Research leads to fascinating information that can’t all fit into a novel of reasonable length. As I was researching the life of Mary Brewster, I wondered what her experiences with pregnancy and delivery might have been like. Though I didn’t include much of this information in Mary Brewster’s Love Life: Matriarch of the Mayflower, I thought others might be curious about “The Many Pregnancies of Mary Brewster.” In honor of another approaching Mother’s Day and in recognition of the current heated debates about reproductive issues, I decided to share some of the research about what the many pregnancies of Mary Brewster might have been like.
Mary appears to have been typical of 16th and 17th century women. Born in Northern England around 1569, she died in modern Massachusetts on April 17, 1627. Around 1592 she married William Brewster in Scrooby, England. She was probably 23 when she married William. Her first son, Jonathan, was born August 12, 1593. Specific dates of her other children are not known. Even back then, parents were more likely to record the events in their first child’s life than future children.
Marriage in the 1500s
In Mary’s era, England’s legal age for marriage was 14 for men and 12 for women; though typically, men married between 20 and 30 years of age. Women generally married in their mid-20s, so Mary was in step with the customs of her day.
The first baby usually arrived a year or so later, as Jonathan did for William and Mary. Becoming a mother gave a wife status childless wives lacked. Children born outside marriage created both a social moral stigma and economic hardship for the mother. There was no social safety net to help her or her child. Should a wife fail to produce offspring, it was assumed the infertility was her fault.
Bearing children was a woman’s primary focus during her child-bearing years. However, having children was risky. Pregnancy and delivery have always included potential danger for both mother and child. It would be wonderful if every pregnancy resulted in a healthy newborn and a mother who lived to raise the child, but that has never been the reality. Today about 15 women die for every 100,000 who give birth. A century ago, the death rate was 600 deaths for every 100,000 births. In Mary Brewster’s era, the estimated death rate was double that. As many as one in three women died during their child-bearing years due to infections or other birth-related complications.
The Role of Midwives
Midwives played a crucial role in assisting mothers in birthing their babies. The term comes from a time when “mid” meant “with.” They learned their midwife skills from giving birth to their own babies, observing other midwives, and serving as apprentices to veteran midwives. Their teachers were usually their own mothers, grandmothers, and other women relatives.
Men were barred from the birthing room. If possible, the birthing area was closed off with tapestries over the windows to block out as much light as possible, leaving a window open for fresh air. People back then thought too much light might damage the mother’s eyes. Religion played an important role in giving birth. The mother would likely have asked her priest to pray for a safe delivery and would have had various religious items around the room to give her spiritual comfort. The thinking was to create a womb-like experience for her as she brought her baby from her own womb.
Three of the other women aboard the Mayflower with Mary Brewster were in their third trimesters when the ship sailed. Elizabeth Hopkins, Susanna White, and Mary Allerton all delivered while still living on the ship. Given that Mary had been through labor and delivery herself six times by the time of the voyage, she would have surely served as midwife to the Mayflower mothers when it was their time to deliver their infants. The mortality rate among the three pregnant women was 33%. Mary Allerton delivered a stillborn infant and died herself shortly after, likely from infection.
The Dilemma of Childbirth
It seems ironic that the act of giving birth is fraught with potentially fatal consequences when the survival of the species depends on birthing each new generation. Human infants are born helpless and remain so for years. Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth and her colleagues have concluded that carrying a fetus for those final few months “is like being an incredibly good athlete.” Dunsworth lists several factors that make childbirth dangerous: exhaustion, risk of infectious diseases, long labor, and obstructed labor in which the baby isn’t properly positioned for birth.
The biggest danger to an expectant mother is infection. Before medical professionals understood germs, people suspected childbirth fever was contagious. Hemorrhaging was also often a contributing factor when a woman died in childbirth or shortly after.
Until sometime in the late 1800s delivering babies was almost always women’s work. Medical schools offered little instruction in obstetrical care. However, as the medical profession began to expand, doctors began to replace midwives, and institutional birth edged out home births. Randi Hunter Epstein writes in Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, “Before forceps, babies stuck in the birth canal were dragged out by the doctor, often in pieces. Sometimes midwives cracked the skull, killing the newborn but sparing the mother. Sometimes doctors broke the public bone, which often killed the mother but spared the baby.”
Labor and Delivery as a Revenue Stream
Once caring for pregnant women became a lucrative medical practice, doctors replaced midwives, and hospitals replaced homes. Ironically in the first decades of the 20th century, the maternal mortality rate was higher for wealthier women than poorer women. This may have been because doctors tended to wealthier women in hospitals while midwives cared for poorer women at home.
As far as my research has revealed so far, Mary Brewster raised to adulthood five of the six children she birthed. Given the length of time between a couple of her pregnancies, she may have had other pregnancies that miscarried or resulted in a stillborn birth. We do not have that information, as that information has not been recorded anywhere I’ve discovered. Pregnancy was a private affair, and women seldom recorded their experiences. Miscarriages and stillborn births were common in her era and not all that uncommon in our own times. Midwives likely tended to Mary at home for each of her babies’ births. When her daughters married and had their babies in the fledgling Plimoth Plantation, they surely delivered with the help of the older women in the colony.
I wonder what their reactions would be to the vitriolic discourse taking place today around issues of pregnancy, labor, and delivery.
Mary Brewster’s Love Life and Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures: available wherever books are sold. Bookshop.org/Mayflower; Mary Brewster
Amazon.com/Mary Brewster’s Love Life
BarnesandNoble/MaryBrewster Autographed copies available at my website.