A Midwife’s Tale

by: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Important Quotations Explained

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.