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A Midwife’s Tale

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. The mixing of governours in a household, or subordinating or uniting of two masters, or two dames under one roof, doth fall out most times, to be a matter of much unquietness to all parties.

This observation is from an early English treatise on marriage, and Ulrich uses it in the March 1804 chapter to discuss the problems between Martha and her daughter-in-law Sally. These words offer a philosophy by which Martha seems to have lived her entire life. Though she never attempts to interfere with Ephraim’s decisions and duties, Martha expects the same respect in return and assumes full authority over the responsibilities she considers hers. She alone decides what plants will be part of her garden and where each will go, and she alone manages all of the female workers who enter the house. One of the few times Martha records being truly upset with Ephraim is when he attempts to defend one of the hired girls whom Martha feels isn’t fulfilling her duties as household help. He has no experience with housework and won’t be held responsible if it isn’t completed properly, so he therefore has no business defying Martha’s authority in this area.

Martha even chose a profession that gives her complete authority over her own actions and business dealings, which was rare in early America. Though she is summoned to each birth by the family, it is her choice whether or not she will go. If a ride isn’t provided for her by the husband or family of the expectant mother, it is her job to find one, and though Ephraim or one of her sons occasionally offers her a ride, she has enough horsemanship skills to not be dependent upon them. On all but a few occasions, payment for her services goes directly into her hands rather than her husband’s, even though men are often the ones who settle the debts. If her work brings her in contact with the male doctors who also work in the area, she listens to their opinions but grows frustrated when she thinks they are interfering with her work. Her experience has proven her authority in this area, and she will not quietly accept it being questioned.

2. In such circumstances it was comforting to have the women with her; they could witness her efforts to ensure a safe delivery and they could assist with the sorrowful task of preparing an infant for burial.

Ulrich makes this observation in the December 1793 chapter as she discusses infant mortality rates, and her comment shows how important community opinion is to Martha’s success as a midwife. At no time does Martha mention simply showing up at a birth that isn’t family-related. Rather, the parents of the unborn baby must summon her to the mother’s bedside and trust that she is the right one to successfully deliver their child. This trust is often developed through word-of-mouth of family, friends, and neighbors, and the people spreading the word are usually the women who have actually watched Martha perform successful deliveries and who have confidence that she can reproduce such success. Observers at the tragic deliveries also strengthen her reputation, since they can attest that insurmountable medical problems rather than incompetence led to the death. They can then relate to others that Martha had fought as hard as she could to prevent the loss of the child or mother.

These neighborhood witnesses to deliveries also help strengthen Martha’s own opinion of her success as a midwife. She devotes much of her diary to marking the births she spends so much of her life successfully guiding, counting the worth of her days and years by how many mothers and children she attends to in their time of need. However, she allows herself to describe little more than the barest circumstances of the delivery and the results for the mother and child, rarely mentioning the effort involved in her part of the process. The women who observe and help in these deliveries, then, are living records of this effort. She feels no need to brag about her work to others or defend it to future generations, since she is secure in the knowledge that the people she helps know firsthand just how much of herself she gives to her profession.

3. In her universe, ‘Girls washt’ was an important statement, something on the order of ‘got across the river safely.’

Ulrich makes this statement in the January 1796 chapter after Martha talks about losing the help of her daughters, and it offers insight into the way Martha structures her diary and her life as a whole. Some historians seem interested only in the dramatic events that the diary relates, such as the Purrinton murders and the trial of Martha’s nephew Elijah Barton, but when Martha’s diary is taken as a whole, these are relatively minor matters. Martha’s diary is not a history but a life, and like all lives, it is filled mainly with work, household chores, and talks with friends and neighbors. To Martha, finishing the housework for the day and making it home safely are just as important as the shocking things that happen to her neighbors. Less important than either of these are the country’s larger political troubles, which are included in the diary only when they personally touch Martha’s life in some way. Martha’s first priority is always her own little corner of the world.

Martha is also grateful for all of the blessings to be found in that little corner, and she makes sure to acknowledge those blessings alongside the records of her work. Whenever she describes a river crossing that was more dangerous than normal, she is sure to include a thank you to God for protecting her. Though this gratitude is not specifically recorded on the more mundane crossings, she makes sure to mention each one she makes safely so that she can better remember each and every time God has kept an eye on her. “Girls washt,” for all its simplicity, holds much the same weight in her diary. Entries written after her daughters are married are filled with the stress and dislike that Martha feels toward household chores, so when she does have her daughters at home, she carefully notes each time they take that particular weight off her shoulders. Because her daughters wash, she doesn’t have to, and she is grateful for it every day.

4. There is little more to add, except that for almost four years after Isaac Foster’s dismissal Martha neglected ‘Public Worship’.

Ulrich makes this observation in the October 1789 chapter as part of her description of Hallowell’s treatment of the Fosters. Martha’s statement of disapproval is much stronger than it appears, especially since her entries suggest a general unwillingness on her part to publicly question community leaders. She does not want her authority to be interfered with, so she tries not to interfere in the authority of others, and she does not comment on the unfairness of their decision to drive Isaac Foster and his wife out of town. However, Martha expresses her feelings by slowing her once regular church worship to a trickle. She continues to acknowledge God in her diary during the time period even though she is largely absent from meetings, and as soon as the church is divided and the extreme moderates take charge elsewhere, she once again begins attending regularly.

Martha feels such disapproval in part because the dismissal contradicts the neighborhood connections that she values so much. The community is connected by a web of mutual assistance, one that Martha carries out by delivering the babies even of freed blacks and the poor. If they need help, she offers it, because it is her responsibility as their neighbor. The community leaders’ determination to drive out the Fosters because of a mere difference in religious opinion is in complete opposition to this philosophy. The action goes against everything she believes in, and it is impossible for her not to respond.

5. Daughter Ballard and a Number of her Children here. Mrs Partridge & Smith allso. Revered Mr Tappin Came and Converst swetly and mad a prayer adapted to my Case.

This is the last entry in Martha’s diary, and it contains a mention of everything she values most in life. The family she devoted so much time and energy to raising and helping pays their final respects to her. Two of her neighbors are there, signifying her beloved community network and the medical cycle of which she was a part. Her lifelong faith is supported by the presence of Mr. Tappin. Throughout her life, she gathered by the deathbeds of others, and members of the community now gather by her deathbed to offer what assistance they can. The moment is a perfect summary of and homage to her seventy-seven years of life. Though Martha lives for a few more weeks, she ends her diary here as part of her effort to order the diary as she always wanted to order her life. If she had the strength to write this entry, odds are she could have had the strength to write more, but she chose not to do so. She wrote the diary so that people would know how she lived, not how she died, and she seems content with the way her recorded life ends.

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