Thursday, December 27, 2012

Some Things Never Change

I've been reading A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and there have been several points at which I thought, "Oooh, I need to blog about that!" Today, that inclination and spare time coincided, so I'm hoping I'll remember some of the things I've found so meaningful as I've been reading.

I love this book. The first chapter was pretty deadly, but every one following has been very informative and engaging. What I like best about the book is Ulrich's ability to take the seemingly trivial entries in Ballard's diary and pull them together to give a picture of Ballard's life and, by extension, the lives of women during the late 18th and early 19th centuries on the American frontier (both when it was young and as it matured). As a trained rhetorician, I am dazzled by Ulrich's scholarship - the work she must have done to pull all this together is mind-boggling! As a writer, I am so grateful to have this resource that looks at the ordinary aspects of a woman's life. As a reader, I am touched by the way Ulrich brings Martha Ballard out of the obscurity of 200 years ago and creates her as a living, breathing human. I suppose that is one of the things that most affects me about this book - despite the 200-year time interval, Martha Ballard could be one of any number of women I know. Why, I may even become Martha Ballard some day!

At first, I was reading for the differences between life in 18th-century Maine and the 21st century. The first thing that really stood out to me was the chapter when Ulrich was writing about Martha's doctoring a number of people for the "canker rash." Several of those people died, despite Martha's best efforts. Martha also lost her first patient ever to childbed fever. Ulrich goes on to explain the "canker rash" was scarlet fever, caused by a variety of streptococcus bacteria that also caused the childbed (puerperal) fever. It dawned on me (don't laugh) that she was talking about what we so casually call "strep," that annoying little infection that gives sore throats. Now, I know there are still some serious consequences to streptococcus, especially the resistant strains, but for the most part, we aren't really afraid of strep anymore. We go to the doctor and get an antibiotic, and everything is fine. We certainly don't see epidemics of strep throat that kill 15 percent of the patients (which is what happened to Martha that summer). Our "victory" over streptococcus is relatively recent, though; one of the stories my mother tells of her childhood recounts a bout of scarlet fever that nearly killed her when she was very young (two or three years old). That would have been less than 70 years ago.

I also liked reading the section in which Ulrich contrasted the work Martha did as a midwife and the way the male doctors in town related to her. Eventually, as medicine became more "professional," the men who were doctors devalued the work the midwives did and pushed them to the side as "non-professional." This is another thread that is especially interesting to me as a student of rhetoric. The doctors were able to use rhetoric and influence to completely change the way the public viewed midwives, while simultaneously building up their own position as healers. Ulrich does a good job of showing how the services each type of healer provided were not necessarily equivalent; while the male doctors came and examined the patient and recommended treatment, Martha was much more hands-on. She would sit up with the patient through the night; if the patient died, she was usually involved in preparing the body for burial. The midwife was involved with the patient's life (and possibly death) in a way the "professional" doctor wasn't willing to be.

What has been most striking to me recently, though, is Martha's relationship with her family, particularly as she aged. Throughout the book, Ulrich quotes passages in which Martha laments how "fatigued" she is from her work. Of course we would expect her to be fatigued since she's getting up in the middle of the night to go off and help deliver a baby. But it seemed to me that Martha was much more likely to complain of fatigue when she was experiencing emotionally-upsetting events. One chapter discusses the reality of the proverb, "Man may work from sun to sun, but woman's work is never done." Martha seems to have had a "martyr" streak, which led her to do things for her husband while ignoring her own needs (and then complaining about no one noticing she needed something, ha ha). What's funny about it is I hear myself saying and thinking the same kinds of things today ("I never have time to do what I want because I'm always having to go to something for the husband or kids...."). It was sort of bittersweet to read that chapter. On the one hand, I can see Martha was playing the "martyr" card, but on the other, I know what was happening. She was taking care of everyone else, while everyone else was definitely taking her for granted. Poor Martha.

The sympathy I felt for her was even stronger after I finished another chapter this morning. Poor Martha was over 70 years old at this point. Her midwife career was dwindling, and her husband had been jailed for debt (because as tax collector, he hadn't collected all the taxes due for the town). Although she was still able to take care of herself fairly well, there were also ways in which she was dependent on her grown children - in getting firewood, for example. Yet her children were too busy with their own families to remember Martha as much as she needed (or wanted). Things were even worse when one of her sons and his family moved into her house. Then she was a sort of prisoner in her own way, staying in her room to avoid the large, noisy batch of grandchildren and the inevitable conflicts with her daughter-in-law. By the end of the chapter, Martha's husband had finally been released from jail (he spent more than a year in a semi-restrictive situation - he could move about most of the town during the day, but had to sleep at the jail), and her son and his family were moved into their own new house. But I still felt sorry for Martha, probably because of something I read on Facebook the other day. It was a poem that was supposedly written by an old man in a nursing home, basically saying, "You ignore me, but I used to have a life just like you do." Now, I don't know if that story is true, but the truth is, it could be. As people get older, the world rushes past them to belong to the younger generations, who are so preoccupied with their own lives that they don't often take much time to notice their parents and grandparents.

Maybe I'm super-sensitive to that theme because my son will be leaving home in the next few months to go to college, and I know the biggest part of my job as his parent will be over. I know grown people still need their parents, but he will never need us in the same way he once did ever again - the shift of the world's focus is starting. Oh, well. It's nothing new, as Martha's diary points out.

But it makes me think I should resolve to go visit my parents more in 2013!


Ephemera said...

Glad you're back!

Augustina Peach said...

I think you would like this book.