Over the course of the 19th century, the average American woman gave birth to six children, not including children lost to miscarriages and stillbirths. There was no modern medical care so the women had frequent complications such as lacerations and permanent damage to their bodies. This made subsequent birth even more painful. In addition, most working-class women did not have the opportunity to rest and recover for very long after giving birth. They were expected to resume domestic chores and work, along with mothering the newborn infant.
A midwife usually assisted in births. The midwife could sometimes stay with the family for a few days following the birth. If the option of a midwife was unattainable financially, the pregnant woman would have to rely on relatives and neighbors to aid in the birth. They were likely to call in a physician only if a crisis arose during the birth. Midwives had a clear and important role in the 19th century. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explored this in her Pulitzer Prize winning book: A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, based on Ballard's diary that was written from 1785 through 1812. For 27 years, Ballard chronicled her daily tasks and her midwifery duties (she delivered close to one thousand babies) and countless incidents throughout her career. Although Ballard's career ended in the early 19th century, the practice of midwifery was largely unchanged until the late 19th century when people, especially the medical society, began to question the safety of the practice.
In 1847, the pain-relieving and anesthetic properties of ether and chloroform were discovered and used in America for childbirth for the first time. This began a new era in childbirth methods. Mothers could be relieved of pain in childbirth. This discovery led to increasing medical dominance in obstetrics, which had been almost exclusively in the hands midwives. It also led to medical and moral controversy that lasted for several decades. On one hand, women were destined to suffer due to the "curse of Eve" and were expected to experience pain during childbirth. On the other hand, humanitarians and the medical society believed that there were very good moral and technological reasons for controlling or eliminating pain in childbirth. Researchers have noted that upper-class mothers, with their education and liberal outlook, had a certain ambivalence towards motherhood. This influenced their attitudes toward the use of chloroform and the process of childbirth.
Caption: Woman receiving a gynecological examination