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  • Stephanie Sorensen

Dish Washers and Wood Choppers—or How an Amish Baby Got His Name

While I was living in Wisconsin in the mid-1980s I attended several Amish births while serving as a midwife. The Amish don’t use modern farm equipment, electricity, or indoor plumbing, and also don’t have telephones, much less computers, cell phones, iPods, or things like that. They decided several centuries ago that in order to live a holy life, you need to separate yourselves from the sinful world, and so they began by drawing the line when it came to certain worldly influences surrounding their little settlements. By the 19th century, they had decided which new-fangled ideas should not be allowed into their homes, and by the 20th century they added cars, TVs, all motors, fashions, radios, and birth control to the ever-growing list of forbidden fruits.

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 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 seventh child. She 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 closely when I consider a family’s suitability for a home birth). They were excited that they had been blessed with yet another baby, though they didn’t know yet if it was another little “dish washer” or “wood chopper,” –terms they use 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. Often I would start out at Elizabeth’s house and help her hitch up Alice, her mare, to the buggy, and we would check in with each of the expectant mamas in the neighborhood. I was always especially glad to see Rosa doing so well. She had had two previous full-term stillbirths when I first met her, but by referring her to a specialist in a nearby city, they had figured out that she was RH negative, and was now finally being treated appropriately and would go on to have 5 healthy children.

When Joel finally called me 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 alone) 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 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 hand-knit slippers, grinning from ear to ear. She was 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 (just 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 ten days. A nightstand was set up with everything she would need to care for the baby and herself right there: diapers, a diaper pail, baby clothes, her personal items, and an oil lamp.

Things slowed down around four 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 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 seven 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 woodstove 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.

Grandma Elizabeth came early the next morning after Elmer arrived and made us all coffee and a wonderful breakfast of oatmeal topped with homemade granola and fresh cream.

Midwife-turned-author, Stephanie Sorensen seems to swim seamlessly through cultures, religions, superstitions, raw fear and ecstasy to the first breath of a new baby. She knows and believes how birth works and invites her readers to join her, taking us on a tour to the innermost workings of another world. She lives among one of the most diverse populations on earth, and has given birth to a book that takes us on a bizarre journey, giving us a rare, intimate glimpse into her daily life. With graphic prose we enter with her into the Land of Birth. Midwife, mother, grandmother, doula, world traveler and author, Sorensen lives and breathes birth. She has five children scattered around the world, grandchildren, and over a thousand babies she calls her own, even when she cannot pronounce their names correctly. With stories so graphic you will feel your own contractions again, she guides us through her world of Amish bedrooms, hospital labor rooms, birthing suites, and operating theaters. Get your scrubs on. It's time to push! !


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