Living on an island in Maine–unreachable other than by boat, plane, or helicopter–has its challenges and its pluses. For every moment of feeling like I live in a Manhattan-sized fish bowl–for every canceled ferry boat–there are moments when our tiny community, with just 350 or so year-round residents, functions like a loving family.
If someone has a medical emergency, not only are they often cared for and transported off the island by our volunteer emergency medical service, but a card will appear at the island’s one grocery store, available for all to sign. Donation jars appear in the same spot on the counter for families in need. And perhaps because each new resident represents the continued sustainability of North Haven, the island family is never more functional, motivated, and caring than when it comes to welcoming new babies to the island.
I’ve gotten to see this first hand over the last week, since I had my baby.
I left North Haven the Monday before my Friday due date. The island has a small clinic, but I felt more comfortable staying closer to the hospital where my midwife practiced, rather than risk an uncomfortable boat ride in labor. I was going to stay with my doula’s parents. I met her when she lived on the island a few years ago, and her parents were more than happy to open their beautiful home to me while I waited for my daughter’s arrival. My husband planned to put in a few more work days before joining me, hoping to not cut into his paternity leave waiting on the mainland. Before I left we packed my car with a hospital bag for myself and for the baby, as well as my husband’s luggage and our dog’s crate and food. But when I woke up early Wednesday morning in labor, the island sprang into action to get my husband there.
To get a car on or off the island, it’s best to have made a reservation. We had one, but for the last boat that day. Given that I was already in labor at 5 a.m., I needed him to get there sooner. Without a reservation, all you can do is put your car in line and hope for the best. Our car was number 13 and thus didn’t make it on the boat. My husband and our dog walked onto the boat instead, leaving behind all of the other bags, including my very thoughtfully packed hospital bag. Three islanders stepped up to help us out–one to drive my husband to the house I was staying at, one to move our car forward in line, and another to drive it onto the next boat. My doula’s parents agreed to pick it up on the mainland and bring it to the hospital.
The next few hours were a blur, but suffice to say that the baby arrived before our car rolled off the middle ferry. Things went so quickly, in fact, that I wouldn’t have been able to use any of the things in my hospital bag anyway, since I was already 7 centimeters upon arrival. My husband, my doula, and I welcomed Penrose Claire at 12:38 p.m., eight minutes after a member of our island family drove our car onto the boat.
During our two-night hospital stay, island friends, on the mainland for appointments or shopping excursions, stopped by regularly bearing not only flowers and cards but treats and anecdotes to alleviate the tedium of hospital routine and hospital food.
While we were in the hospital, a friend emailed to let us know that she was setting up a meal train. We’ve been on the giving end of countless meal trains, practically one for each new baby in the last few years. Until I read an essay in the Daily Beast lamenting the lack of new mother care in today’s communities, I had taken them for granted. But imagining what it might have been like having a baby in Boston, where we lived before moving to the island, I’m not sure what support we would have received. Not because we didn’t have wonderful friends, but because our community, such as it was, was spread out across the city and its metro area. It’s much easier to pop a casserole in the oven after work, put it in the car, and drive for a few minutes to visit a new baby and nurture friends than to trek out on the “T.”
We took Penrose home on Saturday’s middle boat. Driving to our house, we passed the “Welcome Home Penrose Claire” sign at the town bulletin board, another island tradition. We’ve been inundated with offers of baby bouncing, help around the house, muffins, and handmade blankets. And while I’m sure that this wellspring of generosity exists in other small communities, from temples to book clubs, our geographic isolation gathers everyone together in a unique way. Every baby born on the island between last October and this October will be Penrose’s classmate. She’ll probably play basketball with the kids a few years older or younger (almost every student in grades 8-12 plays on the varsity team). Every teacher will have her as a student. I’d wager that most of the kids 10 years older than her or more will babysit her at some point. When North Haveners invest in the wellbeing of families, it’s an investment in the whole island’s future.