to The History of Private Life
When the Mayflower left Plymouth,
England, September 16, 1620, on its historic voyage to the New
World, three of its 102 passengers were pregnant. Elizabeth Hopkins
and Susanna White were each in their seventh month of pregnancy.
Mary Norris Allerton was in her second or third month.
Their pregnancies must have been
excruciatingly difficult. After a few days of clear weather, the
Mayflower ran into "fierce storms" that lasted for six
of the voyage's nine-and-a-half weeks. For days on end, passengers
were confined to the low spaces between decks, while torrential
winds blew away clothing and supplies and the ship tossed and
rolled on the heavy seas.
While the ship was still at sea,
Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth to a baby boy named Oceanus after
his birthplace. Two weeks later, while the Mayflower was anchored
off Cape Cod, Susanna White also had a baby boy. He was christened
Peregrine, a name that means "pilgrim." Peregrine White
would live into his eighties, but Oceanus Hopkins died during
the Pilgrim's first winter in Plymouth. In the spring of 162l,
Mary Norris Allerton died in childbirth; her baby was stillborn.
Childbirth in colonial America
was a difficult and sometimes dangerous experience for women.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, between 1 percent
and 1.5 percent of all births ended in the mother's death as a
result of exhaustion, dehydration, infection, hemorrhage, or convulsions.
Since the typical mother gave birth to between five and eight
children, her lifetime chances of dying in childbirth ran as high
as 1 in 8. This meant that if a woman had eight female friends,
it was likely that one might die in childbirth.
Death in childbirth was sufficiently
common that many colonial women regarded pregnancy with dread.
In their letters, women often referred to childbirth as "the
Dreaded apperation," "the greatest of earthly miserys,"
or "that evel hour I loock forward to with dread." Many,
like New England poet Anne Bradstreet, approached childbirth with
a fear of impending death. In a poem entitled "Before the
Birth of One of Her Children," Bradstreet wrote,
How soon, my Dear, death may
my steps attend,
How soon't may be thy lot to lose thy friend.
addition to her anxieties about pregnancy, an expectant mother
was filled with apprehensions about the death of her newborn child.
The death of a child in infancy was far more common than it is
today. In the healthiest seventeenth century communities, one
infant in ten died before the age of five. In less healthy environments,
three children in ten died before their fifth birthday. Puritan
minister Cotton Mather saw eight of his fifteen children die before
reaching the age of two. "We have our children taken from
us," Mather cried out, "the Desire of our Eyes taken
away with a stroke."
Given the high risk of birth complications
and infant death, it is not surprising to learn that pregnancy
was surrounded by superstitions. It was widely believed that if
a mother looked upon a "horrible spectre" or was startled
by a loud noise her child would be disfigured. If a hare jumped
in front of her, her child was in danger of suffering a harelip.
There was also fear that if the mother looked at the moon, her
child might become a lunatic or sleepwalker. A mother's ungratified
longings, it was thought, could cause an abortion or leave a mark
imprinted on her child's body. At the same time, however, women
were expected to continue to perform work until the onset of labor,
since hard work supposedly made for an easier labor. Pregnant
women regularly spun thread, wove clothing on looms, performed
heavy lifting and carrying, milked cows, and slaughtered and salted
Today, most women give birth in
hospitals under close medical supervision. If they wish, women
can take anesthetics to relieve labor pangs. During the seventeen
and eighteenth centuries, the process of childbirth was almost
wholly different. In colonial America, the typical woman gave
birth to her children at home, while female kin and neighbors
clustered at her bedside to offer support and encouragement. When
the daughter of Samuel Sewall, a Puritan magistrate, gave birth
to her first child on the last day of January, 1701, at least
eight other women were present at her bedside, including her mother,
her mother-in-law, a midwife, a nurse, and at least four other
women were assisted in childbirth not by an doctor but by a midwife.
Most midwives were older women who relied on practical experience
in delivering children. One midwife, Martha Ballard, who practiced
in Augusta, Maine, delivered 996 women with only four recorded
fatalities. Skilled midwives were highly valued. Communities tried
to attract experienced midwives by offering a salary or a house
rent-free. In addition to assisting in childbirth, midwives helped
deliver the offspring of animals, attended the baptisms and burials
of infants, and testified in court in cases of bastardy.
During labor, midwives administered
no painkillers, except for alcohol. Pain in childbirth was considered
God's punishment for Eve's sin of eating the forbidden fruit in
the Garden of Eden. Women were merely advised to "arm themselves
with patience" and prayer and to try, during labor, to restrain
"those dreadful groans and cries which do so much discourage
their friends and relations that are near them."
After delivery, new mothers were
often treated to a banquet. At one such event, visitors feasted
on "boil'd pork, beef, flowls, very good rost beef, turkey-pye,
[and] tarts." Women from well-to-do families were then expected
to spend three to four weeks in bed convalescing. Their attendants
kept the fire place burning and wrapped them in a heavy blanket
in order to help them sweat out "poisons." Women from
poorer families were generally back at work in one or two days.
During the second half of the
eighteenth century, customs of childbirth began to change. One
early sign of change was the growing insistence among women from
well-to-do urban families that their children be delivered by
male midwives and doctors. Many upper class families assumed that
in a difficult birth trained physicians would make childbirth
safer and less painful. In order to justify their presence, physicians
tended to take an active role in the birth process. They were
much more likely than midwives to intervene in labor with forceps
Another important change was the
introduction in 1847 of two drugs - ether and chloroform - to
relieve pain in childbirth. By the 1920s, the use of anesthesia
in childbirth was almost universal. The practice of putting women
to sleep during labor contributed to a shift from having children
at home to having children in hospitals. In 1900, over 90 percent
of all births occurred in the mother's home. But by 1940, over
half took place in hospitals and by 1950, the figure had reached
substitution of doctors for midwives and of hospital delivery
for home delivery did little in themselves to reduce mortality
rates for mothers. It was not until around 1935, when antibiotics
and transfusions were introduced, that a sharp reduction in the
maternal mortality rate occurred. In 1900, maternal mortality
was about 65 times higher than it is today, and not much lower
than it had been in the mid-nineteenth century. By World War II,
however, death in childbirth had been cut to its present low level.
In recent years, a reaction has
occurred against the sterile impersonality of modern hospital
delivery. Women today are much more likely than their mothers
or grandmothers to want a "natural childbirth." Beginning
in the l960s, a growing number of women elected to bear their
children without anesthetics, so that they could be fully conscious
during childbirth. Many women also chose to have their husbands
or a relative or a friend present during labor and delivery and
to bear their children in special "birthing rooms" that
provide a home-like environment. In these ways, many contemporary
women have sought to recapture the broader support network that
characterized childrearing in the colonial past, without sacrificing
the tremendous advances that have been made in maternal and infant