Maria the Midwife

Seventy-seven years ago on February 15, 1934, Maria Thorsen Estenson’s obituary appeared in The Whitehall Times. She had died at the age of 81 years after a cold turned into pneumonia. What fascinated me about her, this mother to our grandmother Gina, was that she had served many times as midwife. Let the impressive words of the obituary speak for themselves:

During this period [her life with Bertinus] she also managed to find time to go out and help neighbors, friends who needed her assistance. Having had some experience in the profession as a mid-wife in Norway, she soon found that her services were demanded here. The exact number of cases that she attended is not definitely known but a conservative estimate would be between 200 and 300. It may be said to her credit that she must have been efficient as among the great number of cases she attended not one mother died during confinement.

Two to three hundred births and no deaths of the mother: I am impressed! Born in 1850, Maria had come to America in 1876, so she had an early start to her special work. Clara Cook writes in Homestead (p. 15) that Maria’s first American case was in 1887, a son born to Ole and Nettie Stendahl. I decided I had to do a little investigation of the history of midwifery.

One source about midwifery in Wisconsin indicated that about half the births in Wisconsin between 1850 and 1905 were attended by a midwife. Immigrants were the large group with this domestic skill of assisting other women in childbirth, and it was often learned by their own birth experience as well as relatives’ or friends’. Many midwives were middle-aged women who still had children of their own at home. Rather than an income-producing activity, midwifery was usually practiced as a form of mutual aid among rural women. Apparently most women who practiced had few cases, one or two a month, often among neighbors or friends and always in the same ethnic group. The writer of the article indicates these women expected some payment for their work. (Maybe payment was like this: Clara wrote [p. 16] that her mother Gina had the help of a neighbor woman after her newborn twins became very ill; Emil’s payment to the neighbor was a young pig.)

The practice of midwifery goes back to ancient times with at least a couple biblical references and others in the Roman age. Sometimes the history took dark turns: midwifery nearly disappeared during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance when Midwives were accused of witchery and the surgeons took over the role of childbirth. Many of these women patients died, however, because the doctors delivered the baby without washing their hands from an earlier body dissection. Over time, the role of midwifery once again established itself as an important role.

I think Maria’s role is a proud part of our family history, worth remembering and writing about.

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