It’s 2:00 a.m. and I find myself at the tail end of a momma pig who is trying to birth her first litter. As I sit on my five-gallon bucket and lean against the cool cement wall, my husband Michael goes outside to stoke the wood burning stove that keeps our building at 80 degrees. I’ve plugged in the heat lamp and put wood shavings in the little box the piglets will go into after they are born. All that is left is to wait.
I’m not a vet. I’m just a high school English teacher who happens to be married to a man whose family has a show pig operation. That means that we breed our mommas at the right time so they will have piglets that will be the perfect size for 4-H kids to show at the county and state fairs. That also means that our pigs are more like pets.
Most momma pigs are able to have their babies on their own after their first litter. Like humans, sometimes that first birth is a little difficult and the first-time moms (gilts) need help. This is my specialty. In a family of all males, I have the smallest hands, so if a gilt needs help, I’m the one on call. “Breathe,” I say, not to the gilt but to myself because I find I’m holding my breath as I listen to her endure the contractions. She has been in labor for too long without any results, and I am getting nervous. Michael walks back in, takes a look and says, “Sleeve up.” That’s my cue to transform into a pig OBGYN.
Only once have I failed. It’s not a moment I like to relive, but it’s always in the back of my mind at times like this. I know that if I can’t get these babies out, the gilt will become septic and die. I can tell the piglet is stuck, so I have to pull it out. It takes a lot of work and a dose of luck to be able to get my fingers over the top of the baby’s head and get him through that birth canal. The sweat drips off my nose and my arm aches like it’s being squeezed in a vice. Slowly, I feel it moving closer, and with one last push from the gilt and one last pull from me, the little guy comes out. I grab his hind legs, shake him upside down, and swipe his mouth to get the fluids and embryonic sack out of the way for his first breath.
“Atta girl!” Michael says. I’m not sure if he’s referring to me or the gilt, but I hand him the piglet to put in the warm box. This one is a male, and he’s my favorite kind–a Hampshire. He’s all black with a white band around the middle. When Hampshire piglets nurse, it’s like a little row of Oreo cookies snuggled up to get their milk. Hopefully, now that we got this large guy out, his momma will be able to do the rest on her own.
Of course, I will wait and watch. It doesn’t matter that I have to teach in just a few hours. I grab my bucket, lean back against the wall, and close my eyes.
Nearly a year ago, I didn’t think I’d ever be in this position again. An electrical fire burned our building almost to the ground. We lost twelve mommas and over a hundred piglets in that fire. As I look at my chore coat, I see the stains from the last litter I helped birth before that disastrous day. I haven’t been able to bring myself to wash it yet. Hours of rebuilding and painting have covered most of the physical evidence of the fire, but emotionally I haven’t been ready to move on. Like that little pig, I was stuck and couldn’t get past that memory. As I watch this first piglet wobble out of his box to nurse, I think maybe finally I can.