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Time To Opt Out

By Kerry McDonald

It was the stopwatch on the wall that did it. The colorful paint and framed pastel prints nearby tried to hide its conspicuousness, but it was there: red neon digits glowing like the timer at an NBA basketball game. I asked the hospital tour guide what the clock was for, knowing full well its purpose but curious if its intent could somehow be justified. “Oh, never mind that,” she replied cheerfully. “It’s just a way for us to keep track of how long your labor is.”

I had been here before. Not in this smaller, supposedly more personalized hospital, but I had given birth in a hospital on two previous occasions. Both times medical error caused complications for me, ranging from an allergic reaction to prophylactic penicillin to massive hemorrhaging.

But this new hospital would be better, I told myself in the third trimester of my third pregnancy. Here I could have a natural, non-induced birth, attended by hospital midwives. The baby wouldn’t be rushed. She could pick her own birth date, and no one would pull too quickly on the cord.

But then I saw the timer.

It reminded me that institutions have policies and procedures, often designed to protect (or at least protect themselves from liability). They have their own timeframes, their own expectations for when and how certain things should happen. You are simply a widget. When you agree to the services of an institution, you agree to its policies and procedures. Sure, you might try some creative bargaining, arming yourself with a birth plan and clearly stated wishes. But in labor, at the hospital, you relinquish control.

Sometimes things go smoothly and you make it through a hospital birth just fine. With increasing frequency, at least in America, things don’t go quite like you anticipated, but everyone reassures you that you have a healthy baby and that’s all that matters. Deep down, though, you wonder if that should be so mollifying.

Sometimes you need to opt out. On the ride home from that hospital tour, I called the homebirth midwife and committed to an out-of-hospital birth—something that, according to Scientific American, many more women are now choosing in the U.S., perhaps in light of the fact that America is now the most dangerous developed country to give birth in.

At home, there were no timers. My third baby (and later, my fourth) were born on their own time, in their own way, with no complications. The midwives respected the birth process, recognizing that for the vast majority of women, birth is not a medical procedure but a life event. It requires patience and care, not interventions to “move things along.” Midwives know that birth must not be rushed.

Yet, so much of our modern focus, particularly regarding children, is about accelerating natural processes. If a child is a “slow” talker, he may get referred for speech therapy before he is out of diapers. If a child is a “slow” reader, she may be given interventions to catch her up to the pack. Never mind that it may be our own distorted view of human development and quest for conformity that lead us to define a process, like talking or reading, as “slow” or “fast.” As assistant professor of education Daphna Bassok and her colleagues at the University of Virginia discovered, in 1998, 31 percent of teachers believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that number was 80 percent. The target has changed, not the children.

In many ways, our family’s education philosophy is informed by our past birth experiences. As unschoolers, our children don’t go to school. Instead they become immersed in the people, places, and things around them, allowing emerging interests to drive their learning. They are not pushed to learn certain things according to an imposed curriculum. They are not coerced and prodded and evaluated. They are not timed. They learn to read and write and do arithmetic as naturally and enthusiastically as they learned to crawl and walk and jump. Just as a stopwatch adds unnecessary pressure to the birth process, it does the same to learning. When there is no timer, no institutional force creating arbitrary demands, there is joy. Midwives intuitively understand this. They don’t pressure the birth process; they let it unfold and facilitate when needed. Supporting our children’s learning, outside of an institution, works much the same way. We are education midwives.

At this time of year, some parents may be having their own stopwatch moment. Maybe all is not quite right at their child’s school. Maybe they keep being reassured that it will get better, that this is just the way it is, that everything is fine. But maybe they keep sensing that timer. Maybe they wonder if their child is simply a widget, growing along someone else’s timeframe according to someone else’s policies and procedures. Maybe they don’t like the proposed interventions. Maybe school is not in their child’s best interest.

Maybe it’s time to opt out.