The midwives' tales


When Martha Ballard -- a midwife and healer -- started her diary in 1785, it is unlikely that she understood the significance of this seemingly mundane action. Very few women of her day left behind any sort of written record of their lives, but Ballard wrote nearly 10,000 journal entries. They record, with minimal introspection or reflection, all that would go into a standard New England daybook of its time: debts contracted; payments received; "yards got out" of her loom; varieties of beans she'd planted. She also methodically recorded all her midwife deliveries and accounts. According to the biographer who rescued Midwife Ballard from historical obscurity, the few historians over the centuries who knew about Ballard's diary dismissed it as insignificant. One called it "not of general interest"; another found it "trivial and unimportant." In her book, "A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812," Laurel Thatcher Ulrich urges us to see its rightful importance: "(I)t is in its dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard's book lies."

Ballard, who kept her diary for 27 years, delivered 814 babies in what was then the Maine district of the Massachusetts frontier. She traveled on foot, by boat, and by horseback -- through swarms of black flies, deep snow, and unforgiving mud -- to assist laboring women in the settlements along the Kennebec River near Ballard's home. "For her," says Ulrich, "living was to be measured in doing. Nothing was trivial." This is also true about Lois Tresize, the nurse midwife at Brattleboro OB-GYN who attended at the births of both my children. Like Ballard, Tresize has delivered hundreds of babies in her 30-plus year career. And similarly, by attending to women in labor -- like that 18th century Maine midwife -- Tresize has "her finger on the pulse of the world" in which she lives.

Ballard's journal reveals snippets about pregnancies out of wedlock and hasty marriages; bits about debtors' prisons and wives left to manage households alone; details about animal husbandry and references to the many medicinal herbs she used to treat numerous patients. Ulrich aptly reflects that if there is a "problem" with Ballard's diary for historians, it is not that it is trivial. Instead, (I)t introduces more stories than can easily be recovered and absorbed Taken alone, such stories tell us too much and not enough, teasing us with glimpses of intimate life, repelling us with a reticence we cannot decode." However, when placed in the broader, richer context of 18th century American history, Ulrich explains, the journal helps to complete a tremendously complex portrait of what it meant to be a woman during this period of profound political revolution and remarkable economic, medical, and sexual transformation.

As Lois Tresize eases out of her midwife and OB-GYN practice, a colleague of hers told me that Tresize intends to go back through her records to calculate how many babies she helped to delivered, how many women she's attended to over the years. Surely, as she reflects on these women and their rich and varied stories, she will become a social scientist and historian. Tresize has seen the ravages of the obesity epidemic, the pernicious effects of addiction to nicotine and alcohol, and the nearly ceaseless cycles of poverty -- all revealed through her patients' ordeals and predicaments. Yet, she also simultaneously holds incalculable stories of devoted love and selfless care. I wish I could hear Tresize's candid reflections on her three decades of attending to women, their families, and -- in a much more honest and complete sense -- our entire community.

We'll never know what Ballard's patients thought of her skill or her bedside manner, although her very busy practice is certainly adequate evidence of their trust. But it's easy to ascertain Tresize's reputation in this county. Whenever I mention her name to friends, acquaintances, colleagues and neighbors, the response is immediate, unreserved and certain. I always know what's coming: With a huge grin, inevitably the person exclaims, "Lois? We love Lois!" Indeed it is always "Lois" -- even from some doctors, nurses and physician's assistants. Many garble her last name or can't recall it without assistance. It is not disrespect; Lois transcends the need for this formality. She's like Madonna or Cher -- without the revealing costumes or outrageous behavior. Just say "Lois" and it conjures the image of this formidable woman who enfolds, holds, and sustains women and new families through her unwaveringly attentiveness and exceptional skill.

To say that "she'll be missed" is like claiming that I only mildly appreciate French éclairs. It is not hyperbole when we murmur that many of us don't know what we'll do without her.

Martha Ballard's diary was passed down through her descendants and eventually landed in the hands of her great-great-granddaughter, Mary Hobart, who became one of the first female physicians in the United States. Because of meticulous records, we also know that Hobart was the very first woman ever admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society. Like her great-great-grandmother, she felt a compelling call to be a healer.

Protected by HIPAA privacy rules though they are, we have prodigious written records of Lois' work -- even those confounded, dreaded electronic records she abhors. But the richer stuff, the oral stories of her gifts, will assuredly circulate freely long after her retirement. She delicately and ably balanced the tedium and heroism intrinsic in her work as a midwife, and in doing so exquisitely honored the life and work of every parent.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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