Guest post by Naomi
December 5th, we are told, is a bright and sunny day. Just the sort of day one might spot a Rose through the snow. But Laura doesn’t feel like playing outside in the snow. She would rather sit quietly by the stove. A most unusual fictional labor – more often they begin with the water breaking (usually in public), or the mother-to-be clutching her belly and screaming. But no, Laura just sits quietly by the stove. Yet, despite any evidence of actual labor, (is book-Laura just being stoic? Or does author-Laura not want to write in any detail about the labor? If indeed this book was intended for a more adult audience, that seems surprising.) Manly finally intuits that something is amiss, counts to 9 months, and goes to fetch Ma.
Ma is shocked to see Laura still up and around, and urges her to lie down and rest. But now Laura is restless, and seems to want to move around. Sounds like her labor is progressing nicely; women often want to stay up and moving at this time.
Eventually though Laura is happy enough to go to bed, and soon the town midwife is sent for. Mrs. Power, it seems, probably supplements her husband’s tailoring wages (and helps pay his saloon bills) by attending local births. Mrs. Power is cheerful and encouraging, but as labor becomes more intense, she suggests that they send for the doctor. The doctor soon arrives, un-named and barely seen, but bearing a bottle of chloroform – and soon Laura drifts away into ‘a blessed darkness.’
When she wakes, there is warm bundle by her side, a healthy 8 pound pink Rose.
Ma stays for a few days to help out, and then goes home, leaving the new little family alone, except for Hattie the Hired Girl who comes to help care for the baby. (Again, one wonders why Ma, or Carrie, or any of Laura’s many friends don’t pitch in, rather than expecting the Wilders to pay a hired girl.)
Christmas is celebrated quietly at home with the gift of a clock (a rather large and fancy clock for a small shanty – where did they find the room for it?).
A few days after Christmas on a day that ‘seemed unusually warm’, Laura decides to take the baby to visit the folks. No car seats and tethers in 1886/1887, but a warm nest of blankets under the dashboard seems to serve well enough. Though when they arrive she is roundly scolded by her parents for risking the baby freezing to death (according to Pa) or smothering (according to Ma.) And poor Laura is shocked to learn that there is more to taking care of babies than she thought. (An interesting conclusion, given that we are often told that, ‘back in those days’ women instinctively knew how to care for children, having helped to raise numerous younger siblings and cousins and neighbors’ children.)
If the risk of freezing or smothering isn’t enough, the next visit is even more distressing. They take Rose to see the Boasts, and the visit is initially very pleasant, with the Boasts fussing over the baby. But at the end of it, Mr. Boast proposes a deal that surely they’ll be unable to refuse – trade the baby for a horse. “You folks can have another baby and we can’t. We never can.”
When I was reading the books as a child, I remember being terribly excited to learn that Laura’s birthday was in February, just like mine. It made my Little-House-Make-Believe games even more real. 20-some years later, my own daughter was born just a few days after Rose’s birthday. And she might well have been named Rose. (Though not for Ms. Wilder-Lane, but for my own grandmother. Alas, my sister nabbed the name for HER daughter, so I had to choose something else.) And, one of my major interests is the history of childbirth practices and child-rearing. All of which meant that I knew I had to take this chapter/section.
One thing that had long puzzled me about the labor/birth scene was the presence of the doctor. At this time doctors were rarely involved in childbirth. Especially given the tight finances, for a young and healthy woman, a few experienced female friends or relatives, and possibly a midwife would have been the norm.
At first I thought that she may have added the doctor for the benefit of her readers. By the 1940’s most births (even those that happened at home) were attended by doctors. Only the very poor and the very rural used midwives. I thought that maybe Laura had reasoned that her readers would have been puzzled to read of a birth without a doctor, and thought it dangerous or ignorant. But upon closer reading this time, I suddenly had a revelation. “A beautiful baby, and she weighs just 8 pounds.” In other words, Rose was a big baby. (According to the clipping from the DeSmet paper, reproduced in “Laura’s Album” she weighed, in fact, 9 pounds.) And we know that Laura was a petite woman. Very likely too, like many women of her era, she may have had a narrow pelvis from tight corsets and an inadequate diet. So she was having a difficult labor – so difficult that the doctor was called in, Laura was given chloroform, and forceps were used to pull the baby out. This might also explain why she didn’t wake up from the anesthetic until quite some time after baby was born. (She seems to have slept through the third stage of labor.) Forceps often cause tears and other damage that would need to be repaired. So Laura would have stayed under the anesthetic until repairs were complete.
Looking ahead in the book, her second birth goes more smoothly … or at least more quickly and without the need for forceps. Of course second and subsequent labors are usually faster anyway, and the baby may have been smaller. But we might also speculate that baby being born through a small pelvis could have caused some brain damage … leading to the ‘spasms’ that killed the baby. Or possibly Laura had gestational diabetes, resulting in a very large baby for her first pregnancy (given her severe morning sickness, it’s hard to explain a 9 pound baby any other way), and low blood sugar after birth in Baby Boy Wilder, which can also cause poor feeding and seizures.
The other most significant event in the chapter/section is the visit to the Boasts. And it too brings up some interesting questions. While casual adoption was not unheard of at this time, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would think that this particular arrangement would be a good idea. How awkward it would have been for the Wilders to see the Boasts in town, or celebrate holidays with them, seeing their own baby being raised by another family. And the Ingalls would have been appalled as well. If the Boasts did want to adopt a child, there were plenty of other avenues. This was still the era of ‘orphan trains’, or the church could probably have found them a baby or child who truly needed a home. And yes, an older child would have been more sensible to adopt. Artificial feeding of infants was still fraught with difficulty – most babies who weren’t breastfed died.
Mrs. Boast’s infertility is another matter for consideration. How did they know ‘they could never have a baby?’ At this point they had been married for … what … 6 years? Surely too soon to give up completely in an era when fertility was poorly understood. But we know that In Real Life the Boasts had no children. We also know that Mrs. Boast suffered from crippling arthritis. Could it already be so bad that they could no longer … dance? Or perhaps she had Lupus, a multi-system disorder that often includes severe arthritis. Lupus can cause repeated miscarriages. (And so can rheumatoid arthritis, for that matter.) Could it be that after several difficult miscarriages the doctor advised them to stop trying?
And just one more comment – this was also about the era when some doctors were beginning to recommend that babies be fed on strict schedules. Could that have been the reason for the purchase of the more-accurate clock?