A Midwife’s Tale

by: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs

Births

Martha’s diary is full of the records of births with which Martha assists on almost a daily basis. In certain sections, nearly every day contains the record of a birth, listing the mother, sex of the child, and payment later received as well as the basic facts of the delivery itself. When complications arise, Martha describes them as simply and clearly as possible, preferring to focus on what is being done to help the mother and any improvement that might be seen in her or her baby’s condition. The entries rarely contain even a hint of the drama often shown in fictional representations of deliveries. Rather, these records are simple, straightforward accounts of the lives that Martha helps bring into the world. Added to this are the running tallies of births Martha assists, with a separate number for each year and a larger one that covers her entire career as a midwife. For Martha, these numbers are a way to quietly mark the value of her life. The effort she has put into helping her community is made clear in the tiny lives she helps bring into it.

Community Relations

Martha devotes most of her diary to her interactions with other people in the community, including patients, assistants, economic partners, and neighbors. She carefully lists all of the women whose babies she delivers and the sick people she treats. Her nursing records also include doctors and other women who either assist Martha with her patients or take care of those she doesn’t have the time or resources to help. She faithfully records all of the midwifery fees she receives and the people who pay them, and though her trade with her neighbors is much more complex, she records the specifics of those exchanges whenever she can. Even when she can’t, however, the visits between Martha, her daughters, and her neighbors are always recorded. Such entries trace a map of connections within the community—the network of those in need and those offering assistance—that is such an integral part of Martha’s life.

Responsibility

Martha’s life is largely determined by her feeling of responsibility toward others, and she expects her family to live in a similar manner. She travels dangerous paths and spends a significant amount of time away from her home and family because she knows how much the women in the community need her, slackening only later in life when she becomes too ill to do her job effectively. Even when Martha isn’t involved with a sick neighbor, she still keeps track of their progress. She helps and supports the Fosters because she feels responsible for maintaining the community web even when others will not. Though Martha knows that Sally has already sworn out a warrant on Jonathan, she still asks her who the father of her illegitimate child is because taking such testimony is part of Martha’s responsibility as a midwife. Much of Martha’s trouble with her children comes when she feels they aren’t fulfilling their responsibility to her, not only leaving her without support but going against the example she has worked so hard to set for them.