She’s delivered babies by the light of a kerosene lamp and been paid with eggs and vegetables for her services.
London midwife Kathi Wilson has been delivering babies for almost two decades, working with Southwestern Ontario’s Old Order Amish settlements for 17 years.
Recently, she launched a blog about her experiences with the two main Amish settlements near London — one by Tillsonburg, another close to Aylmer.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the Amish,” said Wilson, who works with Thames Valley Midwives.
“They certainly live a unique lifestyle and I thought it would be interesting to write about what their lives are like. Most of us don’t get to know how they live from day to day, and I’ve been watching for 17 years.”
In contrast to recent reality-TV portrayals of the Amish — often negative — Wilson’s blog captures details that are touching, ordinary and sometimes hilarious.
“They’re fascinated that people are fascinated about them,” Wilson said. “They’re curious. They’re acutely aware about what’s out there. It’s interesting because they’re cheek by jowl with modern life, but they’re not part of it.”
Request for midwifery care from the Amish is often done by mail — a letter might arrive, asking Wilson to stop in — or by word-of-mouth, with someone telling the visiting midwives a woman needs a “checkup” — a sure sign she’s pregnant.
To summon a midwife for a birth, a husband will borrow a non-Amish neighbour’s phone or, in one settlement, use a communal phone.
Wilson said her practice has delivered about 200 babies in the Amish settlement in Norwich over the last 17 years.
When a birth must happen in a hospital, the midwives often act as cultural ambassadors for the Amish families, for whom English is a second language — and who live without mirrors, electricity and, in some cases, running water.
“Imagine going from that to a brightly lit hospital in London,” Wilson said. “It’s sensory overload.”
In one case, nurses put a mirror into the crib of a baby born in hospital — but mirrors are forbidden in Amish culture, used only by men when they shave. A midwife had the mirror removed.
The Amish shun government assistance, opt out of the Canada Pension Plan and Ontario health benefits, and therefore sometimes “pay” the midwives in produce and poultry.
There are things modern society can learn from the Amish, Wilson said.
“We can certainly learn from them about post-partum care. Amish women work, and they work hard — they have large gardens, they work in the barn, besides all the cooking and laundry — but when they have a baby, they get a hired girl, someone about 14 years old, who will be there for six weeks doing the cooking and cleaning and other work,” Wilson said.
“There’s an idea that the women have to rest postpartum that we certainly don’t have in our culture. We have these ‘supermom’ expectations.”
The Amish also have a very different view of medical care, different than the Western philosophy of “everything that could be done, should be done,” Wilson said.
“If a child gets sick, they will get treatment, but there are certainly discussions about what’s best for the family, does it cause suffering, and accepting what God gives you.”
The family is the centre of Amish life.
“I see people in relatively intimate situations — giving birth — and although there is definitely a patriarchal structure to the group, it’s not oppressive in a way that you’d think,” Wilson said.
“During labour, the husbands are rubbing their wives’ back, holding hands, being loving. The women have input into what’s going on in the life of the house and the life of the family. I’ve seen some wonderful relationships between men and women.”
- The Amish and Me
- See it at midwifekathi.wordpress.com
- Follow Midwife Kathi Wilson on Twitter @midwifek
SW Ontario Amish
- Biggest settlements are east of Aylmer and near Tillsonburg.
- Ontario is the only province with Amish settlements (with larger settlements in the U.S.)
- Each settlement sets its own rules; the settlement near Aylmer has slightly more technology, including running water and generators. Tillsonburg settlement is bigger. A third settlement, near Putnam Rd., is smaller.
- Don’t believe in government assistance, so don’t collect social benefits, pay into CPP or OHIP.
- Aylmer community was founded by families from Ohio in the 1950s.
- Shun technology, mirrors, photos
Midwives in Ontario
- Since 1994, midwives are completely covered by OHIP
- Provide care during pregnancy, labour and the first six weeks after a baby is born
- Can deliver babies at home or in hospital, where they have admitting privileges (like MDs)
- Thames Valley Midwives serves women in London, and Middlesex, Oxford and Elgin counties.
“As we do our rounds, we are always astounded at how quickly the news of a birth has spread (the Amish men joke that they don’t have telephones, but they do have ‘tell-a-woman’).”
“Amish girls learn to care for babies very early in their lives and, as a consequence, even first time mothers are well-versed in the arts of diapering a baby (cloth is generally always used, in the old-fashioned folded method), and bundling, bathing and soothing. There’s always someone around to assist in the care.”
“Despite the traditional patriarchal relationships in Amish culture, their marriages are not arranged, and they do fall in love and court before they marry. This woman’s husband, a lean, sinewy farmer, unfailingly and lovingly held her and rubbed her back during her contractions and helped her through her labour.”
“There’s a separate little privy for the women (and non-squeamish midwives). Did I mention that this settlement has no indoor plumbing? There is no running water, other than that provided by a handpump in the kitchen or a tap that draws water with the assistance of a Beatty pumper (that would be a windmill, for those of you not familiar) . . . Water is heated in a large metal cylinder heated by wood fire.”
“Light in this settlement is provided exclusively by kerosene oil lamps (lovely glass lamps with a wick) . . . They give a lovely warm glow, bright enough to conduct a birth. The Amish in this group aren’t opposed to flashlights, however (and I have several to light my way in) and headlamps are ubiquitous.”
“You might remember the great northwestern blackout of 2003 (which affected all of Ontario and the northwestern U.S.). Concerned that our pagers might not work, with the jamming of wireless systems, we went down to let the Amish women who were due how best to contact us. They were blissfully unaware that anything major was going on (at least, until the less-prepared English neighbours came over asking for flashlights . . .).
Letter that arrived, by snail mail, in a pre-stamped envelope Thames Valley Midwives practice sends to clients with feedback forms: “Dear Kathi, Greetings of Love to you this morn. I would like you to stop in please, I think I’m pregnant. See ya soon.”