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Do-It-Yourself Delivery

Lynn Griesemer gets some help with dinner from daughter Millicent, 10, and son Michael, 5, at their Centreville home.
Lynn Griesemer gets some help with dinner from daughter Millicent, 10, and son Michael, 5, at their Centreville home. "An unassisted birth hammers home what it means to be a woman," Griesemer says. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

On her Web site and in a 1994 book, "Unassisted Childbirth," Shanley describes each birth in unsparing, sometimes graphic, detail. She said she caught one baby herself, pulled another out by his feet and gave birth to a third alone while her toddler sons slept in the next room, then cut the cord herself.

A fourth child didn't make it. Four weeks premature, he was born in the bathroom while Shanley's 19-month-old daughter stood beside her. He died a few hours later of a heart defect, pneumonia and sepsis. Shanley said the coroner told her a hospital birth wouldn't have made a difference.

In Shanley's view, many of the problems during birth are caused by the over-medicalization of a natural process.

"I believe the baby is in distress because the mother is being interfered with and terrified," she said. "You can have a better birth if you don't stand in your own way, or have other people stand in your way. Why is it so extreme to trust yourself?"

To Rothman, the nurse-midwife, Shanley's beliefs underscore a more fundamental problem with maternity care. "To me the really interesting question is, Why would someone go outside the system?" Rothman said. "What is so broken that they don't want to use it?"

No Interference

Jones, the Navy wife, has an answer. Her first delivery in a hospital four years ago was marred by "interventions and interferences based on someone's outside judgment" of how well her labor was progressing, she said. She said she felt pressured to have epidural anesthesia, was not allowed to move around as she wished and was denied access to her baby until he was two hours old because he was being observed by the hospital staff.

Jones said she decided to give birth to her third child unattended after her second was born five minutes after the midwife arrived at her home.

"She was like, 'See, you didn't need me,' and I thought, 'You know, maybe I don't,' " she said, as baby Gideon, now 5 months old, cooed in the background.

She and her husband were prepared if something went wrong, Jones said. They had stocked up on herbal remedies she read about online: cayenne pills in case she began hemorrhaging, echinacea in the event of an infection. Jones said she had arranged to call a midwife friend and knew that the closest hospital was a five-minute drive.

On her MySpace blog and the birth announcement she posted on YouTube, Jones chronicles her 28-hour labor. She describes how her husband, Justin, had set up their bedroom, using lighted candles and laying plastic sheeting on the bed and all over the floor.

"It was so romantic," she wrote. "He remembered everything I had said I wanted through the past years."

The couple disposed of part of the placenta by burying it in the back yard -- one of several practices common after home birth. Less than 12 hours after Gideon's arrival, the entire family celebrated by going to IHOP.

When Gideon was a few days old, his parents took him to the local health department seeking a birth certificate. Jones said Chesapeake officials told them he was the fifth freebirth baby they had seen in two months.

'Are You Crazy?'

A dozen years ago, when his wife first proposed giving birth at home without medical assistance, Bob Griesemer, now 48, had an immediate reaction: "I said, 'Are you crazy?' "

But Lynn Griesemer was persistent, both recall. She regarded it as a logical extension of her home schooling their children and her desire to "add to the nest without leaving it."

"I believed I was not going to be an emergency case," she said. "I just believed that nature was on my side and I was going to focus my mind."

Griesemer, a senior software engineer at Northrop Grumman and a devout Catholic, said his wife convinced him that birth was "the culmination of the marital act -- the gift is given back to the husband in the form of a baby by the wife. And it didn't make sense to me to have a whole lot of people looking on."

The benefits of unassisted delivery, Griesemer said, were immediately apparent. "The closeness I feel to Michael and Millicent is different," he said. "As infants, they responded to me differently than the others."

Although the couple was open with their older children about the births, they delayed telling their parents until after Millicent was born, fearing condemnation.

"When my mother would call, she'd ask, 'So, Lynn, are your bags packed?' " Griesemer recalled. "And I would say, 'We're all ready.' "

The couple devised a two-pronged contingency plan that involved calling 911 and, in Bob Griesemer's words ,"just trust[ing] in God's providence and God's grace."

Griesemer said he knew his wife could manage the pain. But at first he wasn't sure he could do his part. That was before he read a slim volume often given to firefighters and police officers titled "Emergency Childbirth."

He was persuaded by a single phrase: "Don't worry: Any reasonably intelligent 10-year-old can do this." ยท

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