Sorry, I ain’t birthin’ no babies

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By Janny Wilcke

Spring has arrived, and I’m pretty happy about that — except for one thing.

Spring, as you know, is when most livestock give birth. Each year we have mares that are bred to foal in March, April or May, and that makes me extremely nervous. Being a stay-at-home wife, I am the designated lookout. Somehow it is my job to keep an eye on the mares and make sure that everything is going okay, should they foal.

I do not covet this responsibility. I don’t have a clue about how to help a mare in trouble. In fact, let’s be honest; I don’t even have a clue about when a mare is in trouble.  Having given birth myself five times, I tend to see every birth as a crisis, so I don’t think I’m one to be put in charge of birthing, animals or humans. 

When foaling season arrives, I have a vision of myself shrieking to my husband, “I ain’t birthin’ no babies!” as did little Prissy, the servant-girl, in “Gone With the Wind.”  But I never do anything like that; instead, I just tough it out.

I recall the first two times mares foaled during my watch. Each time it was as if the mare saw my husband leave for work and thought, “Guess I’ll mess with her head by going into labor now.” It was long before cell phones and so there was no way I could reach him. The first time I called a vet, who calmly explained that likely everything was fine. But if you’d seen a balloon-type thing - the placenta, actually - protruding from a mare’s south end while she was standing, you’d be concerned too. It seemed to me that, at least, she ought to lie down, which, of course, she finally did.

The second time it happened the mare actually foaled a pair of twins. The first was stillborn, and I, unfortunately, had to make the decision to put the other twin down on the advice of the vet. I never did get over that experience. 

Here is my other problem with foaling season: I worry. I seem to be programmed to worry about newborns, human or otherwise.  I worry that they won’t nurse right away.  I worry that the umbilical stump will get infected.  I don’t feel a sense of relief until they are at least a week old. There is a reason for my anxiety.  Over the years, we have lost a number of foals and, while mourning the losses, I have identified closely with the moms.  The mares always look so sad and downcast. And I don’t think I am projecting human feelings on them. There’s no question that their loss is real. 

Another aspect I dread is that my watch is not only during the day. My husband often goes out of town on business, and when he does, I have to set an alarm to check the mares in the middle of the night. That is particularly worrisome. We don’t have a fancy indoor foaling stall so our mares foal in a field, after which we help the baby and mother to a stall in the barn and collect the placenta for the vet to check.

On a scale of one to ten, my anxiety level is at 9.9 when I take my flashlight and walk the short distance to that field, all the while chanting, “Please don’t let a mare be in foal and please don’t let a mare be in trouble or even lying down.”  I’m always thrilled to see them standing and happily grazing or munching hay.

My two older daughters have invited me to be present while they delivered our grandchildren and I have been present for several births. I seem to be fine watching the process when someone competent is in charge. Under that circumstance, I even feel that the birth process is lovely and surreal. But I would make a terrible obstetrician, or O.B. nurse, and I’m sure I would be no better as a veterinarian. 

 So here I am; facing another spring of anxiety. And once again, I want to throw my arms up in the air and shout, “I ain’t birthin’ no babies!”


Jonna can be reached at editor@hclocal.com