Childbirth in colonial America was a difficult and sometimes dangerous experience for women. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 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."
In addition to her anxieties about pregnancy, an expectant mother was filled with apprehensions about the death of her newborn child. In the Colonial era, parents loved their children but still held them somewhat at a distance emotionally. After all, children weren't expected to live long. The infant mortality rate was between 25 and 50 percent. In the healthiest communities, one infant in ten died before the age of five. In less healthy environments, three children in ten died before their fifth birthday. If a child made it to the "magic age" of eleven, he or she had a good chance of living a long time.
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 down meat.
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. Most women were assisted in childbirth not by an doctor but by a midwife. 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."
Most midwives were older women who relied on practical experience in delivering children. 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.
For the first few months, infants were tightly bound in swaddling linen from ankles to neck. Parents feared that without swaddling clothes, the child would not grow straight. The infant remained swaddled day and night. Infants slept with their parents, and extended crying was seen as beneficial, as it exercised their lungs.
The Worland Family in America and Beyond
I began my life in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, on an island filled with forests and wild rhododendrons. I was separated from my Worland family there at an early age. Recently, I was reunited with my family and learned of my heritage. And so, this journey to know my ancestors began. The Worlands, Gideons, Newtons, Conards... they were the colonists, the settlers, the pioneers. They fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War. This is their story, and the story of a nation. -Deci Worland MacKinnon