Martha Ballard – Household Management

Colonial American Household

Yesterday I felt terribly discouraged by the state of my house. There is a washtub of clean laundry upstairs that has been sitting in  the bedroom for a week.  There were dirty dishes in the sink. I seemed to get one meal’s worth washed just before the next meal was prepared. The floor needs a scrubbing. My husband had left bedding in the living room after napping on the couch. I had stopped at the local garage because the check engine light was on; it is now the oxygen sensor that needs replacing. I am still suffering from hives and eczema; as soon as one area clears up, another erupts. I felt overwhelmed, tired and sick. (And as I write this, I got two calls – one from the landlady saying that we can borrow their tiller if we can pick it up Sunday – good news – and the second from Immigration saying they are still trying to fill in the gaps in my file.) I am weary of the constant battle with my own body, the pain and irritation; I am tired of being the only one who can cook and clean. Then as I sat down to write, my husband told me he needed my help to repair the barn door hasp that pulled loose last night because its base wood has rotted.

I am trying to finish fourteen sunbonnets, or at least six of them, to be mailed tomorrow when I take him to the doctor.

I have four or five important letters to write, and I have only started one of them.

I have four aprons to sew, three of them for other people, and three different patterns to copy or draft.

I feel like Martha Ballard, midwife in Augusta, Maine from 1785-1812. Here is an excerpt from her diary: 15 January 1778, “I returned home (from delivering a  baby) and find my house up in arms. How long God will preserve my strength as I have done of late he only knows.”

And that is exactly how I feel – as if my household is up in arms against me. Illness has sapped my strength and I am unable to subdue this unruly house, which is aided and abetted by a husband who does not see dust, dirty dishes and piles of laundry. I can understand that he does not see dust, with his low eyesight, but the dishes are visible to him, and instead of looking in a stack for clean clothes for his socks, he asks me for them.

As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich adds in her commentary on Martha’s diary entry: “Turn your back, and (the house) rippled into disorder. Chairs tipped. Candles slumped. Egg yolks hardened in cold skillets. Dust settled like snow. Only by constant effort could a woman conquer her possessions.”

Martha never quite settled this issue. She had daughters, but they married and moved. She had nieces, but they also went back to their families or formed new ones. She had a daughter-in-law nearby, but they did not get along well. She had hired girls, but they were more interested in visiting and walking out with the young men of the neighbourhood. Her husband, Ephraim, was a surveyor and millwright, and was often away from home. Her remaining sons worked in the mill, and seemed to have had the attitude that mama was their servant.

I don’t have family close at hand. My stepdaughter, sons and their helpmeets are a long way off. My sisters all live away. My mother is gone now. I am the mater familia. And I, like Martha Ballard, can’t seem to muster a squad to get the work done.

It will improve, I know. Warmer days and better health will eventually return. (I don’t expect the dear husband to change his ways though.) People here are too busy trying to make ends meet to spend time in aiding friends and neighbours in the ordinary, old-fashioned ways. I know that I will pay cash for plowing, for instance, rather than expecting a neighbour to come do it and reciprocating with my time and abilities.

As Martha wrote in her diary: A womans work is never Done as the Song says and happy shee whose strength holds out to the End of the rais.

(All quotes from A Midwife’s Tale: The life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Author, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, my copy is Vintage Books, June 1991.

And with no resolution or advice to give, I am ending here, because I have to go to the barn to find the new barrel clasps.


19 thoughts on “Martha Ballard – Household Management

  1. Courage and peace to you, my friend. No wonder your skin’s going mad, you’re stressed and exhausted and always worried about money, and there is nobody to help you. God hold and steady you, God strengthen and heal you, God send you the help you need. xxx

  2. With you in heart and spirit and prayer!
    Praise God we can know that pleasant days are ahead and wonderful days are ahead. 🙂

  3. I just today tried to explain to a far-away married daughter that I have given up on being a “proper housewife”. It has taken me 3 years out here in the forest to realize I do not have the strength or health to EVER get the whole house clean at once.
    With a dear chaos-creating man, 2 dogs who love the creeks, a shedding cat, and two flocks of chickens I am indeed trying to swim against the current when it comes to my ideal of a lovely and tidy home.

    My man does most of the gardening, in his chaotic way, as that is his passion. He works in town, and will for a few more years before he retires.
    I attempt to tend the house, which was 20 years deep in disaster before I ever got here, haha. I am slowly making progress here and there. I do the laundry, mending and sewing. We both cook, both do canning at harvest time.
    To help make ends meet I do some sewing and such, it does not bring me much money but every bit helps. I “earn” more by what I save with my thrifty skills most months than by what I earn in cash money.
    I also job hunt….but 15 miles from a large college town with 40,000 able bodied students the jobs for grannies are few and far between. Occasionally I am blessed with a few days or few weeks temporary work, and in between I’m here being a somewhat inept farmgirl.

    Like you I have fibromyalgia, and I am allergic to many of the growing things around us. Breathing is a challenge some days, and other days I feel fine, there is no pattern or predictability to this.

    I have concluded I will do what I can each day, and strive not to worry about what I can’t do. After a lifetime of raising 4 kids it is new to me to think of taking care of myself. I always took health and vigor for granted.
    I love the quiet of country life, I love having animals, but I also miss the tidiness and convenience and connectedness of my life in town, my small home with ‘everything in its place’.
    It is a struggle. With gas prices so high I seldom go to town, even to attend church, it costs $10 round trip to go to town and the budget does not currently stretch that far very often.
    The thing I keep reminding myself is that God put me here for good reason, even if I don’t understand what His reasons are.

    What I mostly want to say here is that I read your blog because it encourages me. Sometimes I agree with you, sometimes I disagree, which makes me think. I rejoice in your victories, moon over your lovely stove, giggle about the hijinks of your goats. When you share your weariness and frustration I pray for you to be strengthened, and I take heart in my own situation that I am not the only ol’ gal in the world hauling in damp firewood in a rainstorm and waiting for the rained on clothes to dry. I am not alone in carrying in an apronful of beans to put by, or mending a jeans pocket for the fourth time.
    I love it that you share both your best of days and your exhausted and frustrating ones, that you don’t paint country life or the pursuit of self-reliance as something idyllic, rather you share your very real life with us. This is a blessing for which I am grateful!

    • Oh, sounds like home! I chastise myself because when I was a professional woman I could do a lot of this without trouble – but I lived alone, too. Meals were often something raw and easy. The house was all one floor, too. I am the sort who puts things back as soon as I am done with it – but one can’t count on the love of one’s life being just like that, can one?

      • Boy oh boy, one sure can’t!
        But as someone once pointed out to me, if two people were exactly alike, one of them would be unnecessary!

        I’m working on appreciating our differences, and when I can’t appreciate them I try to be amused by them. And when I can’t be amused, I pray harder!

        Thank you for being you!

      • Thanks. It’s very early here. I appreciate the quiet time before I leave for work. There are forest birds in the garden, so it’s not completely silent. I am conscious of the pleasant round ‘tick’ of a clock. It came from Strasbourg, near the Cathedral. All the streets near there seem to have associations. There is an Anabaptist historical walk which took me past the clockmaker’s door.

  4. We read Martha Ballard’s diary when I studied history. I found it very interesting.

    I am a bad bad house wife in particular at the moment as this is the busiest time a year now just before the last date for students to send in certificates of the courses they have read. We the teachers really need to deliver and grade them quickly, accurately and on time to not ruin their dreams.

    • I realize this is just a “season” of being overwhelmed and feweling under the weather, but it is not a good season! Lord give me patience!

  5. I pray the Lord grants you strength and health in the coming weeks.

    Yes, I know how maddening it can be when a man asks for something when he can find it in the clean laundry basket. I can remember the time when we were first married, I took the towels to be washed, husband jumped in the shower, only to look out when finished and see no towel on the rack and shout, “Where’s my towel?” No one spoke in those tones to me like that and I said, “You could have said, ‘Please hand me a towel'”.

    One minor victory: he now makes the bed every morning. A recent victory. Still doesn’t know how to cook.

  6. Magdalena,

    OH me, I wish I could simply call in and give you a hand around the house – wish I could simply do a sink full of dishes, cook a meal for you both, help carry the load so you could get your head above water and breathe… Take heart and be of good courage – and be gentle with yourself; exma and hives often stem from stress and exhaustion. Take care of only the necessities. i shall continue to uphold you in prayer, dear sister, that God give you strength, and restore you to full health.



  7. Good luck Magda. I just lower my standards, but it can still be discouraging. And I don’t have a farm to run, or goats, or anyone disabled CVS.

    Goats! That’s so wild.

    Have you considered maybe putting the bedding in a shallow plastic box under the couch? I do this for all sleeping areas and it simplifies things for us.

    • It would have to an envelope – not much clearance! Or I could just get over it, I suppose! I used to have a futon that had storage in the arms, That was great.

  8. I also feel your pain. I work between 45-50 hours a week. My DH & I host his 8-yr-old twins every other weekend. In my “spare” time my ex husband & I keep a large garden, put up food, and I’m also trying to help him start up a gun repair business. And I have 4 gold (shedding) kitties and one very humble miniature chihuahua (shedding also) named Jack. The house, alas—it comes last. And looks like it too.

    I prescribe a 20-minute nap and a hot cuppa ginger tea when you wake up.


    • I’ve decided to postpone completion of some things until Monday, which is a “free” day here, as it is a long weekend – Victoria Day. Or, the first weekend of outdoor drinking in Canada.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s