What is it that historians do when they begin a project? They clear a shelf and fill it with books. My retirement shelf now holds a bunch of books on aging, ageism, and culture, several Dummies books on financial planning and navigating social security, and a few books on age in history and the history of retirement. Recently I’ve moved to this small retirement collection a book that has long had a place on other project shelves. When I first read A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich I read it for the description of Martha Ballard’s work as a midwife in rural Maine during the late eighteenth century and the ways Ulrich reconstructed a story of medicine, family, and community from scraps of diary entries that to other historians had given little. It was a teaching tool for my history of medicine course. Now, however, it is Ulrich’s poignant description of Ballard’s last years that strikes a cord.
Martha’s last years were marked by her “retirement” from midwifery (the ways her practice slowed only to pick up during the last years of her life when another midwife died), her fatigue and physical ailments, her growing loss of independence, her battles with her children as she became more and more reliant on their help, the tensions that developed when “son Jonathan” and his young family, needing more living space, decided to move into her home, and the garden she planted each spring that provided as sense of order to her life as it sustained her existence. I have long been interested in the history of parent-child relations but Ulrich’s story of parents and children in old age was one I had paid little attention to, either as a historian, a child, or a parent. And, it is ironic that as I first read those stories from Martha’s old age I was not drawn to memories of my own childhood in a home shared by a great-grandmother (and her sister for 6 months each year), a grandmother, two parents, and a younger sister. It was a childhood in which generational tensions were just below the surface of my consciousness to become visible to me only much later. My sister and I ferret them out now, much as Ulrich dug the fears, tensions, and conflicts out of Martha’s diary.
The “retirement” I have been promised (would that be “sold?”) is so different from Martha Ballard’s retirement years. “Retirement” for this 18th century woman did not beckon with promises of a transformative break, lots of leisure activities, and many opportunities for growth. And of course she received no social security payments from the federal government nor did she have a pension plan to meet her financial needs. Her retirement was a gradual process marked by growing physical incapacity to carry out the tasks of life in rural Maine. Her “retirement” moment came not with freedom from work, but with loss of independence when she lived with “son Jonathan” and his wife Sally. My grandmother, however, shared much with Martha; she was the family cook, she had a busy social life, daily visiting with neighbors daily and talking with friends on the phone. She minded the young ones while parents worked, and she planted a garden every spring. She may have owned the building we lived in, but I see now how her loss of independence was marked by moves to different parts of the house as my sister and I grew up and were given rooms of our own.
Though my retirement will not look like Martha’s, I empathize now with her trials in ways I could not on first reading Ulrich’s story and I see more clearly the difficult family relationships that marked my childhood. We’ve heard quite a bit about the emotional and financial burdens placed on today’s sandwiched generation raising children and caring for parents at the same time. Martha’s story and that of my grandmother speak to the ways those caught between the young and the old coped in earlier eras. But, they also speak to those of us who now are Marthas, those, like me, who contemplate finding a home in retirement with my daughter. I can anticipate some of the financial tangles that might emerge and plan for ways to both separate and co-mingle household expenses. And we are working on questions about the physical space. But I fear, as I reread Martha’s story, that neither my daughter nor I have thought through the emotional implications of this move. Martha was frustrated and self-pitying, thought her family insensitive, wanted to help but clearly needed help herself; her family in turn found her intransigent and wanted more from her that she was prepared to, or able to, give. I want a different ending for diary entries about life in my daughter’s household. Creating a multi-generational household is going to require more that an examination of budgets and blueprints and I hope we are up to the task.