Wednesday, March 13, 2013

An Amish Birth


While we were living in Wisconsin in the mid 1980s I attended several Amish births. The Amish don’t use modern farm equipment, electricity, or indoor plumbing, and also don’t have telephones, much less computers, email, iPods, or things like that. So, when a baby announces his or her imminent arrival, the mother has to first locate Pa somewhere on the farm, get the children to grandma and grandpa’s doddy haus, (Amish dialect for a grandparents’ apartment, often built onto the main farm house.) find a teenage neighbor to agree to do the morning or evening milking that day, and have Pa go to the nearest friendly ‘English’ (meaning non-Amish) neighbor in order to use the phone to call the midwife or doctor.
Emma and Joel were expecting their 7th child. She had had easy births with the others and remained in good health throughout this pregnancy. She had carried the baby to term; he was growing nicely, she took good care of herself, understood good nutrition, kept her house clean and tidy (one of the things I observe when I consider a family’s suitability for a home birth) and was excited that they had been blessed with yet another baby, though they didn’t know if it was another little ‘dish washer’ or ‘wood chopper’ yet, – the terms they used when announcing a new baby girl or boy to their Amish family and friends.
I carried a primitive kind of pager back then and had the dads call me as early as possible. The Amish settlements stretched for over 50 miles in all directions. There were perhaps half a dozen of us midwives covering this area and would often assist each other at these births.
When the call finally came one sunny day about noon, I quickly called my husband David who helped me pack up our five children (he couldn’t leave them home and keep the car) so he could drive me to the Lehmann’s farm. When we got there Emma had everything all arranged: the farm and kids were all taken care of, she had done up the dirty dishes, the bed was made with a plastic sheet under fresh linens, with another full set under that for after the birth, and she was walking around the house in her homemade nighty and slippers, grinning from ear to ear and blowing little puffs of air along with the contractions while Joel was nervously trying to work on a jigsaw puzzle she had assigned to him (more to keep him busy and occupied, I suspect). She walked around for a while, sipping juice and taking short trips to the outhouse every hour or so. The bedroom had a freshly painted commode by the bed so she wouldn’t have to leave the bedroom after the birth for 10 days. A night stand was set up with everything she would need to care for the baby and herself right there: diapers, a diaper pail, baby clothes, sanitary pads, and an oil lamp.
Things slowed down around 4 in the afternoon. I suggested she use the time to nap, but she was all business and suggested using ‘the combs’. I had never heard of this so she showed me the pressure points along the base of your thumbs which can be stimulated to help with contractions. She made two fists around two small hair combs and, sure enough, she got the contractions going again in no time. 
About an hour later she made a bee-line for the bedroom, had Joel light a kerosene lamp and hold it up for me, propped herself up on the bed, though I could not detect by her breathing that things had picked up that fast, and after a couple more rather sedate, lady-like puffs, started pushing. Before I could dribble some olive oil on my hands to support her perineum, out barreled an 8 pound wood chopper and promptly howled his arrival! Leave it to efficient Emma! I should have been more prepared. They hadn’t really needed me at all. They knew exactly how to do this.
Joel picked up and held his baby while I helped deliver the placenta which they would bury under the eaves of the house, an old Amish tradition. Then Joel spoke for the first time all day: he told me how with their first baby he had been so afraid of poking him with a pin while diapering him that when he finally finished and tried to pick up the baby, found him stuck to the bed – he had pinned the diaper to the sheets!
Then Joel looked down at Emma and said in his slow drawl, “Well, Ma, what should we name him?”
And she said, “Oh, Pa, I dunno. What do you wanna name him?”
And he said, “Well, I dunno.” After 7 kids surely they knew how to do this, I thought to myself. After a minute or so he added, “Maybe we should get the hat.”
So he got his black Sunday hat from its peg in the kitchen by the wood stove and laid it on the bed. Then he cut up little pieces of paper and they both wrote down their favorite boy names and folded them up and dropped them in the hat.  I still didn’t know where this was going. Then he picked up the baby and gently put the baby’s hand into the hat. When he did that, the baby’s hand opened up as his arm was extended and then shut into a fist when it touched the bottom of the hat.  He was supposed to pick his own name!
His father pried the scrap of paper out of the tiny fist, opened it and announced, “His name is Elmer!” They both positively beamed at each other then, a long, loving look into each other’s eyes. So that was how they did it. He could never blame them for some name he didn’t like. He had chosen it himself.
Stay Tuned! This and other stories will be available in my book, Ma Doula coming out in May 2015!

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