"All the mothers want forgiveness; all the fathers want applause"

The parenting memoir stretches back much further than you think

By Amy Benfer
June 23, 2009 5:24PM (UTC)
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I've read so much by and about Ayelet Waldman and Michael Lewis in the past month that I was tempted to skip Jill Lepore's essay on writing about parenting in this week's New Yorker. But Lepore, a social historian, seems to be of the same mind: She breezes through a quick treatment of their work -- "all the mothers want forgiveness; all the fathers want applause" -- bookended at either end of her essay. The heart of it is a history of 20th-century parenthood as seen through the work of Clara Savage Littledale, "whose job it was to help invent American parenthood," as the first editor of Parents magazine. Her talk "I Am a Failure as a Mother" could be a perfect companion to Waldman's "Bad Mother" or Lewis' "Home Game," but she gave it on NBC radio in 1932.

Parenthood, Lepore points out, is an invention that dates back to the mid-19th century and "the notion that parenthood is a distinct stage of life, shared by men and women, is historically in its infancy." Yes, people have always had parents and most people eventually became parents, but few felt it worthy of comment, much less a bookshelf of fat how-to manuals. What people had was on-the-job training: "An ordinary life used to look something like this: born into a growing family, you help rear your siblings, have the first of your own half-dozen or even dozen children soon after you are grown, and die before your youngest has left home." That's a bleak prospect, to be sure, but it certainly puts into perspective the allegation that contemporary parents who wait to have children are "selfishly" ignoring their own mortality -- though, then again, those youngest children, born into large families, were likely reared by an older sibling or other relative after their parents' demise.

By the 1920s -- roughly around the time this generation of parents' great-grandparents were having children -- all of that had changed dramatically, and in ways that may seem familiar to us now: "People were living longer, having fewer children and starting families later in life." One could get a good way through early adulthood without having any direct experience caring for young children: "In 1880, 70 percent of people lived in households with children under the age of fifteen; by 1920, that number had fallen to 55 percent." By 1990 those numbers had fallen by roughly the same amount; the number of people living in households with children went down to about a third, making the number of adults actively parenting children "a statistical minority" today. Writes Lepore: "All these changes, aggregated, made parenthood into something different, something big, something planned."

Our great-grandparents' generation, it seems, reacted to these changes in almost identical ways to our own: First, parenting itself began to to look "mystifying," especially to "generally wealthier people" who were less likely to have "grown up caring for their siblings, neighbors, cousins, nieces and nephews, and who, it turned out, had no idea how to dress or soothe a baby." And in response, an entire parenting industry sprung up shilling equal parts science and guilt, led, in 1926, by Children, the Magazine for Parents, with Littledale at the helm. But, within two years, Littledale shrewdly changed the name to Parents, because, as Lepore archly notes, "all this business about parenthood, then and now, has very little to do with kids."

The formula was simple: present essays by parents confessing their sins as "rank amateurs," and remedy those sins by advice from "experts" -- psychologists, pediatricians, educators and scholars. Lepore sums up the magazine's theme thusly: "Parenthood is being so inept that you're a danger to your own children. That, at least, was the promise of the magazine and its price."

Examples culled from Littledale's archives are not far removed from the contemporary parenting industry: One could take a correspondence course with the title "Add Science to Love and Be a 'Perfect' Mother" (ah, shadows of Baby Einstein!); another article "Can a Tired Businessman Be a Good Father?" essentially introduces the concept of "quality" versus "quantity" time. And in "Confessions of an Amateur Mother," a "wealthy, well-educated woman" asks the question that, 90 years on, can still launch a hundred New York Times articles: "Why is it that for the women of my type -- professional women -- motherhood, as a rule, comes so hard?" And she complains that, unlike poor women, she isn't eligible for social services: "There are 'mother clinics' and baby stations aplenty in the districts of the 'poor' women: Why not for me?" Poor women, evidently, while rich in social services, were not considered Littledale's kind of "Parents." Lepore writes: "Urgent social issues that affected the way Americans raised their children -- segregation and poverty, for instance -- had no place on Littledale's list of parenting problems."

Close to a century later, little has changed: The "women's pages" of Littledale's era transformed into the Style pages in the late '60s and early '70s; now lady blogs like Motherlode -- and DoubleX and Jezebel and Broadsheet  -- have taken on the same conversations, most, we hope, injected with a little more feminist, progressive perspective. And yet, even those who rail against the tyranny of parenting experts are often still doing so within the well-worn model of "confessions of ineptitude." More dangerously still, the constant debates about what constitutes a "good" parent or a defiantly "bad" rebel parent (just another way to say one is still pretty good) often still assume middle- and upper-class parenting as the norm. Historians, Lepore points out, once assumed that parents who lived in an earlier era when infant mortality was a fact of life "must not have loved their children very much; it would have been too painful." By contrast, the era when parenting became defined as hyper-vigilance coincided with a time when children, on the whole, were safer than ever. Both premises, she writes, turn out to be wrong: "We love even when it spells grief, and we worry even when that means worrying over nothing." 

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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