital in NYC, you're not going to end up with the labor and delivery you might have imagined for yourself. So I wanted to do something that would help my chances at least of having the kind of labor and delivery that I wanted. I watched the The Business of Being Born and [later] had a meeting with midwife Emory Ship. It ended up being a really good fit with her, and that's how we arrived at the decision.
What did you imagine that ideal labor and delivery being like?
I imagined that, ideally, I would not be taking any drugs and that I would be able to labor for as long as I wanted, and I'd be able to push my baby out and really feel what, to me, is such an amazing thing that we have as women -- this power to give birth. That's something so many women don't feel like they can do, because society has taken away that confidence that we used to have in our own bodies. I was young (29), I was healthy, and it didn't seem like there was any reason to think there would be any issues. And I'm not scared of hospitals or afraid of them, but I had this feeling that if I was in a hospital, I could see myself tensing up and being made nervous by the whole situation. I had this feeling that if I was in a hospital, it wasn't going to be a natural birth. Also, I knew I wanted to breastfeed, and I had heard the stories about babies being separated from their moms right away and then having trouble latching. I felt pretty confident that I wanted to avoid that if I could.
How did friends and family react when you told them you were planning a home birth?
My mom was definitely surprised and hadn't really thought about home birth, but the more she started defending my decision to her friends and explaining it, the more behind me she got. My partner Daniel's parents were probably more surprised and anxious about it, but he doesn't have that kind of dynamic with them where they'd butt in and say, 'You can't do this.' I work with a young office, so there are a lot of people who are pregnant or having babies, and attorneys really want to know everything. Nobody there would ever not find out the sex of their baby, not have their name decided on in advance. People thought what I was doing was novel. Other people were like, 'That's crazy/weird!' or 'Aren't you afraid it's going to hurt?' It was a bit funny, because when my partner started telling friends of his that we were going to do a home birth, [they were] all in shock and tried to talk him out of it. But none of them were happy with their hospital births. And then, actually, the friend of his who was the most against the whole thing -- who had his first kid in a hospital -- ended up having his second at home!
What factors do you think made you feel like you could do it despite any possible concerns?
I felt confident in my partner. I definitely wasn't like, 'I'm gonna do this alone.' I ended up having a doula, a midwife, one of my closest friends who is a nurse, and my mom [there], so I had a pretty big team of people and that helped me feel confident about the whole process. We did take a birthing class, all people who were sort of hoping to have as natural a birth as possible, and that class helped a lot with our expectations and our confidence level. That was something that was important to me. [I thought] if we're gonna do this at home, I want to know everything I can. I wasn't just a total free spirit about it. I wasn't scared about all the different ways it could go. I just wanted to know, for example, if I do go to the hospital, what's that going to look like? I never thought of myself as someone who has a high threshold for pain at all, and I haven't had surgeries that have sort of tested my limits. I was worried about it, and I was like, 'It's probably going to really f***-ing hurt!' And it did! But it wasn't anything my body couldn't do.
How did you prepare for the birth?
In the birthing class, our teacher had us hold ice cubes our palms for a minute, breathing through it. It sounds silly, but it is kinda torturous to hold it for that long! We also [learned] triggers that will make you tighten up. So just practicing that kind of stuff ahead of time was helpful. It's weird ... I also felt like nobody had told me this before, but I tell people this now, that I felt contractions were the most insanely painful period cramps you could ever imagine. [Thinking] about it that way, of a cramp and pushing a baby out, helped me get through it.
How did having a doula and a midwife help you during the birth?
I feel like my doula [London King] did far more than my midwife, because there weren't any issues, and so London was there from the beginning and did all of the sort of like heavy lifting, getting me to walk up and down stairs, getting me to lie down when I didn't want to lie down, all of that stuff. Emory was directing it, but her job was to monitor the baby, and I felt like London's job was monitoring me and helping me have the energy to get through the long hours; it was like 10 hours -- which was pretty good for a first-time birth. But she honestly did most of the work!
What do you think was one of the most interesting ways that your first labor was different because it was in your home vs. a hospital?
My water had been broken for 24 hours, and typically, in a hospital setting, that's the longest you can go with your water broken before they'll induce. That's my understanding. But I was just kind of chilling! I went and got a pedicure. I was in touch with my midwife, and she came over just before the 24-hour mark and said, 'We have to start thinking about natural methods of induction.' We had an acupuncturist come over, and she started doing her thing and basically sent me into labor. It worked! The was acupuncturist was over at maybe 8 p.m., I labored through the night, and my baby was born in the morning.
How did you handle the costs associated with the birth?
My insurance covered my home birth! The cost of a home birth for the insurance company was $7,500, and that's including prenatal care. It makes sense for insurance companies to pay for it, because it's so much cheaper than spending a couple nights in a hospital and the potential interventions. I paid for my doula, but all my prenatal appointments were in my house, which is another huge benefit of home birth.
What were some of the surprising benefits of the experience?
I already knew I wanted to breastfeed, so having a home birth just made that easier. Being at home and being in the comfort of my own home made a difference for breastfeeding. I was able to right after the birth, and we all got into bed together and slept and the baby just woke up and he nursed. The other thing about home birth is that, after my son, I was ravenous and laid on the couch, and I sent Daniel to get us cheeseburgers and shakes! I was like, 'I need protein, I need iron!' Those kinds of little comforts that you don't get when you're not in your house, and it's pretty amazing to be able to have that.
How has the experience changed how you talk to other women about giving birth?
I'm a huge supporter of home birth. I definitely tell everybody. I would sing from the rooftops how great it is! But once I made the decision, I started to realize just how scared women are of birth, and it was really sad actually. I still feel sad about it. When I talk to women who are pregnant, I do my best not push anyone in any direction. I try to be really supportive, but at the same time, I always try to find a way to infuse my words with the message that women don't get about their bodies and birth. Things don't always work out, and you deal with what comes your way, but just remember that your body is born to do this. I think that really gets lost. [But] some people are like, 'I would have the drugs even before I get to the hospital if I could have it my way!' and don't want to leave anything to the unknown.
What do you have to say about people thinking you have to be a "crunchy" hippie mama to have a home birth? Did having a home birth lead to you making any other alternative parenting decisions?
I remember talking to my midwife about diapers and expecting that she was gonna be all about the cloth diaper. And there was no way in hell I was going to do cloth diapers. I thought, 'This kid is going to daycare right away, I'm going back to work, we don't have a washing machine in our apartment.' And she was like, 'Oh, no, cloth diapers?! Who does that?' and I was like, 'Oh, thank God!' I remember freaking out when my baby was 6 weeks old, and I was like, 'I've gotta give him a pacifier. He won't stop crying.' And my midwife was like, 'Yeah, give him a pacifier!' It wasn't like you're having a home birth, therefore you have to do all of these other things. We're definitely vaccinating! It's more about birth is something our bodies are able to do most of the time on their own, and so let's do that. And every other choice is going to be its own parenting decision. It's not like a whole package, crunchy mama thing!
How do you feel about home birth?
Image via Elizabeth Keeney