If you already have kids of school age, you may get this analogy. There is "school"-as in public, private, brick-and-mortar building; complete with teachers, grades and lesson plans. Then, there is homeschool. Homeschool can be divided up into two subcategories: school at home OR unschooling. Homeschooling can function a lot like "regular" school. Many homeschooling families have a "teacher", may use curriculums and lesson plans and even have desks and chalkboards set up at home. The other choice is "unschooling"-where parents allow the process of learning to unfold naturally, without a whole lot of structure (but guidance where asked for). In this case, it is not about knowing "how" to teach because learning is natural and kids will gravitate towards their interests.
So, you ask, what does this have to do with birth? Unassisted birth is a lot like homeschooling. It's perfectly legitimate and respectable and a great choice for many families that want to be in charge of their experience. But, like homeschooling, there are philosophies that apply to unassisted birth. On one hand, there are the unassisted birthers that are essentially mirroring birth with an attendant-but without one actually present. This may mean that they (the parents) study complications, they may do their own internal exams in labor, they have supplies (like Dopplers or bulb syringes) that imitate what a doctor or midwife would bring (although hopefully not use!). They have the freedom of doing whatever they want but it's not necessarily about avoiding interventions. It's just about no one else doing them, other than themselves.
And then there is another way of birthing unassisted; and that is without trying to be your own doctor or midwife. This does not mean there is a lack of education; on the contrary, the effort is focused on resolving emotional issues, and learning about physiological birth (the way birth naturally "works") so well that the process is not unnaturally messed with, even by you. This deep understanding of birth is what I strive to communicate to all women that want to birth at home; whether it is with me there or not. Understanding the scientific reasons behind the hormones, understanding how the mama/baby relationship ensures that birth will almost always be perfect, understanding how babies breathe and how that looks, understanding how this all works together to avoid postpartum bleeding or nursing problems is magnificent information. THIS is the information women need to that they are not trying to be their own caregivers; so that even when hiring a midwife, they are not looking at her to "save" them or "fix" things.
And sure, there is often a combination of these two approaches when choosing to birth unassisted, and there is no wrong or right. When birthing in a space where you are safe and trusting, especially without the eyes of a third party, there is no right way to do it; the ONLY way is to listen to your body and have done your work beforehand so that you can go within and listen, trusting that women were made to birth. If you choose to go this route, forget about what birth looks like to everybody else. Forget the (routine) vaginal exams (even if it's done by your husband), forget the (routine use of) bulb syringe, forget the (routine) herbs for postpartum hemorrhage. Nothing needs to be "routine" about birth, with or without an attendant. And if you don't choose an attendant, you that much more free to follow the natural process.
I like the idea of unassisted birth mirroring unschooling; to me, this makes the most sense. I have the passionate belief that birthing (and schooling) doesn't need too much help from anyone. I don't worry that my children won't learn to read; I know they will find their own way and desire and it will happen in perfect time in the perfect way. Similarly, I believe that birth left alone (along with intention, trust and understanding) does not need to be structured or monitored; by anyone, even the parents.
An intervention is an intervention is an intervention...even if it is coming from you, in your own home. Birthing unassisted is one of the most powerful, amazing, experiences you can ever have. I'd love to see more women spending the time learning about the way birth works and how to continue to leave it alone, with or without an attendant.