Saturday, September 19, 2009

olden times

If I had more time on my hands, I'd start fan clubs. I've considered the "Raw slices of kohlrabi fan club," "Obscure Prince hits fan club," and "Miniature lop rabbits fan club." But if I were pinned down today and had to start a club, I'd found "The Jill Lepore Fan Club." I am an adoring fan of this Harvard history professor and New Yorker writer who meditates on everything from the founding fathers and antebellum race riots to the history of breastfeeding.

My latest favorite is her piece in the New Yorker about the history of parenting. (
She explores the history of American "parenting", especially as it evolved to distinguish between those people who had children and those who did not. Lepore argues that in olden times (ie. up to the turn of the twentieth century), every adult parented, whether they had their own biological children or not. Most adults lived with children in their households, even if those children were not there own. They were children of extended family members and were everyone's responsibility. Lots of cultural changes gave us the world we now inhabit, a world that Lepore describes aptly when she observes that, for some women and men in America, the first baby they hold is their own.

Her article reminded me of another major change in American life. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, before we had institutions such as mental asylums, prisons, and orphanages, folks with mental problems, criminal propensities, and no parents were usually absorbed into their families and villages. These were the kinds of families that Lepore describes. Multiple people in a household with a common responsibility to support the welfare of children and other members on the margins. This set up must have made dealing with special needs children (yeah, yeah, I know the term is anachronistic) a very different experience.

I'm not one to romanticize early America. I know things like how many capital crimes there were and how many people were disenfranchised and I haven't forgotten about chamber pots. But the trends in parenting that Lepore describes have had an incredible impact on people who have children who are not typically developing. The trends that make for a parenting experience in which "all the mothers want forgiveness; all the fathers want applause" is simply amplified for parents with special needs kids. To a great extent, our culture leaves you on your own to parent. It offers lots of products to assist parents, but autism is hardly assuaged by merchandise. Life with autism is only made livable - and slowly and surely made better - by lots of time and contact and connection. Our parenting culture is short on these things.

To be sure, I shot myself in the leg on this one. I chose not to live near my parents or my spouse's parents. "The power of culture" is not totally to blame. But the power is there. Read Lepore. You'll be convinced. And then join the fan club!


  1. Thanks for the recommendation and also for reminding me of kohlrabi - I used to eat it growing up in IA and I always forget about it now, as an adult. So I'm going to buy some soon. You're a great writer/thinker and I love reading your blog.

  2. Your post reminds me of a commentary I read on the paralytic who was lowered through the roof by his friends. One scholar hypothesized that the "friends" may have actually been his extended family, and that the men would have spent their lives taking care of him, as opposed to marrying, moving out, etc. We can get all sentimental in interpreting that text with some evangelical move, like "His friends brought him to Jesus," but I think they did the far more faithful thing in their caring for him, every day, as part of their household.

    Jenny W.

  3. I especially appreciate the line, "I really shot myself in the leg on this one." Whenever I see images of people shooting themselves in the foot (the more typical locution) on movies, tv, cartoons, it is a comic image. However, shooting oneself in the leg (like Said, in Lost, does in one episode) always seems excruciating and maybe even heroic. It's hard for me to commit to one or the other of these options in this case.