When Alaina Tom became pregnant with her first child at 19 years old, it lit a passion within her for birthing.
Initially, she thought she would go to the hospital to give birth. But after a negative experience with a doctor, she began talking with Elders who told her that they gave birth at home.
“I began talking to Elders in the area and heard that we’re the first generation to go to the hospital,” she says. She was also told that her grandmother gave birth at home, she says that is when, “Something clicked.”
She decided to birth at home in her community of Tsalalh, just outside of Lillooet, B.C. She’s been an advocate for traditional birthing ever since.
“Ever since then, it just lit that light inside of me to learn more. And so I did everything I could to do it traditionally,” Tom says.
After her first birth, she began researching everything she could by talking with Elders, women and midwifery training for home birth and unassisted birth. She went on to have three more children at home without the presence of midwives or doctors and says all of her children were “born free.”
“I just started this love for birth,” says Tom.
While unassisted or ‘free births,’ where children are born at home without the presence of a medical professional, can be controversial, Tom wants birthing parents to know that they have options.
After having her first unassisted birth of her first child, in 2001, Tom says that other women started reaching out to her.
“Women just started coming to me after they heard that,” says Tom, women told her “I heard you gave birth at home, I need your help.”
Now with 20 years of supporting women giving birth, she says there have been challenges and hurdles. Many women have expressed to her that they felt the Western hospital approach to birthing was scary or intimidating.
“You know so many women have come to me saying it was scary. It was painful, I felt rushed. I didn’t feel special and it just breaks my heart,” she says.
She says that in the beginning, she would just talk to women, creating relationships, and then she did an online training, three professional trainings, and in-person training to build her “confidence in the medical environment.” While she says that the medical community is more open now, 20 years ago she received more backlash.
Before she says she was told that birthing at home was, “very unsafe” and that she was putting her baby in danger.
“I felt really unsafe and unsupported,” Tom says.
Despite the obstacles, she continued to study and believes that home birth can be safe, powerful, peaceful and loving.
She has spent these years working with women to instill confidence in them. Her focus is on letting women know that traditional birthing is another option. Rather than calling herself a doula, she prefers to call herself a traditional birth keeper.
“I just say traditional birth keeper,” says Tom. “It’s more like a support person, a knowledge keeper, I don’t do anything medical. I’ve attended several unassisted home births where I just educate the mom on how to take care of her placenta and how to tie her own cord.”
Through Tom’s lifelong work she shares the juxtaposition between traditional birth and a Western approach in hospital. She is referring to the organized chaos in many hospitals, where many doctors and nurses, bring intensity and speed into the birth experience.
“I find that so many times when I go to a hospital birth, there’s a whole lot of bright lights and panic and nurses walking around quickly and even yelling….’Breathe, get up, put your chin to your chest, and push, push!’” she explains.
According to a recent study published in the journal Reproductive Health, in the U.S. one in six women experienced, “being shouted at, scolded, or threatened; and being ignored, refused, or receiving no response to requests for help.” The rates were higher for women of colour.
In a Feb. 2019 study, Changing Childbirth in B.C., by The Birthplace Lab at the University of British Columbia found that “18 per cent of women reported that their care provider did not tell them about different options for care (46 per cent of OB patients and 5 per cent of midwifery clients).” It also found that “one in seven women were not given enough time to thoroughly consider their options (37 per cent of OB patients and 4 per cent of midwifery clients).”
Tom explains that many people first experience trauma when they are born. “Birthing doesn’t have to be heavy breathing and screaming at mothers in the hospitals,” she says.
“Birth can be beautiful, and birth can be gentle, and birth can be very loving and calm and peaceful.”
One of the cultural components that Tom shares is the interweaving ceremony throughout the birthing process.
“That’s the main thing is that it can be a beautiful, peaceful ceremony,” she says.
“I really want to empower women about home birth as well, that it’s safe and it’s beautiful and it’s not as scary as people make it seem.”
Even just to bring a braid of sweetgrass or just to have some drumming playing.”
As Tom, a mother of four raises her children traditionally in St’át’imc Territory she hopes to see more people coming together, and uplifting each other.
“I would like all of the birthing people and all the families to unite and to come together and to support one another in a positive, uplifting way and to go back to treating birth as a ceremony,” she says.
For expecting mothers Tom encourages women to talk to their Elders just like she did when she first started on her birthing journey.
“Encourage them to talk to their Elders and to sing their songs and to use their medicines and to know that they aren’t alone and that our ancestors survived for…hundreds of thousands of years without the aid of a doctor,” she says,
“You can have the birth you dream of,” says Tom.
“When we just surround each other with love then birth doesn’t have to be a scary thing because it works. We know that because we’re here and our ancestors knew what they were doing.”
Chehala Leonard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse