Raidah Shah Idil
At 6:20 am on the 25th of June this year, I gave birth to my daughter, Taskeen Yusra, in the privacy of my home. She was 39 weeks and 6 days old. My husband, Irfan, was the first to greet her, and he passed her to me still wet and slippery. As I held her in my arms for the first time, she looked up at me with her enormous eyes, as if saying, "There you are, mummy!"
At the sound of her first grandchild's newborn wail, my mother rushed into our bedroom. She cried as she rubbed my back and told me that I'd done an amazing job. The oxytocin high was out of this world – I have never felt so giddy with love.
I marvelled at my newborn daughter's perfect fingers and toes. I felt lucky – as all new parents do – but also because we'd somehow miraculously managed to do this all on our own.
Did we plan for an unassisted home birth? Nope. My doula didn't arrive on time. My water broke at midnight. I sent a Whatsapp to my doula to update her. She asked me if I wanted her to come to my home and I said no, thinking that I'd have at least twelve hours of labouring ahead of me. That's what everyone said about first babies, right?
Wrong. Almost six and half hours later, I breathed my baby down. So quite by accident, we had an unassisted home birth. Or in the home birthing parlance – we had a freebirth.
In comparison to what happened afterwards, birthing my baby girl was the easy part. My husband and I didn't intend to shock and upset our families by our home birth. One family member said she was glad we didn't tell her our home birthing plans, because she would have called the ambulance. Other family members scolded my husband and listed the mortality rate of home births in Malaysia. He just nodded and smiled, being so exhausted and sleep-deprived from caring for our newborn.
To anyone who is curious about why we had a home birth, here's our side of the story: We had planned for both home and hospital birth after attending a 'natural birthing' course with a soft-spoken doula. We realised that if we wanted privacy and a birth on our terms, the best place to have that was our home.
We wanted our baby to have as undisturbed and gentle a birth as possible. Still, because we were first-time parents, we wanted to keep the door open for a hospital birth, in case complications arose. We went for regular check-ups, got our hospital admissions letter, and at the same time, got a birthing pool, birthing ball and yoga mat ready. Unlike many staunch home birthers, we weren't sure where we would end up until I actually went into labour.
My husband and I kept our decision to home birth hush-hush. I told my mother and my youngest sister because they were the ones most likely to be present during my baby's birth. We were concerned that if we told too many people, their negative responses would make us afraid, and the last thing we needed during our baby's birth was fear.
My mother's response surprised me. "I thought only poor people give birth at home." This made me realise that yes, generations ago, when my foremothers couldn't afford hospitals, they gave birth at home with the village midwife in attendance. What was once the norm is now under tree-hugging hippy territory. Yes, we have a compost bin in our apartment, drink organic milk and wish we could live on a farm, but it wasn't our desire to be 'hippies' that drove our home birthing plans. We wanted to gift our baby girl with a birth without fear.
The discourse surrounding birth contains so much fear. I'm one of the many women who have been inflicted with horrific birth stories by other women. Reading up on midwives Ibu Robin Lim and Ina May Gaskin along with Dr Sarah Buckley's work helped dismantle my fears.
As for the home birthing climate here, although it's not illegal in Malaysia, it's definitely frowned upon. When I tentatively broached the idea of a home birth with my OBGYN, she shot it down. I'm yet to find a doctor willing to attend a home birth here. With that sobering reality in mind, we did our research and prepared as best as we could. Before agreeing to attend our home birth, our doula interviewed my husband and me to ensure we were both on the same page. We agreed upon the scenarios necessitating hospital transfer, such as sudden bleeding during pregnancy and postpartum haemorrhage. I followed her protocol of eating dates and drinking red leaf raspberry tea in my third trimester, to help tone my uterus and reduce the possibility of excessive bleeding.
My freebirth taught me the power of the female body. Women are strong, brave, and designed to birth their babies. As my sister pointed out, I was lucky enough to have an uncomplicated and fast labour. Would I have sought medical intervention if anything had gone wrong? Absolutely.
Am I a home birth advocate? No. I am an advocate for women choosing the birth they want. home births or hospital births are a choice only the mother can make. Yes, sometimes, things don't always go to plan. What matters is the fact that a woman's decision to choose where and how she births, is exactly that - her decision. Her Plan A and Plan B is up to her, and no woman should ever be shamed for that.
I hope that by the time my daughter has her own child, the discourse surrounding childbirth will be less fearful, and more respectful of the choices women make about their bodies, births, and babies. Birth doesn't have to be a medical event, particularly for low-risk and healthy women. Choosing how we birth lies on the spectrum of the many, many choices we make as women.
As a woman who will probably live in Malaysia for the long-term, I'm an advocate for midwife-led birth centres for low-risk women. I'm hopeful that this kind of model for childbirth will provide more empowerment for birthing mums, while reassuring their families that there is medical care on standby, in case of emergencies.