Everything in this world must come to an end, and joy is often matched by grief. There are no ties between people and no friendships so strong that death cannot part them. The sentence of death is common and inevitable.
The poet wonders how soon death will come for her, and how soon her husband might lose his friend. They are both "ignorant" at the moment, but the poet feels beholden to write these lines so she can say farewell when the knot that binds them comes untied.
She hopes that the days she will not get to live will be given to her husband, and that her faults will be buried with her. She hopes that only her virtuous or valuable traits will live on in his memories, and she hopes he will love her even after the grief of losing her has passed. She wants him to look to their children as her "dear remains" and protect them from a future stepmother's "injury." If there is a chance that her husband must see these verses, she hopes he will honor her and kiss the paper in recognition of their love, crying "salt tears."
“Before the Birth of One of Her Children” is a quiet and personal poem in which Bradstreet contemplates the likelihood of her death in childbirth. She addresses the poem to her husband. Critics praise the poem for the plainness and simplicity of Bradstreet's language as well as her emotional evocation of an tragedy that would have been all too familiar to readers during her time.
Women in colonial New England spent a great deal of their adult lives pregnant. The life expectancy of women was lower than it was for men (62 for women vs. 69 for men), mostly due to the fact that there was a high rate of death during childbirth. According to the Digital History Project, “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, between 1 percent and 1.5 percent of all births ended in the mother's death as a result of exhaustion, dehydration, infection, hemorrhage, or convulsions. Since the typical mother gave birth to between five and eight children, her lifetime chances of dying in childbirth ran as high as 1 in 8.”
Bradstreet gave birth to eight children, and it is likely that she feared her own death during each of her deliveries. She begins her poem reflecting on the ephemerality of life and the reality of death for all human beings, writing, “All things within this fading world hath end.” She observes that all joys are matched by sorrow, and that all life is eventually snatched away by death. God’s “sentence,” she muses, is “irrevocable.” The sentence Bradstreet refers to God's punishment of Eve for disobeying his command and eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3:16 (in the NIV translation) states, "To the woman [God] said, 'I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.'" Bradstreet believed and accepted that the pain of childbirth and the risk of death was her God-given fate, but she naturally felt melancholic at the idea of being separated from her husband and children.
After musing on the possibility of death, Bradstreet addresses her husband, reminding him that her death may be imminent and he might lose his “Friend.” She specifies the ways in which she would like to be memorialized, requesting her husband remember whatever "worth or virtue" she possesses. She also asks him to look after their children, whom she refers to as "my dear remains," implying that they are pieces of her. She asks him to protect their offspring from a cruel or heartless stepmother. Bradstreet's acceptance of her husband's potential remarriage is representative of the way that the mother was at the center of the Puritan family unit. Here, Bradstreet casts the stepmother as the caretaker, rather than a new wife for her husband.
At the end of the poem, Bradstreet evokes a melancholy and sentimental image of her husband honoring her and kissing the paper that she has written these verses on. As she does in many of her other love poems, Bradstreet alludes to her physical relationship with her husband when she asks him to kiss the paper. The poem, like their children, is all that will remain of her if she dies - and kissing the paper will be the only way for him to kiss her when she is gone.