25 years ago I caught the very first baby of my career.
I thought you might enjoy reading about it.
A Midwife in Amish Country
Celebrating God’s Gift of Life
The rude noise scattered my dreams and sent my pulse crashing into my ears. I jolted upright. What was that? I patted my hand over the bedside table, searching for the clock. Why had I set the alarm last night? Wasn’t it Saturday morning?
Just as my fingertips brushed against it, a second jarring ring startled me, and I sent the glowing numbers clattering to the floor. I shifted closer to the edge of the bed and reached for the cord caught on the corner of the tabletop, grateful I wouldn’t have to get out of bed to retrieve it.
I blinked. The phone! It’s the phone!
I dropped the clock and scrambled from the bed. “Hello?”
“Good morning, Kim,” said a cheery voice in my ear. “How would you like to come to a birth with me?”
The hammering of my heart made me doubt what I’d heard. Is this—
“Ah, pardon? May I ask who—”
“Kim, it’s Jean.” She laughed lightly. “Would you like to come to a birth?”
A surge of adrenaline gushed down my legs and set them atremble. Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh! It is Jean.
It was my own midwife—now my preceptor—Jean Balm, summoning me to the bedside of a laboring woman. After eight years filled with hopes and dreams and one disappointment after another, here she was, inviting me to a homebirth with her as though it were just one of those things she did on Saturday mornings. Which, of course, it often was.
I flung my nightgown away and scrounged for my jeans in the predawn gloom. I glanced toward my husband. He hadn’t stirred. Not surprising. He’d only just climbed into bed an hour or so ago after working a night shift.
Ah, poor guy. He works so hard. His job as a police officer made me nervous sometimes, and especially so when he had to do it on only a few hours’ sleep. I felt a pang of concern. Now he’d have to get up with Hannah, our eighteen-month-old, when she woke.
I plunged a foot down a pant leg. “Brent?”
Still nothing. Good grief, where’s my bra? “Brent! Honey!”
I got my other foot into my jeans, then I jerked and jiggled them past my hips as I hopped over to my husband’s side of the bed. “Honey!” I shook his shoulder, noticing the strap of my bra beneath the crack of the closet door. He groaned and moved to roll over, but I shook him again. “Brent! Hon! Babe! Wake up! I’m going to a birth!”
I snatched the errant article of underclothing from its hiding place on the closet floor and snapped it into place. “Hon,
I’m going to a birth with Jean Balm!”
He squinted at me. “Huh?”
“I’m going to a birth with Jean! I can’t believe you didn’t hear the phone ring.”
He propped himself onto an elbow and swiped a big, freckled hand over his face. “Whoa—okay…” He rubbed a bit of the sleep from a brown eye. “Oh—no—wait a second …”
He paused, obviously struggling to gather his thoughts. I thrust my arms through the sleeves of the t-shirt I found dangling on the closet doorknob. My chin caught on the collar as I tried to pull it over my head. Ah, geesh! I tried again and got it on.
Brent sat up. “Okay. You’re going to a birth? Wow. When?” “Right now. Just as soon as Jean gets here.” I pecked him on the cheek and made for the hallway.
“Wait. Wait! Now? But, where’s it happening?”
I halted in the doorway. “I don’t know. Honey, I’ve got to go!”
“But, when will you be back?”
“I don’t know!” I ran down the hall and bounded down the stairs, hoping I hadn’t awakened Hannah.
I’d just managed to rake a comb through my tangles and take a swipe at my teeth with my toothbrush when I heard the toot-toot of a horn in the street. Jangled afresh, I scooped my shoes and purse into my arms and bolted from the house in my bare feet.
Jean’s grayish-blue eyes danced with a hint of amusement as I wiggled myself into her passenger seat and slammed the door on the birdsong of early morning, a sound I relished, but barely noticed in my excitement.“Do you remember me telling you about Laura?” Jean glanced over her shoulder and pulled the car from the curb.
“I—think so.” I ran through the list of names I’d penned into my calendar at our last coffee date. Laura—Salome—Lila— Daisy….
“Yes, but I thought she was due the last week of July.” It was July third, and certainly too early for it to be safe for Laura to birth her baby at home.
“Yep,” Jean said. “She’ll be thirty-seven weeks in two days. I told her to go to the hospital when she called this morning, but she flat-out told me no. I said we’d come check things out. Who knows? She might not really be in labor.”
I glanced at Jean as she drove. Her words took me by surprise and I repeated them in my mind, letting the realization that Laura’s labor might be a false alarm sink in. A ripple of disappointment drained the nervous excitement from my system like soapsuds down a sink. I bent to put my shoes on and a dawning of common sense checked the disappointment. Hopefully Laura wasn’t in labor. It would be better for her and for her child if she wasn’t.
I straightened and leaned back in my seat to gaze out the window. In the right-side mirror, streaks of light had begun to pierce the layer of clouds hovering over the horizon. They lengthened as I watched and reached ahead of the rising sun like the slender fingers of an outstretched hand splayed against the lilac sky. A trace of radiance appeared. The trace became a sliver, then the sliver became a crescent. Little by little, the molten orb swelled through the ever-brightening clouds until it emerged, pulsing in all its resplendence.
Just like a birth, except—and my mind drifted to my first exposure to birth.
I’d grown up mesmerized with expectant women. Most of my girlhood friends loved babies. I loved babies, too, but it was those great bellies, heavy with burgeoning life that captivated and struck me dumb with awe—I could hardly get enough of them until my first encounter with childbirth served to quell my enchantment with the process for a time.
One morning, my seventh-grade English teacher announced the assignment of multi-resourced research papers. Groans of displeasure began to rumble through the room, but Mrs. Minich hushed us with an upraised hand. “Hold on, folks, settle down.”
Someone protested, and she aimed a finger toward the sound.
“Hey, now, I said settle down.” She fetched a sheet of paper from her desktop. “I’ve got something a little different for you this time. There’s a film to accompany each topic.” She waved the paper in the air before turning to pin it to the corkboard next to the door. We quieted, intrigued. “You’ll select your topic, and I’ll order the film. You’ll watch the films in the media room by turns after school.”
We were given permission to look at the list. I felt a shiver of excitement as I squeezed myself through the gaggle of kids crowded around the board. The idea of watching a film for school was almost too much. My eyes scanned the subjects. Artificial limbs, ballet dancing, child labor, dentistry, the environment, firefighting, the military, police work, open heart surgery…
Open heart surgery. Cool.
Two weeks later, the movies arrived and our times in the media room were scheduled. My friend, Sherry, asked Mrs. Minich if we could have our turns on the same afternoon so we could watch together.
“What movie’d you pick?” I asked my friend as we met by her locker on our big day. She tossed a math book onto the floor of the tiny space, then slammed the door with a flourish.
I smiled. Sherry was so dramatic. “Child labor. What’d you pick?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Child labor? What? Like vacuuming? Like folding laundry?”
“I dunno. Yeah, I guess. It was all that was left. I missed school the day Mrs. Minich put the list out and it was that or dentistry. Like I’d pick dentistry. I hate the dentist.” She frowned and flashed her braces at me. “But I said, ‘What’d you pick?’”
“Open heart surgery.”
“Serious? Ew. I don’t wanna see that.”
“Well, I don’t want to watch a bunch of kids do chores, either. I do enough of my own, thanks. But it was your idea to watch together. I will if you will.” We started off down the hall, and I trotted along as quick as I could to keep up with my friend’s long-legged, jaunty stride.
We started with my film, and it was fascinating. Though Sherry and I punctuated the viewing with all the grimaces and gasps you’d expect from a set of pre-teen girls, thanks to the surgical draperies shielding us from the human element of the procedure, we both handled it well.
As the closing credits spooled across the screen, I stood to turn on the lights.
Sherry hopped across the room to switch films. “That was so totally gross.” She fumbled around with the VCR until the tape popped out.
“Ah, you’re so totally gross.”
She put her tongue out at me. I flicked off the lights and we settled back into our seats. The raspy sound of the film as it came to life shushed our banter and recalled our eyes to the screen.
Child labor. My mind drifted to the mounds of leaves my dad had made me rake into the garden the weekend before, then to the zillions of leaves still strewn around the yard. Boring. Why make a film about that?
Still, I’d promised Sherry I’d watch hers. Besides, if I stayed to watch it, I wouldn’t be able to finish the yard that night. My sisters might even get it done without me. I smiled to myself over my good luck.
The fuzzy screen on the wall opened upon a scene, tugging my mind back into the room, but—what the heck? There, before my only scarcely sex-educated eyes, lay some unknown, unfortunate woman, flat upon a narrow table. Her face was hidden behind the rise of her huge abdomen and her quivering thighs were propped apart, exposing her privates without preamble or apology.
A man concealed in paper from cap to mask to shoes sat perched on a stool before her, his gloved hands clasped in his lap. Was he a doctor? Who could tell? Even his eyes were disguised behind a pair of thick-rimmed glasses.
Shivers tingled down my legs, my stomach knotted, and a shock of heat dampened my neck and colored my face. I wanted to escape, but found myself riveted to the scene. I clutched the arms of my seat as the woman moaned and squirmed a bit.
Except for the doctor, she was alone, and he made no move to soothe her.
My heart twisted with pity, replacing my sense of embarrassment. Then the pity gave way to horror as, with a groan, her unsheltered womanhood began to bulge and spread and stretch before a shimmering….
My word, is that the head?
The fringes of my vision began to blur. Beads of moisture sprang upon my brow. My guts plummeted toward the floor.
I stood, went instantly blind, and a sudden ringing in my ears deafened me. I could hear Sherry’s voice, but could make nothing of her words.
I groped for the door and wrestled it open. My fingertips found the brick wall lining the corridor and I ran my palms over its rough surface until I reached the girls’ bathroom where I staggered inside and collapsed onto the nearest stool. There, I ducked my head between my knees and soaked in a bone-chilling sweat while I waited for my vision to return and my roiling belly to settle.
Oh. Oh! Oh, no… I knew then I’d never have a baby of my own.
The rocking of the car as Jean pulled into a parking space before Laura’s shabby tenement roused me. I jolted into the present, noticing my reverie had restrung the tension of my nerves. I followed Jean to the rear of her car, trying to force myself to relax as I slung my share of heavy and ungainly bags onto my shoulders and turned to face the building.
We bumped and stumbled our way up the narrow stairway. With every step, I assured myself Laura would most likely not be in labor, but once we’d squeezed ourselves into the apartment’s front room, I knew she was.
I was assaulted by the pungent scent of birthing in the thick air. I recognized it on some primal level, possibly—despite the vow of my youth—from having birthed a baby of my own by then. Hard on the heels of that smell was the stench of dirty diapers, days-old dinner dishes, and unwashed bodies. Laura’s home was filthy. It was hot, too, though the sun was just risen.
I stood motionless in the doorway while my insides balled into a fist.
Laura sat cross-legged and startlingly naked on the floor on a stained and sheetless mattress, fished, I supposed, from one of the bedrooms and jammed against an equally stained sofa. Her stringy hair lay askew over her bare shoulders, and droplets of sweat stood on her nose. She was in the grip of a contraction and appeared unaware of our presence.
But Gary, her husband, looked up from his seat next to her. With a huge grin splitting his face, he jumped to his feet, nearly knocking Laura over. “Jean!” He boomed, crossing the room in a bound, “Glad you’re finally here! This is kinda weirding me out!”
Laura grimaced and swore at him under her breath as she steadied herself and struggled through the remainder of the contraction.
Gary returned the curse with a scowl. “What a witch, eh?” He extended his hand to me. “Gary.”
“Kim,” I whispered as I took his hand.
“Nice to meet ya, Kim! Welcome to the freak show!”
Laura’s contraction passed, and she let out a long, shuddery breath. Gary bounded back to her, giving her a jolt as he plopped himself down.
“Gary, you blasted idiot!” She swore again. “Quit thumping me!” Then she shot a glare at Jean. “And I’m not going anywhere, either!”
“Touchy, touchy.” He poked her arm and glanced our way with another grin. “See what I mean? She’s a regular witch usually, but today she’s witchier than ever!”
Laura slapped his hand away as another contraction rose to engulf her and Gary parried her slap with a second poke.
I stood rooted to the floorboards, stunned by the crudity of the man, transfixed by the obvious intensity of the woman’s labor, overpowered by the reek and filth of the stifling room.
Oh, God, what am I doing here?
A motion from Jean caught my eye. She’d already cleared a space for the bags in a far corner and was rapidly unpacking her gear. She beckoned me.
I blinked. I gulped. I staggered to her. Jean had decided we’d stay.
Laura’s contractions were coming hard and fast. I understood we might have a little time before the baby made her appearance, but we just as likely might not.
“Here.” Jean handed me a roll of paper towels. “Fold ten sheets into a neat stack for me. Okay? Then, see?” She pointed past the flaps of a ratty cardboard box. “Open the package of under pads, and make a second neat stack. Fill the squeeze bottle with olive oil and tuck it into my tote here.” She patted a little plastic basket filled with cord clamps, a box of gloves, a bulb syringe, packets of sterilized instruments, and her stethoscope. “Hook two trash bags over a doorknob, then find the baby blankets and washcloths.”
I obeyed, willing myself to remain conscious and present, while Jean squatted before Laura and listened to her baby’s heartbeat. The chores and the steady beat of the tiny heart would have done much to soothe my frazzled sensibilities, except Laura and Gary continued to pick and bicker at one another. Jean even had to ask Gary to be still a moment so she could hear well enough to take Laura’s blood pressure.
I completed my tasks. I should have seated myself on the floor next to Jean, but I was battling hard to keep my wits about me and knew I’d do better if I could work at something. I scurried about the place and tidied it up. I found and pitched the poopy diaper polluting the air from the corner of a changing table, I washed the crusty dishes in the kitchen sink and scrubbed off the countertops, I wiped down the bathroom and scoured the tub.
Every now and then Jean’s Doppler would send the sound of the baby’s heartbeat echoing through the apartment, and I could hear Laura laboring, each of her contractions coming closer than the one before; each obviously stronger. And, still, unbelievably, in between the powerful workings of her body, Gary and Laura squabbled and cursed at one another.
I worked until there wasn’t another thing for me to do but follow Jean’s example and take my seat on the floor next to the travailing mom.
Jean did what she could to minister comfort to Laura, but the unceasing, even increasing tension between man and wife all but canceled her efforts.
At last, I decided to say something. I was afraid speaking up might offend Gary or end my apprenticeship with Jean, but I could bear it no longer.
“Uh, hey, Gary?”
“Yeah?” Gary looked up and flashed his boyish grin. “Guess what?”
“What?” He bounced a bit and Laura swatted him.
I winced, but went on. “Labor’s one of those times when your woman’s always right.”
Gary’s grin gave way to gravity. He cocked his head in thought a second or two, then nodded and winked, “Sure—” He glanced at his weary wife. “Yeah, okay. Yeah, I get it.”
That was it. Not another contrary word was spoken.
After that, only the drone of the fan whirring from a crooked window frame and Laura’s breathings and heavings, sighings and moanings, whimpers and grunts and groans could be heard. One after the other, mighty contractions swept her frame. We whispered encouragement in her ears as we bathed her brow with cool cloths and pressed the small of her back until, in spite of the dirt and odors, the matchless magic of birth began to steal over my soul.
There was a pause in Laura’s labor, as though her womb was catching its breath, and then she uttered a long, deep, throaty bellow.
Slowly, slowly—ever so slowly, a wrinkly, wet scalp began to appear and, in that instant, it looked just like that sliver of morning sun I’d watched press itself into view on the drive over.
Jean whispered, “Okay, Kim, catch the baby.”
Surprised, but willing, I touched the baby’s head with tentative fingertips, swallowing, blinking back a sudden wash of tears. Jean continued to whisper in my ear until the little thing slipped into my trembling hands.
But she was born limp and starkly white.
Jean took her from me, laid her on Laura’s sweaty breast, and set straight to work with a skillful touch and sure breaths. My heart halted in my chest, and my own breath caught in my throat as a lifetime flashed past in some sixty or seventy seconds.
And then a steadily strengthening cry displaced the ominous silence, and a splendid wave of pink swept the pallor from the baby’s skin.
Again and again, just like that glorious sunrise.
Stasi Eldredge, NYT best-selling author of Captivating
Dr. Sara Wickham, author, midwifery lecturer and consultant, www.sarawickham.com
Jolina Petersheim, bestselling author of The Midwife
Leslie Gould, #1 best-selling and Christy-award winning author of over twenty books, including The Amish Midwife
Rahima Baldwin Dancy, author of Special Delivery, childbirth activist, and midwife (retired)
Marie Monville, author of One Light Still Shines
Cindy Lambert, coauthor of One Light Still Shines
Elizabeth Davis, CPM, Co-Director of National Midwifery Institute, Inc., elizabethdavis.com, author of Heart & Hands: A Midwife’s Guide to Pregnancy and Birth and the international bestseller, Orgasmic Birth: Your Guide to a Safe, Satisfying, and Pleasurable Birth Experience
Serena B. Miller, award-winning author of More Than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting, serenabmiller.com
Eleanor Bertin, Lifelines and Pall of Silence
Sara Daigle, author of Women of Purpose and Dare to Love Your Husband Well
Beth Learn, founder of Fit2b.com
Photograph taken by Tricia Peters and used with permission
Kim Woodard Osterholzer, Colorado Springs Homebirth Midwife and Author
Books by Kim: