I Had an Illegal Home Birth
8 min read | Aug 2022
By:comfort eater
Millennial / Socialist / Writer

I Had an Illegal Home Birth

When I became pregnant, I knew my birthing options were minimal. I chose the option that offered me and my child the best chance at survival.

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My daughter was born in a village. I didn’t mean for it to be that stereotypical, that the village was like a precursor for having a home birth. I didn’t feel like I had to do it the way our great-grandmothers did it, but rather, I saw my options and chose the one most suitable for me.

I Knew Immediately That I Wanted to Give Birth at Home

When I found out I was pregnant, I hit Google hard. Home birth Bosnia, home birth Balkans, birthing center Bosnia, midwives Bosnia—anything that didn’t put me in a hospital. That was a choice not tied to some strong anti-medicine mentality but more because I was anti this particular medical establishment. My town is still ethnically divided, a result of the war we passed through between ’92 and ’95, so choosing a hospital feels and is much like a political decision, choosing sides. And because of our country’s poor economy, good hospital treatment often means an envelope with an extra tip for whoever is taking care of you just to be sure you, with the money, are treated generously. Aside from that, I’d been to the hospitals. The bathrooms were missing toilet paper. The place was void of a smile. Patients looked more like prisoners to me. People leave my country because of the medical treatment; that’s where we’re at.

Online, I found information about a Bosnian woman who had birthed her child at home with the support of a traveling midwife from the U.K. A combination of local laws and her prior mistreatment at the hands of Bosnian doctors while giving birth led her that way. It wasn’t that the act itself was illegal, but rather, having the assistance of a Bosnian midwife was. By attending, that midwife would risk jail time, loss of licensure, who knows what else? Here, no registered midwives were willing to take such risks anymore. Instead, women from my country would find midwives living outside of the Western Balkans—Austria, the U.K., Slovenia—to come and support in home birthing here if they were able to cover the costs and if they were able to find someone. That’s how it goes with women’s rights: They’re not always outright forbidding a right in itself—in this case, the right to choose how one births—but instead are left to manage the obstacles obstructing one’s journey. 

Sitting on the grass with my phone in hand, I searched for the woman's contact information by Googling the first and last name I had found through the article I read about her activism toward women's birth rights in Bosnia. When we connected, she warmly gave me resources—names, numbers, helpful hints. It felt like female camaraderie at its finest.

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Women face horrible medical treatment at hospitals in Bosnia.

Finding a Midwife to Assist With My Home Birth Was Difficult

I made dozens of calls, emails and text messages to a handful of midwives in Europe explaining my position, asking for their time or to scan their networks for anyone who might be willing to travel to Bosnia to help me. If I managed to reach anyone, I was either referred to someone else or just rejected due to distance or availability. Somewhere down the reference line, an Austrian woman agreed. Some weeks later, we realized there was a misunderstanding and that she actually wasn’t willing to travel to Bosnia for the birth, but rather, we come to her.

That was an option—we meet her in Croatia. For her, this was just a few hours over the border from Austria. I would pay several thousand euros for her services, plus the cost of travel, renting a home in the town we planned on staying in and whatever additional costs can usually be calculated into a month of not being home. It was a lot on many levels.

Though the plan was seemingly set, I still kept an open window in my mind for having my birth in Bosnia. As much as I tried to settle, something just felt off. During that time, there was one wild card—a woman in Bosnia who actually attended births here. She was one I’d previously played phone tag with, attempting to schedule dates to talk outside of scattered messages that never resulted in an actual conversation. She always stayed in my mind, but her inability to quickly respond to my requests for a meeting made me insecure and distrustful. I was entering my third trimester. I needed some certainty.

By the end of my seventh month of pregnancy, I was exhausted. The birth was approaching faster and faster. I realized that the idea of traveling nine hours by car to sit in an Airbnb that wasn’t mine, in a country that wasn’t mine and working through the loops of registration and embassies during a time when I should be recovering just sounded exhausting. I didn’t want to find out how the actual act of it would pan out.

I tried her again, the wild card. Just in case. Finally, we spoke. Firmly, she said, “Yes, I’ll be there.” Not a midwife but a birth keeper. Someone who had trained like they did in the past: by attending many births themselves. No certification, no Dr. before her name. This was new to me, but I trusted her experience. She told me that I must keep her name private and that she would arrive when I called her. 

I still felt uneasy. We hadn’t met, not even for a video call. She skipped our appointment to do so, and then I didn’t hear from her for days. I began to get paranoid that she’d been caught, that her offering her support was finally the thing that exposed her to the authorities, that our unforgiving country would make an example out of her. I felt panicky. My partner fumbled between reassuring me she’d be there and then questioning how open I’d been with others about her offering her support. I was skeptical of my smartphone, of colleagues who suddenly felt like spies. I felt guilty for not being more careful, for mentioning home birth in text messages or announcing I’d be birthing here at home.

But OK, I tried to trust.

A woman worries about finding a midwife as she nears the end of her pregnancy.

I Thought I’d Have to Give Birth Without the Midwife’s Help

My contractions started in the middle of the night. I sent her a text message to tell her what was happening, and she began to follow me and my progress. She was located several hours away, so updates ensured she knew where I was at and would make it in time. By eight that evening, it started—real labor. I was riding waves of contractions while simultaneously messaging her to check in on her whereabouts. Please—I wanted to, but didn’t say—assure me you’ll be there.

She said she’d be leaving her location in the afternoon, so I expected her in the late evening. At one point, her phone was off for two hours. There I was, in the middle of what really felt like birth, and she was gone. All my fears—affirmed. My friend who had flown in to be there with me began Googling “free birth” on the couch next to me. We thought, “OK, I might land in a situation where I do this mostly on my own.” Several scenarios swept through my mind. I tried to focus on the more loving ones. Regardless, I was silently scared. If something went wrong, how would I forgive myself?

Several hours later, sometime around 11 p.m., my phone buzzed. The clouds parted—it was her. “Just come,” I said. Directing was the next thing. In between contractions and screaming, I calmed my voice to try to understand exactly where she was and what signposts she’d missed to get to us. Eventually, my partner got on his bike to direct her through our streetlight-less village. Just after one in the morning, she was there. 

It was the first time we’d seen each other. There, in my most vulnerable, primal state, I was shaking hands with and hugging the woman who kept me in a state of suspension—will she make it, will she not make it? She made it. Outside, her partner waited in their car, an act he was probably used to by now. Inside, she spoke gently about the movement of my birth. I asked her to measure me, to see how far I was dilated. She asked, “Why?” That was how her assistance was: power-giving, nonintrusive. She wasn’t there to guide my birth—that was my job. Rather, she was there to support me, and I felt that.

The village was so quiet at night, I felt like I’d awakened everyone with what I tried to make moans but turned out to be screams. At some point, with my legs spread open to her, my amniotic sac, which hadn’t yet ruptured, popped in her face like a violet water balloon. Then the head, then the shoulders. My partner caught our baby in his hands and, with a smile on his face, put her in my arms. I fell back onto the bed, which we’d covered with a plastic sheet, with our baby in my hands, shivering. Exhausted. Relieved. Our four dogs were the quietest they’d ever been, just sleeping in the room with us.

The midwife gave us one hour while she kept her partner company outside. When she returned, she helped direct the act of cutting our baby’s umbilical cord (the scissors are still sitting in a pencil case on our shelf). Then, she asked if we minded that she do her morning prayers in our one-bedroom home. She set her rug directly in front of my bed, facing the rising sun in the east. It was four in the morning. Still in my euphoric state, I remember the streaks of orange and yellow coming in through the windows and thinking, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

A baby is cleaned and the umbilical cord is cut during a home birth.

I Never Heard From the Midwife Again

She said she’d be back in a few days to join us for dinner, to check in on me and breastfeeding. She said she’d be passing our way again. She said she enjoyed our company and that she’d like to stay in touch. She said, “Just go to the hospital and register your baby. Don’t tell anyone my name.” She said that for her, it didn’t feel illegal; it was what should be done. She said that they have a motto, the women who do this work—those who need us, they will find us.

Registration was a witch hunt of its own. We were tossed from building to building, with words like “social services” and “court” and “law” thrown around. The midwives in the local hospital looked at me like I was a criminal. I still felt like an open wound, holding our newborn daughter in my hands and feeding her in various bureaucratic locations, just wanting to be back in the safety of our home, just wanting to know no one would touch us, would touch her.

We told no one anything, just that we had the assistance we needed, that I was healthy, that I trusted my body to do what it needed to do. It was the first home birth anyone we went to remembered. Our story made them dig through old file cabinets, find paperwork they forgot existed. Eventually, it happened—her birth certificate with the name of our village listed under her place of birth. To celebrate, we bought flowers and apple juice to bring to the women working in offices who initially had no idea how to help us. It was big.

And as for the midwife, the birth keeper, the brave soul who came to us in the night, I never saw her again. Messages—unanswered. Nothing.

Why? I don’t know. It happened, this I know to be true. The dark maroon stain from where I pushed her out and into the world on the front side of my bedpost tells that story, and my body remembers it.

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