When the Mayflower left England, three pregnant women were aboard. Two of these mothers were seven months pregnant, one of them just three months along. They bravely faced the unknown and left England’s safe haven behind for the New World. One mom gave birth aboard the Mayflower while en route. The second mother gave birth once the ship arrived and had docked in New England. The third mother gave birth a few months later but unfortuately lost her life during childbirth. Her infant son was also lost. Only one child/mother pair survived. The child born while en route was lost during the first harsh New England Winter.
Life was very difficult indeed. Strict rules abounded regarding family life and there were little if any resources available to mothers for support and carrying out household duties. More often than not during the first tumultuous years one did not know from day to day if they would have enough food to even survive to the following sunrise. Leaning on faith and God were about all they had. The Pilgrims learned from the local Indians and relied heavily upon the land to provide them with resources. They ate ground nuts, killed local fowl, fished, and began to learn to plant crops with the Indian’s help.
Mothers were expected to be meek and demure, quiet and obedient, faithful and pure, to love their husbands as they loved Christ and their husbands were to be the Head of Household, to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and function as the religious and moral compass of the household. Children were strictly raised – even playing was seen as a sinful waste of time by the Puritans and children were even forbidden from playing on the Sabbath, perhaps an explanation of why children attended church sermons with their parents that often lasted six hours or more. Prayers were held twice daily, and the Bible was often the first book to which children were exposed. In fact, religion played such a large role in early American life that 80 percent of 17th century New Englanders had an Old or New Testament name. The name was often given at the baptism, something the Father of the family was responsible attending to when the child was two weeks old as “the mother at that time by reason of her travaile and delivery is weake and not in case to have her head troubled with much cares.” Nice to see they realized that mom needed a break even if it was from something as simple as baptizing her child.
Childbirth in early America was a difficult task as many children and mothers were lost during this time. Even in the healthiest of communities, 10 percent of children did not make it through their first year and three out of nine died before their 21st birthday. Yet families were large and a new child typically made an appearance every two to three years. Cotton Mather, a well known early preacher, saw eight out of his fifteen children pass away before the age of two. This loss came to be expected but still wrought the parents with grief. Puritan belief led that children were born into sin and were not innocent as is now believed therefore the loss of a child would seem to be that much harder – not being able to believe your child has gone to be with the Lord.
Wetnursing was popular but did not fade immediately. Weaning was also done quite differently than it is today – maternal illness, pregnancy, acquisition of teeth (which as you nursing mamas know can be VERY painful!), or conflicting constraints on a mother’s time were all legitmate reasons to wean. Reasons sound familiar – method was very different. Weaning was not done slowly as it is today. It was done quickly. Either the child or the mother would visit a relative’s home until the weaning process was over. Once the child had given up nursing altogether, the family used the child’s name rather than the lovely endearing term of “it.”
The long robes and petticoats children were dressed in served to encourage children to walk rather than crawl like animals. Sometimes even wooden dowels were strapped to children’s backs to aid in achievement of proper posture. Neck Stays were even used to keep infant’s heads upright. (OUCH!)
Pilgrim families had it rough and there is no denying that when you have mounds and mounds of text telling you so. But they survived. They survived harsh winters not knowing how they were going to feed their families. They survived the loss of their children, their homeland, their loved ones, their traditions. But out of this struggle a bright light shone through and enabled them to grip to hope and form new traditions, new lives, new family structures. They adapted and developed new ways of handling whatever difficulties traveled their way. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here today. If you take nothing else away from this article, take away this. Life isn’t about what happens to you. It’s about how YOU happen to life. The next time something difficult happens? Take the Pilgrim way out – dig in, grit your teeth, put your head down, and plow right through it. Tomorrow is a new day and if they did it, SO CAN YOU!
Domestical Duties by Willam Gouge, 1622
Wood’s New England Prospect by William Wood
Mayflower History.com: Families in Plymouth