The First Four Years; Chapter 2: Section 7

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?





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16 comments on “The First Four Years; Chapter 2: Section 7
  1. Marie says:

    Wow, Naomi! What wonderful questions/speculations you raise! I, too, wondered why a doctor was called. My (much older, ha-ha) sister was born in rural Alabama in 1949 without the aid of doctor, just my grandma and aunts. It didn’t make sense to me that Laura had a doctor for Rose, but now it does. Great job! You gave us much to think about. 🙂

    • J. Dorer-Russell says:

      I think that laura (and Rose ) both tried to write the stories of the Little House books in a way that children would understand and enjoy them for years to come…so not much about actual birth was mentions or other things that happened that could have been “scary” for a child….like when Almanzo and Laura both were sick with Diptheria (sp) and Rose hadn’t taken the disease with her when she went to live with the Ingallls while Laura & Almanzo recovered with the crudest of care is how Laura put it.
      I still at 62 yrs old read those books and love them…..My favorites are These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years, The Long Winter & Farmer Boy. My least favorite is Little Town on The Prairie for some reason.

  2. Michelle says:

    I agree, lots to think about. Like that clock – why on earth were they spending money on a CLOCK of all things? (like in the last post the mention of “machinery” – what machinery? all you need is a plow, you broadcast the grain, you harvest with a mower that even Pa could afford, & then you wait for the threshing crew to show up & pay them on shares. More money being spent……..!)

  3. Becky Harris says:

    Wow, never thought I’d spend so much time pondering Laura’s pelvis! But great thoughts. I was so excited when I found out that Laura and I were born on the same day. And she lived in Missouri and I was born there, so clearly kindred spirits! The clock is unnecessary and financially unwise, but I love the story about Almanzo winding it every day of his life.

  4. Adkmilkmaid says:

    Great post! I assumed Rose was so large, especially out of such a little Half-Pint, because she was overdue. Babies gain a pound a week in the last days so if Rose was two weeks late (not uncommon) that would explain it.

  5. TLynn says:

    Is there any chance the story about Mrs Boast asking to take Rose was actually “borrowed” from the real life event of the lady in Burr Oak asking to take Laura? I know casual adoption was not uncommon, but two offers involving the same person seems a little too common.

  6. Becky says:

    This is fascinating, thank you!

  7. Tammie says:

    I have also heard that the Boasts (per Nancee Cleaveland who has studied LIW extensively) were not as young as portrayed in the books. I believe there was a news article in De Smet in 1989 about a party celebrating the Boasts 20th wedding anniversary. So, they were not a young couple in fact.

  8. Tammie says:

    Oops I meant an 1889 article. LOL.

    • naomi says:

      The Frontier Girl site says that Rob Boast was born in 1848, so he would have been around 30 when we met him, and around 38 by the time of this book. It doesn’t note Ellie’s age, but does say that they married in 1869, so yes, they had been married a while.

  9. Melissa says:

    Very interesting, Naomi!

  10. Becky Harris says:

    I guess if they had been married for close to 20 years with no children it would be reasonable to assume they wouldn’t be having any of their own.

  11. Sparkysweet says:

    In regards to Ma & Pa scolding Almanzo & Laura well for taking Rose out sleighing in the cold weather…I remember reading on another website that a relative of Pa & Ma Ingalls had a baby that froze/smothered to death when the parents took the baby out in the winter. I think the woman’s name was Lillian. Her husband was related to Charles or Caroline Ingalls. All the children of this poor couple died. The woman lost her mind & her husband put her in an asylum. I believe I read this info on the Pioneer Girl website but I couldn’t double check this story as the website would not let me in.

  12. naomi says:

    Happy birthday, Rose!

  13. Stephen tate says:

    Happy birthday rose !! Thank you for pointing that out!

  14. Jackie says:

    I have been reading this and I learned a lot! I believe it was common sense that Laura didn’t have anymore children after her second baby was her health and women still were at risk of dying. Honestly Her Uncle Hiram and Aunt Docia( Charles sister) had 7 Daughters! I have seen a beautiful picture of them and I wonder how she survived? When I know women did pass away due to complications even after all those kids. I have a link just paste in the browser to view. Pioneer women are strong in that way in giving birth and knowing they or the child won’t live. The girls are cousins? Of Laura’s and they range in age from 6 till 18! I know in the books Ma’s sister and pa’s brother married and they have three children that were mentioned but I forgot them.