It’s amazing to me how often I’m asked if I wish I were Amish. I was even asked once if I am Amish. That one made me smile! No, though I love and respect the Amish folk I serve, and they and their ways, for a multitude of reasons are very dear to my heart, I don’t wish I were Amish. The Amish live very hard lives.
Let’s imagine you’re a thirty year-old Amish woman with seven children, and another on the way. Your name is Mary. You were born on your Aunt Mary’s birthday, so, of course, that’s your name. If you’d been born two days before, your name would’ve been Irma, after your mother’s best childhood friend. If you’d been born three days later, you’d have been named Ruth after your dad’s grandma. You learned to speak English when you “started to school” at the age of six. Before that, you only spoke an Americanized version of German that even you call “Pennsylvania Dutch,” and it’s the language you most commonly speak. You have a mix of ten brothers and sisters. You’re third from the top, and the oldest girl. You were finished with school at fourteen, but, long before that, you were your mother’s best help. You learned in your eleventh year that babies don’t just magically appear when Jesus decides it’s time again to “bring a baby,” or “tiny baby,” as your kin are want to say. You were left ignorant of the details, but what you discovered was that your folks knew a little beforehand when a baby was on the way. Your mom decided to tell you this because your family’s tenth “tiny baby” was expected, and she needed so much of your help – what, with the other children, the never-ending chores, and with how she’d been feeling so “poorly.” She thought the information would inspire you to increased helpfulness, and it did. You were very excited about the new arrival. Much, much later you’d learn the actual facts of life, though, by the time you did, you’d suspected a long while that the arrival of your siblings had something to do with your mom’s special English friend, Sue, also called The Midwife. After all, you could just bet everything that, once Sue began making regular appearances, a baby would soon follow.
You and your husband began courting when you were almost eighteen. You’d known him all your life, your family was pleased with your choice, and your wedding day at nineteen was a very happy one. It was a sunny springtime Thursday filled with ceremony and tradition and family and friends and immeasurable loads of food. Your mother and dad’s lilac shrubs were in full flower, and their side yard and northwest fallow field across the road was bursting with buggies.
Almost eleven years have passed since then. Your husband has been employed all this time in a factory just over the Michigan-Indiana border, though he’s been working hard to get his on-the-side wood-working business prosperous enough to keep him home. Meanwhile, you’ve been tending your growing family. You learned everything your mother had been too shy to teach you about sex and babies within the first year of your marriage, and the volume of knowledge and experience you gained in such a short span of time had left your head spinning. You were pregnant within five weeks of your wedding day, and, twelve weeks after that, you had your first miscarriage. That was when your slightly awkward acquaintance with Sue, your mother’s midwife and – now you now – the midwife who’d attended your own birth, began to transfigure into the the strange thing of beauty it is today. Sue is “English,” as the Amish call Americans who aren’t Amish, and you understand that you’re supposed to be separate from the “English,” but, as the woman so tenderly cared for your mother, she’s tenderly cared for you as well since, with blood and cramps and anguish, you released the first little life to blossom within your womb. Only a week before your loss, you’d written Sue a letter telling her your new address, and that you thought she ought to stop over to see you one day pretty soon. You’d not been able to bring yourself to actually mention you were pregnant. “I guess you know what this is about,” was the closest you could get. But the very morning you expected Sue to come by – her visits to your community were almost always on Wednesdays – you rose with a smear of scarlet stickiness in your panties and a dull backache. Sue did come by, and her tears mingled with yours as she tried in vain to find your baby’s heartbeat. You got through the experience, with Sue visiting you every week for awhile, just to make sure you were okay. And the next thing you knew, your belly began to fill again. Nine months later, your arms were full, your aching heart was soothed, and, through the weeks that followed your baby’s birth, the spinning of your head slowed as you came to terms with all you’d learned.
And now your arms are overflowing, and will only overflow all the more from here. You love your husband and your children with desperation, and you want all the children God wants you to have, but you’d secretly hoped your eighth baby would wait awhile to be added to the family. You’ve been pregnant nine times so far – you wound up having another miscarriage between your fifth and sixth babies – and your sixth and seventh births were eleven short months apart! You’ve gained weight with every pregnancy, your varicose veins have rendered your legs unrecognizable – plus they hurt, you’ve begun wearing a pad all day every day just in case you sneeze and something starts “walking,” and you had some struggles with your blood pressure through your last two pregnancies. Sue’s tried to help. She’s provided all sorts of things to read about diet and exercise, and she’s spent hours upon hours with you, exploring how you might apply it. But you haven’t any time. You hardly even read the papers. And now you’re with child again, though baby number seven is a mere five months old.
Times have changed a bit through the years of your marriage, so, today, instead of darting off a letter, you walk down the road to the community telephone and call Sue. You enjoy the walk. It’s a chance to relax and take in the dawning of the day. You wonder wryly if Sue will let you count this as exercise, then you think about Sue and how you’ve come to love and appreciate her. You can tell her that you’re pregnant, and she’ll understand that, even though you’ll love this new life with everything you’ve got, you’re battling depression today. She’ll understand without forcing you to confess the particulars that you, at times, feel trapped by the strict and numerous rules of your religion. She understands that you “stand up” every morning at three to make “dinner” for your husband to take to work while he feeds the animals, and that your legs are swollen and your back is aching from the three hours you spent sitting on those hard and backless benches at church the day before. She’ll understand that, though you know you ought to go back to bed for a little while, you decide stay up instead to practically hand-wash the mountain of laundry before you hang it to dry on the line. She’ll understand that while you’d hoped to take one of the brisk walks she prescribed, you must start your six loaves of bread rising, collect the eggs, milk the cow, fix breakfast, feed the kids, wash the dishes, and clean the house. Plus, you’re trying to get your two year-old out of diapers. In the summertime, your oldest helps with all this, but she started school this year, so on weekdays through the winter, you’re on your own. You’re glad at least that this newest “tiny baby” will come when your oldest is out of school. Summer’s a tough time to give birth, with all the gardening and canning to do, but your daughter’s help will be wonderful.
When you’re through with your cleaning, you’ll make “dinner,” feed the kids, and put them down for a nap, and Sue will understand that, though you know you ought to take a nap, too, the sewing just can’t be put off any longer. She’ll understand how glad you are to welcome your school child home. She’ll help you bring in the laundry and get it put away, and then she’ll help with “supper.” You’ll welcome your bone-weary husband home.
He’ll tend to the chores, and work on the table he’s making for an English family in town till it’s time for “supper.” You’ll have your supper, wash the dishes, sweep the floor, put the children to bed, and prepare to spend tomorrow
away. Your sister has church next weekend, and all the females in the family are gathering to help her scrub her house from top to bottom – walls, windows, and all. You’re next on the list, actually, so, in two weeks everyone will come to you. You’ll have to leave pretty early in the morning, your sister lives eight miles away, and it’ll take better than an hour to get to her by horse and buggy. You and your husband collapse at last in bed a little after ten, and Sue will understand why you couldn’t get there any earlier.
Sue will understand all of it. Sue will understand that, while you love your family with all your heart, while you value your lifestyle, while you’ll grow to love the new life that’s taken root within your depths, and that you’ll, without a doubt, receive the little thing at its birth with boundless joy – today, you’re just not happy to be pregnant again so soon. And she’ll understand that if you lose this baby somehow, you’ll be wracked with sorrow and plagued with guilt, along with cramps and gushes of blood.
Sue understands that you’re not at all like Englishwomen. She understands you’re not even like Englishwomen who choose to bear lots of children, and who stay at home to rear them. She understands you’re worlds away, even from her. But you know she loves and respects you to your core, and that one of the joys of her life is to support you through yours.
So, yes, today it’s hard, but you know you’ll be okay. You’ll “bear up,” just like your mom did, just like your grandmom did, and just as your girls will after you. And, for all the toil and all the trial of your years, you’ll enjoy more love and laughter than toil and trial, and you’ll live most of your days grateful to God for His goodness, and for your blessings.
You’re at the phone shed now, and you sigh as you lower yourself onto the rickety wooden stool. You raise the receiver to your ear and dial the familiar number.
“Sue! Yes, it’s Mary. I suppose you can guess why I’m calling. Yes, yes… yes, come by anytime.”
I used the name Sue in honor of Sue Rusk, one of the most amazing midwives I know. I used the name Mary for the Amishwoman in honor of the most common Amish name for females I’ve encountered. One year I had three women due within four months of one another, all named Mary – all three with the same last name! Two of them lived on the same road, too! Made for interesting times when they called in the middles of nights, let me tell you!
“Hi, Mary. Wait. Which Mary? No, wait. Where do you live?”
As ever, the names are changed.
All photos were taken by Kim Woodard Osterholzer of the Amish countryside she served within.
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Kim Woodard Osterholzer, Colorado Springs Homebirth Midwife and Author
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