By Whitni Nelson // Illustration by Stacey Walker Oldham
It was an ordinary winter’s night in Teton Valley, Idaho. But for one family, it was extraordinary. They were going to have a baby. And the plan was to have their baby at home with the help of midwives. This family had been working with my midwifery partner and me at Mountain Mamas Midwives for months, preparing for and educating themselves on having a homebirth.
Homebirths provide low-risk women an alternative to a hospital birth. And while this practice is certainly not for everyone, it has been executed safely by our ancestors for hundreds of years. Today, some families prefer to birth their baby in the comfort and convenience of their environment with one-on-one support given by a team of midwives and doulas.
A midwife is a trained health professional who helps healthy women during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and postpartum. I am what is considered a “traditional midwife,” or a direct-entry midwife (credentialed without first becoming a nurse), practicing within the confines of traditional folk medicine, whose training comes as an apprentice or through direct experience. My partner is a licensed and certified midwife with a more formal education.
We have birthed hundreds of babies in many different ways and places — but none of our other births were quite like this one.
The call came in just before sunset.
I am always thrilled when the call comes during the day versus the middle of the night. (One of the hardest parts of midwifery work is the late and long hours.) I said a prayer on my way to this birth, as I do with every birth, expressing gratitude for a safe and smooth delivery. Then I quickly packed my gear in the car and drove to the Smiths’ home.* Upon my arrival, a beautiful young woman, Alicia, was in the bathtub, bravely enduring her labor. Her contractions came on overnight, and she had been working hard throughout the day. Things were about to change.
“I remember laboring at home as mostly peaceful,” Alicia explains. “The presence of my husband and animals and the familiarity of home helped me relax between contractions. I can recall my husband reading and singing to me while I labored in the bathtub. The late afternoon sun was shining, casting shadows into the bathroom. It was beautiful.”
We, as a birth team, gave the couple the space to labor on their own. Of course, there comes a time when a first-time mother and father need some guidance in the process of labor and delivery. And that’s when we stepped in.
I could see that Alicia was searching for something new to help her labor progress. I gave her words of encouragement and suggested certain positions, which seemed to give her an energetic boost. Something shifted in her physiology that allowed more expansion in her body, which is the very thing you need to bring forth a child. However, due to some “variations of normal,” we were inclined to transfer her from her home to a hospital where it would be safer for this particular case.
“One of the [midwives] helped me move labor along,” Alicia remembers, “offering different positions and massage techniques to try. While the other’s calm and professional presence helped me trust in the decision to transport to the hospital when we decided together that we needed to make a move.”
I would normally caravan in my own car in a nonemergent transfer like this, but I could see that things were moving quickly and the rhythmic rushes of labor were quite intense. So I decided to give Alicia some backseat support. I gathered my essential items (should the baby be born in the car) and hopped in the back seat of the couple’s Honda, while Dan, the father, drove.
My midwifery partner drove ahead in her car and we were in touch over the phone for much of the drive. The sun had just set and colors filled the sky. It was a glorious 11 degrees below zero as we drove over Pine Creek Pass. I could hear in Alicia’s voice the sounds of the next transition. The road was bumpy and Alicia’s groans were strong. I knew we would never make it to the hospital.
More than once, our small caravan pulled over to assess the situation. The rushes of labor continued, as Alicia reached for the handle on the passenger side roof, pulling down, grasping for anything that would help her get through the next ninety seconds. Then her legs flew up onto the dashboard as her body made way for a blessed child to emerge. She was so strong—a force of absolute nature—and she said, “He’s coming, he’s coming!”
I reached my hands around her, feeling the baby’s head. He flew out of his mother and into my hands. I gently placed him on his mother’s chest and we stopped the car at the nearest pullout. My partner pulled over, jumped into the front seat, and positioned herself on the floor in front of the mother and baby, calmly assessing everything and everyone.
“You are a fierce warrior mama,” she said.
“Delivering a baby in the car was an exciting experience!” Alicia recalls. “I remember feeling in awe of my body and how I progressed through labor no matter my surroundings. The last stage of labor felt like a force I’ve never encountered before. But by trusting my body, my team, and my baby, I was able to deliver a healthy baby boy in unusual circumstances.”
As the mother and father met their new baby, tears welled in everyone’s eyes. This child did not want to be born at home or at the hospital. He wanted to be born over a snowy mountain pass near the banks of the Snake River. Even though it was cold and dark outside, with all five of us packed into the Smiths’ station wagon we were warm and cozy. We knew of a fellow midwife’s birthing center nearby. Twenty minutes later, mother and child found themselves in a comfortable bed where we cleaned up Alicia and began our newborn exam.
“The memories I have from my wife and son’s birth are clear, calm, and imbued with a powerful sense of purpose,” says Dan. “There was much in our story to cause stress and worry, but much more to cause awe, wonderment, and focus. We all had a role to play. I was deeply grateful to both of the midwives: one for her measured calmness, her attention to detail, and confident decision making; and the other for her grounded energy, her wise coaching, and her support from the back seat.”
While every birth is special, unique, and an honor for a midwife to participate in, this was an extraordinary night no one will forget. With love and support, this woman was able to trust in her body and in her team and welcome a child into the world in the most unusual of places.
* All names have been changed in this article to protect the privacy of the family.