By Robert Dean
The issue of home birthing is a very divisive topic, with many debates and studies on the potential pros and cons.
I spoke with Elizabeth Sweeney, a midwife of 30 years and former professor of midwifery at Southampton university, who is a strong supporter of home birthing. She explained to me how the process of being in familiar and safe surroundings is extremely beneficial to the mother.
However we also discussed how one of her first ever home deliveries turned out to be one of the toughest and most eventful of her distinguished career.
It was 1974 and Elizabeth was in the very early stages of her career in London . She received the call at 2 am on a bitter autumnal morning. It was a couple who she had only briefly met twice before. She described them as “a very nice young couple but from a slightly alternative persuasion”, alluding to their Hippie lifestyle. Because of this they were sceptical on modern medicine and refused to go to the hospital, meaning she was duty bound to go to them.
In the days well before satellite navigation she was forced rely on her trusty A-Z map whilst driving in the pitch black. It took her nearly an hour to find where they lived and when she arrived she was shocked to find they lived in a house boat on the Thames. This made the task even more daunting given her history of sea sickness.
I asked her to set the scene as she entered the rickety house boat.
“The room was the size of a small caravan but there was 10 people standing in there. Both sets of parents and other family members came to witness what they called the ‘miracle of life’. The room was cloudy because they had sandalwood incense burning and some kind of flavoured tobacco pipe was being passed around the various relatives. There was no electricity or running water and very little heating. The only light came from 6 candles dotted around the room. I also remember the grandmother being dressed in a large, sequined, kaftan robe and was using little finger symbols as she was dancing around, supposedly drawing in the good aura.”
As the mother to be had refused any sort of painkillers the delivery was starting to get a bit complicated. The mother had begun reeling in pain and started to scurry round the room on all fours, in what Elizabeth described as being a “cat and mouse-like” game.
She eventually persuaded the mother to take some painkillers as she had become distressed and slightly hysterical, therefore it was essential that she regained control. The mother was more than happy to oblige, getting through the whole bottle of emergency gas and air.
When things had calmed down a healthy baby boy was born.
I asked Elizabeth if these negative experiences affected her during her career.
“Nights like this were always hard and at times I thought to myself I’m not getting paid enough to deal with all this stress. But as soon as the child was in the mother’s arms and you saw the joy on everyone’s faces it all instantly became worth it and I feel that midwifery is one of the most rewarding jobs around.”