A midwife’s tale, the life of Martha Ballard

Martha Moore Ballard in uniform
"Martha Ballard Moore was born in 1735 in the small central Massachusetts town of Oxford, but the real story of her life begins in Maine with the diary she kept from age fifty. Without the diary her biography would be little more than a succession of dates. Her birth in 1735. Her marriage to Ephraim Ballard in 1754. The births of their nine children in 1756, 1758, 1761, 1763, 1765, 1767, 1769, 1772, 1779, and the deaths of three of them in 1769. Her own death in 1812.

“The notice of Martha Ballard’s death in a local paper summed up her life in just one sentence: “Died in Augusta, Mrs. Martha, consort of Mr. Ephraim Ballard, aged 77 years.” Without the diary we would know nothing of her life after the last of her children were born, nothing of the 816 deliveries she performed between 1785 and 1812. We would not even be certain she had been a midwife.”

 --from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale

above quote from Laurel Ulrich repeated in graphic

Martha Ballard Diary

Through Martha Ballard’s diary, however, we can learn a great deal about her life as a healer and midwife, mother and wife. We come to realize that Martha Ballard was a respected member of the community, depended upon by the inhabitants of Hallowell, Maine from 1785 until she died in 1812. Through her diary, we can also glimpse the lives of the town’s other inhabitants–the ordinary people who are normally invisible to us when we look back into the past. Her diary enriches, deepens, and complicates our understanding of everyday life in early America.

Martha Ballard looking away
Picture of Martha Ballard

Though Martha seldom mentions deep friendships in her diary, she relies heavily upon her connections to people in her community. One of the most significant elements in her diary is her chronicle of neighbors she visits with and those who visit her. The interaction itself, not the reason for the visit, is what matters to Martha Ballard, and sometimes she makes no mention of why the visit takes place. Her midwifery is the greatest example and facilitator of these connections, giving a wide variety of people a reason to reach out to Martha and ask her for help. Martha is a popular midwife, and her delivery and nursing take her to most of the community.

When the Purrinton murders strike the community, Martha focuses on the neighbors’ actions instead of on the crime itself and describes how together they deal with the dead and help the survivor. When Martha becomes increasingly homebound, her isolation from the rest of the community bothers her a great deal, and she begins deliberately passing along the produce from her garden to reach out to the community once again.

Though contact with others is vital for Martha, she also needs to maintain authority over her own life. Midwifery gives Martha the chance to make her own decisions, spend considerable time away from home, and work with only the eyes of the community as supervision. Unlike most jobs available to women, midwifery provides a salary equal to her husband’s and the chance to manage it independently, both of which help Martha gain greater autonomy in her marriage.

Martha clashes with the local doctors only when they try to deny her ability to make intelligent, skilled decisions on her own, and though she acknowledges their skills, she does her best to avoid working with them. Martha’s need for autonomy also contributes to making the later years of her life difficult. Without the responsibility and constructive effort of midwifery, she feels she has lost the ability to control her own life.

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