Twenty-seven years ago, at 119 Iroquois Street in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the chilly, snowy, wee hours of Sunday, December 8th, 1991, Hannah Evangeline Woodard–now Simmons–burst into the world.
This is the story of her birth, as told in my book, A Midwife in Amish Country.
Three months after our autumn wedding, Brent quit his job as a security officer at Meijer’s Thrifty Acres to attend Lansing Community College’s Police Academy. I sup- ported us, earning seven dollars an hour working night shifts at a behavior treatment home for violent, developmentally disabled men. We thanked God every suppertime that we’d hit a deer with our truck a couple days before our wedding, as that fat doe, while leaving the vehicle intact, provided every scrap of meat that graced our table through our first year of marriage. We used the last little bit of it up Father’s Day weekend, two days after we cashed Brent’s first paycheck from the police department that hired him in Battle Creek, Michigan. We moved to Battle Creek in June.
Our first baby, due toward the close of the year, took root within me three months before we moved and, by that time, between my inability to secure an apprenticeship and the anticipation of her arrival, my yearning to become a midwife slipped as far from my thoughts as the earth is from the stars.
We spent our first and last summer alone launching Brent into his new career, unpacking boxes, finding a midwife, and making friends at our new church. We also went on a three-day paddle on the Pine River, explored the town on our tandem bike, watched the sky fill with hundreds of hissing air balloons on Independence Day, took an evening to rinse mace spray from Brent’s eyes, and spent hours upon hours in our wood-sided diesel station wagon with a city map unfolded on my lap, since the hardest part of Brent’s new job was learning his way around. Battle Creek is the second largest city in Michigan by square miles and a pure labyrinth of twisting, turning streets.
Summertime drifted into autumn, and it was then I discovered Brent wasn’t on board with our homebirth plans. The revelation came one evening over supper when I mentioned something about the homebirth I thought we were planning.
Brent looked up, his forkful of chicken rice casserole halting before his lips. “Homebirth?” he said with genuine surprise and a shake of his head. “We’re not having a homebirth.”
“Uh, what?” I almost laughed as I said it, sure he was just kidding around. He was always kidding around with me.
“We’re not having a homebirth.”
It was my turn to pause mid-bite. “But, we’re seeing a homebirth midwife…”
“Yeah, well, we’re not having a homebirth.”
I was stunned. Besides the fact I thought I’d already cleared that hurdle with Brent while we were dating, I could only wonder, after all my years studying and talking about homebirth and midwifery, what he’d imagined I’d want to do once I became pregnant myself. Of course, now I understand he really hadn’t thought about it at all before my pregnancy. Most young men do all they can to avoid thinking about womanly things like childbirth before they’re forced to, but I didn’t understand that then.
“Brent, Honey, please, wait a minute. Can we talk about this? Can I tell you why I want to have our baby at home with Jean?” A surge of panic began to make my chest feel tight, but I quashed it as I pushed my plate aside, summoning all my wits to the floor. Prior to our marriage, in accordance with our values, we’d decided that when our opinions were at odds, after adequate discussion and consideration, Brent would make the final decisions.
Brent put his fork down and pushed his plate away, too. “Sure.”
I spent two full hours describing, from the science to the warm fuzzies, every single reason I wanted a homebirth. I was calm and respectful, even while I was desperate. Brent listened to everything I had to say, and I was hopeful he’d changed his mind—I’d been so convincing, I’d re-convinced myself.
I’d hoped in vain. When I finished, Brent leaned back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest, and said only three words, “Just not comfortable.”
No questions. No comments. No further discussion required.
Brent was “just not comfortable,” and that was it.
I reeled—shocked, angry, and feeling bitterly betrayed. The panic I’d suppressed twisted my insides, threatening to eject the few morsels of dinner I’d swallowed.
But all I did was sit in silence, aware I was looking at far more than birthing preferences. I was standing face-to-face with my promise to honor my husband and his decisions, and I realized how I reacted would have an impact that would resonate throughout the lifetime of our marriage. That realization engulfed me like the breakers of a tempestuous sea, leaving me chilled, choked, and sputtering, but, after a moment or two I was able to say, “Okay.”
And okay it was for about two weeks. I began to prepare for a hospital birth, managing to keep my anguish and anxiety over Brent’s decision a secret between me and God until, one evening, Brent headed in for what he thought would be just another night on the job.
Brent and his partner spent their shift as usual, responding to a variety of calls until they were dispatched to investigate a box of bloody clothing someone had found on a vehicle.
The officers arrived upon the scene and were led to the box. They took only a cursory glance at it and its contents. It appeared as it had been reported, a box of bloodstained clothes. It was suspicious and aroused the officers’ curiosity, but, without any sort of noticeable crime having been committed, there really wasn’t anything else to do besides take it to the crime lab. When the men were ready to do that, Brent lifted the box from the vehicle.
The two men froze, then took off for Battle Creek Health System.
Brent said later it occurred to him on the drive how mortified he would have been had the contents of the box turned out to be, say, kittens, but the box contained, in fact, a baby. It was eventually discovered that a sixteen-year-old, with the help of her own mother, gave birth to the tiny girl and decided against keeping her. She was thought to be about a month premature.
The baby was taken to labor and delivery. Brent and his partner, unable to tear themselves away, spent the rest of the night standing by.
Regarding the baby, the hospital staff emerged heroic. The baby was saved and set on the road to recovery. In regard to the impending birth of our own baby, the hospital fared otherwise. Hour after hour, Brent stood silently in the shadows of the birthing floor, watching as doctors and nurses entered and exited the rooms of laboring families. He never told me exactly what he saw. I don’t think he actually saw anything specifically objectionable. What he described for me when he returned, shaken and aged at the end of his long shift, was attitudes, perspectives, philosophies—attitudes and perspectives and philosophies out of step with ours. “Call the midwife, Kim,” he said wearily, rubbing the kinks from his neck. “We’re having this baby at home.” For the record, some seven or eight years later, while re- telling that tale, Brent, with a stricken look on his face, turned to me and, right in front of the couple we were telling the story to, apologized. “I can’t believe I thought I could tell you where you had to have our baby. Who did I think I was?”
Oh, how his words healed me. Though he’d changed his mind and allowed me my homebirth after all, I realized in that moment it hurt to have been so dictated to by my life partner. Had we given birth to Hannah in the hospital, no matter how smoothly it may have gone, the fact is, I would have suffered a deep and grievous loss. And the experience would have been sure to have cooled our relationship too, though I know I’d have tried with all my strength to forgive Brent and honor him through it. I’m so glad we never had to find out how difficult that might have been. Instead, between his change of mind and that beautiful apology, my love and respect for him flourished and grew, as did my ability to trust him and his decisions.
So, on a blustery evening in December, seven days before Hannah’s due date, after spending the day feeling crabby in general and toward our golden retriever in particular, I eased into early labor, excited (though still kind of cranky) in the knowledge I’d soon be bringing our priceless baby into the light.
Having only had a few cramps and a single smear of scarlet goo in my panties, I decided I’d better go to bed—who knew when I’d be able to sleep through another night? With capricious gusts of snow-laden gales rattling the windowpanes, I passed the hours of darkness curled against the warm body of my young husband, waking from time to time as my womb squeezed me and my unborn bundle in a snug embrace.
The sun rose shrouded in a haze of thick flakes, and I rose with it, though I knew I ought to sleep in. But I was bursting with energy and breathless with anticipation. I rearranged my closet, scrubbed the bathroom and the kitchen, and vacuumed the living room, taking breaks only at the insistence of my unusually active bowels. When I considered the hour sufficiently decent, I telephoned my midwife and my mother to let them know something was happening.
Mid-morning, a set of yet-childless friends dropped over, and we decided it would be just the thing to go fetch our Christmas trees together. And it was just the thing to spend the day out in the crisp, spruce-scented air, searching amid the drifts for a tree that suited us while the squeezes came on with ever increasing strength. By suppertime they were strong and close, and I was pleased to find I could bear them, though I retreated to the solace of a shower instead of breaking bread with the group.
My mom called to see how things were going about the time I exited the bathroom. She lived two hours north, and I wanted her to be with me through the birth.
“Oh, no.” Brent laughed. “She’s not in labor.”
I was near enough to take the phone from him and get my mother heading my way.
Once Brent was convinced I really was in labor, he prepped the room for the birth, and, entering it soon afterward, I was startled to find virtually every square inch covered in layers of transparent plastic drop cloth. In the days following the birth, I asked him both why he hadn’t thought I was in labor and why he’d spill-proofed the room so excessively. He told me he sincerely hadn’t thought I was in labor, since I wasn’t, “you know, rolling around on the bed, screaming, or anything.”
As to the plastic, he confessed his expectations of childbirth were more influenced by the explosively bloody films he’d been subjected to in the police academy than he realized. Between that and the “rolling around and screaming” bit, it really was no wonder he’d been skeptical about homebirth.
Though I never did roll about or scream, my once-scarcely noticeable uterus revealed the full measure of its potency in wave after crushing wave. I shifted endlessly between soaks in the salty waters of my bathtub to lying still as possible on my side on the twin bed tucked into the corner of the nursery—the whole of my being, all my substance, caught up in the rushing rhythms of my travail.
I vaguely remember our two families arriving around bed- time, with Jean following soon after. By then, if I wasn’t in the bathtub, I was on my hands and knees. The pain in my back was astonishing, and I was nauseated and exhausted.
Our parents and my sisters whiled away the hours squished onto one sleeper-sofa, one rickety wooden rocker, and one sagging recliner while Jean, for the most part, left us alone.
And we liked that. After all, we’d gotten Hannah into me all by ourselves, and the very energy that gets babies in is the same energy that gets them out, and it works best in private. Here and there, Jean would slip in, listen to our baby’s rapidly pattering heart, whisper a word of assurance, make a suggestion or two, then slip back out.
The hours passed as hours do, ticking away minute by minute, but that magical nighttime was measured for me by waves of indescribable sensation. My anchor amidst the waves was Brent, with his strong hands on my back, his knees supporting my cheek, his words imparting the courage I needed to face and embrace my body’s awe-inspiring display of raw power.
Toward the wee hours of morning, as the waves climaxed in a crescendo of pressure, the growls and grunts that replaced my breathings and blowings drew Jean and my mother from the next room.
Jean examined me, and found I wasn’t quite ready to push, though the urge was wholly overwhelming. Then Jean listened again to our baby’s heartbeat and we discovered she wasn’t tolerating the intensity of the labor so well, at least not with me on my hands and knees. In a flash, Jean had me on the bed, reclining against a stack of pillows and inhaling the cool stream of oxygen that issued from an age-mottled, lime-green cylinder. Jean listened to our child again, and we were relieved when she smiled and said, “Better.” But I noticed her smile was thin-lipped and a crease formed between her gray eyes.
Strangely though, in that moment I was flooded with the assurance our little girl was okay—and that she was, in fact, a girl.
I wanted to lay my hand on Jean’s arm and tell her our baby was fine, and I wanted to shout to Brent, “Oh, Brent! Here comes your daughter!”
But, as Jean smoothed away the last rim of my cervix with her gentle fingertips, all I was able to do was surrender to my body’s mind-blowing impulses and push.
All on my own, with a groan and a shriek and with every shred of my might, I pressed our squirming, squalling baby through my blazing tissues and into Brent’s massive hands.
And she was Hannah! And her wails saturated the air! And our own cries joined hers!
I reached down and swept her into my arms.
I know it sounds cliché to say our lives changed forever then, but they did. As we gushed and wept and laughed over the tiny life sprawled across my deflated belly, with the gorgeous blush of rose suffusing her bluish-purple skin and the fantastic coil of turquoise cord snaking from her navel and with each of her minuscule fingers and toes splayed wide as though in surprise, Brent and I looked up and our eyes met. The pools of our souls coalesced and we fell more deeply in love with one another than we’d ever been before, even as we fell headlong in love with our perfect baby girl.
The house in the photograph is the house Hannah was born in, and the drawing is one I did of Hannah as a newborn.
Kim Woodard Osterholzer, Colorado Springs Homebirth Midwife and Author
Books by Kim: