Our last child was born at home in Austin. It was the one day in a blue moon that Austin had ice. And snow. And then more ice. I was already 13 days past my due date, and I was ready for that baby to be in the world. After a morning spent building Texas snowmen (in case you’re not from here, this is the small, dirty variety in which the snow is at least 40% dried leaves left from last fall), I called my midwives around 1:00 in the afternoon to let them know I thought I was going into labor at long last. My midwife, Julia remarked, “I told you that the baby would come with the weather change!” She was right. And I wanted them to have plenty of lead time for crossing Austin in icy weather. Also, in case you’re not from here, we Texans tend to turn into hungry nutcases whenever there’s snow. One night of predicted freezing weather equals frantic drivers and long lines at the grocery stores – you know, in case you might get snowed in by that ½ inch of snow and end up starving to death. Stocking up on chili and hot chocolate supplies is requisite.
So, at about 7:00 that evening, Julia and her apprentice, Erica arrived. I had every intention of a picturesque birth with my mind calm and my spirits high and my baby petite (my others had ranged from 9 pounds to 9 lbs. 14 oz.). Mother Nature had other plans. Just to paint the picture for you, the gorgeous, antique oil lamps that my husband had lovingly restored and which were to serve as soft, romantic lighting in the bedroom as my baby was born – those lamps were almost the death of me and of the midwives, as the smoke filled the room and made us all gag. The warm tub of water that was to serve as my baby’s gentle gateway to the world made me burn up and have a panic attack. The house that I had kept so pristine in anticipation for so many weeks in advance was a pig sty. The big kids were maniacs downstairs. And the list went on. But, babies don’t care about clean kitchens or soft lighting or flower arrangements in the window (that was my husband’s idea, and it turned out beautiful). The night progressed, and Julia was suddenly leaving the house. I didn’t know what was going on. I guess I was kind of involved in what was happening with the baby and all, and I couldn’t figure out what was drawing her away from the scene at the moment. But, like she predicted, babies are often born with the changing weather. As it turned out, another woman whom I had met in our midwives’ social group, was also having her baby that night. Since her husband could only speak Spanish, and Julia could speak Spanish, Julia had to go attend that birth.
So, Erica stayed with me while my other midwife, Laurie, made her way across Austin to my house. Laurie could not speak Spanish and was scheduled to have some time off. She had just returned from a trip and was also quite sick. But, babies also don’t care about midwives’ schedules. So, ill and coughing and feverish as she was, Laurie came to help my baby and me. Her presence was calming and peaceful. And, before long, she and Erica were helping me birth my 10 pound baby girl in front of the toilet. Told you that Mother Nature had other plans. And even though Laurie was clearly in her own world of discomfort, she stayed at our home all night – hours after Baby arrived – to make sure that I was doing well and recovering and that the New Life that had come into our lives was healthy and stout. In the morning, Julia came back and fixed me scrambled eggs and muffins and took over for Laurie. And Laurie’s apprentice (also named Erica) came along too, to weigh and measure the baby and make sure she was doing well.
I marveled at these women. I marveled at their stamina and their dedication to the babies and women they served and the work they felt called to do, regardless of how they themselves were feeling at the moment. My previous birth was also with a midwife, Liane, who became one of my closest friends and saw me through the most amazing and deeply spiritual time of my life. She has served as a helper to women in birth around the world, from the most affluent to the most poverty-stricken and her love and care for each of them is apparent.
So what does this have to do with chickens? Well, I used to swear that I was “not an animal person.” I never craved the presence of an animal around me. I never worried at night over them. Aside from some birds that my oldest daughter brought home on occasion and a couple of baby squirrels that fell out of the tree when I was a child, I really never tried to nurse an animal back to health. I would not stand for animal cruelty in any way, but I just didn’t really involve myself with animals on a daily basis.
Farm life has changed me. I am hooked. I love animals. I really enjoy all of them. Chickens are no exception. In fact, they might be my favorites (don’t tell the goat). And with all the joy I get from watching them peck and forage and nest and explore in the pasture, it doesn’t compare to watching them hatch their way into life here on Earth. Incubating eggs is an experience that truly connects a person to the lives of other living things. As the surrogate chicken mother (or father) you are responsible for temperature and humidity control and for keeping destructive toddlers away from the incubator. I candle the eggs at night and try to determine which ones are viable. I’m rooting for all of them! Sometimes I can see one who is particularly active or particularly large or has big feet, and I end up giving them nicknames like Mansion and Chickenfoot. Still, some remain a mystery with opaque shells that are impossible to see through with even the brightest of lights, and I give those names like Opie and Eclipse. And when they start to pip (that’s the name for when they make a small hole in the shell at the beginning of hatching)? Well, I’m drawn to do hourly checkups on their progress during the day and at least one during the night. The number one rule in chicken hatching, like with human births, is to remain as hands-off as possible and to try to stay out of the way of the chick’s innate instincts and processes. Trying to speed things up can result in injury or even death to a hatching chick. Sometimes you see one that was there and vibrant and trying to hatch but doesn’t quite make it. That is sad and hard to see for me now. And then, I even had one that had trouble hatching but was clearly trying hard and had lots of energy. It was driving me crazy to just stand back and watch! After doing copious amounts of internet research, I read that it was, in fact, good to help a chick that has spent far too long trying to hatch. In my first true moment of chickwifery glory, I helped a bright, fluffy, yellow chick be born. Her name is fittingly Blondie Liane. And she is doing great!
Four weeks ago, we had 18 chicks born, 17 of whom are now residing in the chicken nursery (a small coop inside of the large one that affords the babies extra protection and warmth). When they hatch in the incubator, we leave them for a while to let them get their bearings before moving them to a metal washtub that serves just as a hospital crib would for a human baby. The tub has a heat lamp that keeps them warm and allows their feathers to dry out, and their food and water are in there with them. After that, they move to the chicken nursery and then to the large coop before finally being able to roam freely like all the other chickens on our farm. The process from beginning incubation to free ranging takes about 9 weeks. And now, one of our sons has caught the chickwifery bug. Three weeks ago he placed 46 new eggs into the incubator. Then he joined 4H, and a new chick-hatching project was born. Warms my heart. Today he had 5 chicks hatch, even though tomorrow is the projected hatch day. And here I sit, with a cough and a sore throat. Now that my son is in bed, I’m taking over as chickwife for the night, making sure these delicate little creatures have as happy a birth-day as possible. Because chickens don’t care sore throats or about farmer’s schedules.