Expecting mothers find comfort and empowerment at Fern Creek Midwives Birth Haus

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Greg Lindstrom

On January 8, Sarah Johnson gave birth to her second child, a 9.2-pound son. She and her husband, Phil Mendoza, named him Noah and held him in their arms, resting in the birthing suite at the Fern Creek Midwives Birth Haus in downtown Kalispell while the midwives went on a pizza run.

Having a third party to grab pizza after childbirth might be incentive enough to hire a midwife, but Johnson, like many mothers in the Flathead Valley, chose midwifery over a hospital birth for a host of reasons.

“It was awful,” Johnson said of her first birth, which was at a hospital in May 2011. “It was impersonal. Once I was in labor, there were a lot of medical interventions that weren’t what I wanted. It felt rushed. I was younger, and I didn’t feel empowered enough to stand up against what the doctor was recommending. This time I wanted to have a say.”

In the hospital, Johnson was given an epidural, which slowed down her contractions. The doctor then chose to break her water to nudge the process along. That caused an infection and later led to an unplanned Cesarean section.

“It was a weird experience with the C-section,” Johnson said. “They put the baby over the curtain, then went away. I laid there for 30 minutes while they stitched me up. I was like, ‘I know I have a baby, somewhere.’ My husband said it felt so wrong walking out [with the baby] and leaving me.”

The second time around, Johnson elected to work with Carrie Corbett, a Certified Professional Midwife with national credentials through the North American Registry of Midwives. The difference, Johnson said, was “amazing,” essentially polar opposites.

“I really felt like I knew what I was getting into; I felt confident,” she said. “I wanted the chance to do it naturally. It was important to give it my all… I know people say it’s all magic, but it was hard work. [The Birth Haus] is peaceful. The lights were on low, I sat in the birth tub and powered through it.”

Neither Johnson nor Rebekah Alcott, another Fern Creek mom who gave birth to her first child in a hospital, initially explored options for birth with a professional other than a doctor. They chalk that up in part to youth and inexperience, but also to convention. To them, at first, a hospital birth felt like the assumed and automatic route a woman should take when pregnant, even if it might not be the best way to meet her spiritual and emotional needs.

“I didn’t even think of looking outside the hospital setting,” Alcott said. “When I found out I was pregnant [again], I started trying to inform myself … and [midwifery] was such a good fit that we joke that I have to have another baby, just because I want to do another birth with Carrie.”

But Alcott readily acknowledges her bias, emphasizing the fact that her experience with midwifery is subjective. “If you feel comfortable in a hospital, do it,” she urged. “If you feel comfortable at home, do it.”

This is something that both the midwives and the mothers draw attention to repeatedly: There are advantages to birth in both settings. Ultimately, it’s childbirth, and there’s no way to do it wrong.

Corbett and Heather Holman, Fern Creek’s other midwife, believe in their care and its benefits, but they’re not zealots. They’re not hawking an exclusive, superior experience of childbirth. Midwives only work with low-risk, healthy mothers, and that doesn’t mean that the women they turn down won’t get wonderful care with health providers in a hospital. All that the Fern Creek midwives hope is that every woman, when she finds out she’s expecting, takes a moment to stop and think about what kind of experience she wants when she meets her newborn.

Heather Holman, left, meets with Erica Carrara during an appointment at Fern Creek Midwives.

Heather Holman, left, meets with Erica Carrara during an appointment at Fern Creek Midwives.

Corbett says that from her perspective, “things are swinging from hospital births being just what you do, to taking a step back [to consider other options]. The bottom line is: Where do you feel safest? Women birth babies best when they feel safest.”

And while doctors offer safety in the form of medical expertise, midwives provide it by prioritizing empowerment. In Old English, midwife meant “with-woman,” and the French variation can be translated to “sage woman.” Both titles capture exactly what’s special about midwifery—Corbett and Holman focus just as much on the expecting mother as they do on the logistics of birth.

“It’s about the relationship. That is the difference,” Corbett said. “Doctors don’t have the time, and [the relationship] enhances the positivity. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies and blissed-out birth. A healthy mother and a healthy baby, that’s always the goal. But it’s the base of what we do. We shoot for the stars, for mom and baby to leave the birth intact emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It is so important to how we mother, and that gets missed a lot in a traditional birth.”

The midwives and moms text each other constantly, asking and answering questions. They meet regularly for long appointments to do checkups and, as Corbett said, to just “talk about birth and what the fears are, so we know her intimately.” Hiring a midwife is like putting a knowledgeable, sensitive pregnancy coach on retainer, accessible at any time.

And, generally speaking, even though there is so much more personal tailoring and supplementary holistic care, childbirth with a Flathead midwife costs less. The cost of birth in a hospital depends on how long you stay, and can increase with every medical intervention or extra measure of comfort.

“I think the lowest you could actually get off with for an all-inclusive price [for a hospital birth] would be more like $7,000, and that’s being generous,” Corbett said.

Comparatively, a birth at Fern Creek, which includes every measure of prenatal and postpartum care, costs a flat $3,500, and the midwives can accommodate families with any budget—they have a low income/financial hardship discount, and have bartered care for services and goods.

Carrie Corbett checks a patient's blood pressure during an appointment at Fern Creek Midwives.

Carrie Corbett checks a patient’s blood pressure during an appointment at Fern Creek Midwives.

Corbett and Holman have been best friends since they were 18 years old, when they were in high school. They graduated, and after they had both given birth, hopped in the car, marched down their old high school hallway, and asked the counselor how one becomes a midwife. They began training in 2007 and, five years later, after receiving degrees in Midwifery Science from the Midwives College of Utah and certificates in Neonatal Resuscitation and CPR for health care professionals, they opened Fern Creek together.

In December 2015, they moved into their current location on Main Street in Kalispell, which is big enough for a private suite to accommodate families who may not want to give birth at their home. The Birth Haus is just a few minutes down the road from Kalispell Regional Healthcare, just in case there are any complications. There is no inherent danger to delivering a baby outside of a medical setting, and Corbett and Holman would rush a client to a hospital if she ever needed urgent care from a doctor. They do “greatly appreciate and utilize medical interventions,” Corbett said, “but it’s their overuse that seems to cause problems” and lead to unscheduled Cesareans.

As Caitlin Danielson, who delivered three children at a hospital and was preparing for her fourth birth with Corbett at the time of publication, put it, at a hospital, “you are treated like you have a medical condition that needs treating. A woman shouldn’t feel like they have something wrong.”

Corbett and Holman also take on far fewer patients than doctors, another trademark of midwifery, which means that they have the time to patiently see every birth through with the least amount of medical intervention, no matter how long it takes. Unless it becomes a matter of medical necessity, they aim to coax and coach a mother through even the most laborious or slow vaginal birth.

At the hospital “you get an IV, and that’s harmless,” Holman said. “Then you get some medicine, and that slows your contractions. So you get something to speed them up.”

“And then maybe the baby doesn’t like that,” Corbett added. From there, the process can domino until the mother is suddenly getting wheeled into an unplanned or unwanted C-section – 32.7 percent of births in the United States are delivered by Cesarean, though that number hovers around 20 percent in Montana, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I had hours of natural labor, then I was told I was getting a C-section and that was that,” Alcott said. “I felt like I had no idea what happened. It felt like a personal failure.”

The idea is for mothers to walk away from midwifery without regrets or disappointment. The mission is to help the new mother triumph.

“You get support,” Corbett said of Fern Creek. “You’re not only hiring medical support, but someone who believes in you.”