Sunday, January 01, 2006
Book Report
For the past few months, all I can seem to read are books like What to Expect When You're Expecting and Birthing from Within. I'll spare you reviews of these childbirth classics.

Over the holidays, I did finish reading one book not specifically about having a baby. Truth be told, I learned about the book from one of those childbirth web pages. But this is a book that is about more than "what to expect..." The book is A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. It's a fascinating look at life in the US colonies after the Revolutionary War, plus it gives all kinds of insights into social medicine and traditional midwife practices.

Martha Ballard delivered over 800 babies in her Maine community. She began keeping a journal of her practice after she'd delivered more than 100 babies. Her journal entries are short and to the point. She recounts the names and dates of a delivery, with a few swift notes about the outcome, plus what she was paid for her services. Along the way, she also keeps records of the weather, progress in her garden, and happenings around the house.

It takes a historian to sift through all the cryptic notes left in Martha's diary to piece together a more complete picture of midwife practices on the Maine frontier. Laura Thatcher Ulrich distills the journal entries to paint a larger picture of this person and her times. She begins each chapter with a month of journal entries from Martha's diary, then Ulrich builds on the themes from the month's journal to shed light on the aspects of midwifery practice and social conditions. By looking at the diary in overview, Ulrich is able to calculate how Martha's maternal mortality and stillbirth rates compared to her contemporaries. Notably, Martha's success rate was excellent, much higher than many hospitals during her day.

The book also sheds light on social changes during this period. Martha is practicing during a time when doctors begin taking over the childbirthing function, and Martha has complicated relationships with a couple of the local physicians. The book also points out the large number of "shot-gun weddings" and out-of-wedlock births that took place during this time. And like all working women, Martha struggles to work outside the home and balance the needs of her family. In her later years, Martha confides more to her journal about her frustrations about not getting any help around the house. As she notes, a woman's work is never done...

This is a fascinating read. I've read The Age of Homespun by the same historian, and I must say I enjoyed this book much more. The writing is lively--not too academic--and Martha's interesting life story carries the book along.


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