Reading is at its best when it is not only entertaining, but enlightening, instructional and thought-provoking. When it takes one outside of one’s self and one’s small circle of thinking. I just finished a book like that, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, by Laural Thatcher Ulrich. The book uses excerpts from Martha Ballard’s diary, fills out her story with rich detail culled from meticulous research and adds in information about the politics, social norms and mores of the time period in which she kept her diary (1785-1812 – what a time period in which to live, no?).
Martha Ballard was a wife and mother, but also a very successful midwife in a small Maine town. Her diary is terse, with that interesting and moving target of spelling so peculiar to that time period and is a record book that keeps track of the births and deaths to which she’s attended, epidemics that swept through her town as well as notes on her daily activities as wife and mother. She keeps track of when she was paid and how much and tallies the number of babies she helped bring into the world. She was a woman who, to use 21st Century terminology, had it all. She literally brought home the bacon.
It’s exhausting just reading about her days. Her diary is filled with activities: tending to sheep, pigs and turkeys; making candles and spinning wool and sewing clothes; brewing beer and making “flower” (flour) bread; cleaning her pantry, hauling wood, weeding, planting and harvesting her productive garden; raising her children and tending grandchildren and seeing that her husband had what he needed to go off on his long surveying trips. She regularly bartered for both services and goods, sold seeds, shared her oven and loom with neighbors and acted as mistress to a myriad of young, female apprentices. She did all of these things along with her duties as midwife. Called at all hours of the day and night and in good weather and bad she crossed frozen rivers, climbed steep hills, fell off of horses and got stuck in mud – but she reached her patients and tended to them with skill, confidence and tender care. Except for the few moments when she could scribble brief notes in her diary, Martha had no Me Time. Undoubtedly the concept of Me Time would have puzzled her. It probably would have seemed to her the ultimate of selfishness and pride. Martha’s whole existence was about being in service to others. To bring comfort and healing and to raise the next generation.
Which makes those occasions when I slip into self-pity at not having enough time to read, write, workout, practice yoga, putter in the kitchen or just gaze vacantly into space all the more ridiculous and embarrassing. Yes, I cook and clean and tend (barely) to a garden and have 10,000 little tasks that need attention every day – but – is not most of my time really Me Time? Hasn’t life become so convenient that all of the things I need to do can be done quickly and efficiently? In addition to deciding what goes on our plates three times each day, do I have to worry about typhoid fever, measles and intestinal worms? About not having enough food because the year’s harvest was poor? About a lack of fuel to warm my home or cook my meal? Or how about having to make my own clothes – from animal/plant to weaving the fabric? Looking at it that way, I’m lousy with Me Time.
Martha’s diary makes me grateful for many things. I’m grateful that I was not born in the 18th Century, for one. I’m grateful for antibiotics and vaccines; bandages that stay on when wet, sutures that dissolve and for doctors who no longer bleed our bodies when our bodies can least afford to be bled. I’m grateful for 24-hour grocery stores, telephones and daily showers; fresh and abundant food, lights by which to read at night; furnaces and A/Cs, a house absent of fleas; indoor toilets and a stove I don’t need to stoke each morning. What would Martha think of all of these riches? Unnecessary luxuries, probably.
I now try to keep Martha in mind as I go about my day. When I find myself slipping into self-pity, I think about her being woken at 2 in the morning in deepest, coldest winter to attend to a birth, how tired and sore she must’ve been after her full days or about how time-consuming the preparation of one meal for houseful of people had to be. A little mental slap in the face. A reminder about how good I have it, how easy my life really is.