Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rebuilding America, One Nostalgic Fabrication at a Time

In a column this week, Terence Jeffrey of accuses Barack Obama of "encouraging [a] flight from parenthood" by supporting early childhood education programs. Jeffrey believes that modern parents are falling down on the job:

One of the most dramatic changes in American life in the years since World War II involves the way we raise our children. We used to do it ourselves. Now, convinced we have better things to do, many of us leave the job to others.

Of course, Jeffrey's argument isn't really about parents — it's about mothers. He cites some statistics showing that 83% of married mothers stayed home and took care of their own children in 1948, but that fewer than 30% do the same today.

There's a slight of hand here. Notice that Jeffrey is only talking about post-WWII America, but his implication is that the years between 1945 and 1965 are representative of the sweep of American history. Jeffrey is putting forth a declension narrative: Americans used to raise their own children and have ceased to do so over the last few decades as women take jobs outside of their homes. His implication is that Americans have always raised their children themselves and that only now do we "leave the job to others" so that we (and by "we," I mean selfish, uppity women with jobs) can get on all of those "better things to do."

But is it true that Americans have always raised their own children? It's important examine this question historically, rather than nostalgically.

For much of American history, most American children have been raised (at least in part) by people other than their biological parents.

In colonial Virginia, most children were either indentured servants or slaves in the custody of their masters. The children of the wealthy were nursed and raised by slaves or servants until they were old enough to be sent off to tutors or academies. In Puritan New England, both boys and girls of all social classes were sent into other peoples' homes to become apprentices or servants, sometimes from the age of 5 or 6. Even when parents had their own children at home, most childcare was done by older siblings (and by older, mean 5-year-old Elizabeth is in charge of 2-year-old Jerusha because everyone else is working).

In the 19th century, even middle-class white Americans generally had live-in domestic servants or slaves who helped to raise their children while those women who worked as cooks, nannies, and maids left their own children in the care of friends or family members (when the children were not themselves at work). Babies and young children were generally cared for by someone other than their mothers (a wet-nurse, a nanny, an older sibling, an eldery slave who cared for children while their mothers worked in the fields) and older children were often sent away to school, factory, or field. Children of yeoman farmers were more likely to stay with their parents than others, but this was not an iron-clad rule.

In the 20th century, as children began spending less time at their looms and more time in classrooms, teachers spent more time with kids than moms did. According to sociology professor Sampson Lee Blair, the average mom in the 1950s spent 12-15 hours/week on childcare. Modern moms who don't work outside the home spend an average of 15 hours on childcare, while working moms spend about 15 (if you're curious, the average dad spends 3 hours/week on childcare if his wife works and 2 if she doesn't).

There have been a few specific historical moments when Americans have put particular emphasis on [white, middle-class] mothers raising their own children. These movements — Republican Motherhood in the early 1800s, suburban homemaking in the 1950s, and the homeschool movement of the past 20 years — often have a political angle. In each case proponents of these movements are invested in the idea that white women hold the future of civilization in their hands in the form of their children's moral education.

No doubt, Jeffrey would argue that these historical examples are fundamentally different from Obama's plan because most don't involve the government. This misses the point — American parenting has only rarely conformed to Jeffrey's ideal. The only constant is change. Obama's support for more early childhood education programs merely reflects the needs of modern families.

Jeffrey's article reminds me of that silly article by Kay Hymowitz. In her article, Hymowitz presents the "average" 26-year-old man in 1965 as an independent, home-owning, married father with a full time office job and argues that today's 26-year-olds fail to live up this historical standard. Like Jeffrey, Hymowitz implies that that an idealized version of the post-war period was in fact the end point of a timeless way of life, rather than recognizing it for what it was: an aberrant 20-year period that was itself an historical moment. Leave aside for now the reality that the 1950s were not quite as happy and homogeneous as rose-colored memories might have us believe.

When people like Kay Hymowitz, Terence Jeffrey, and James Dobson talk about "tradition" and the way things used to be done, they are presenting an historical moment (the two decades post-WWII) as if it was representative of all American history. In this telling, "tradition" means "the way things have always been," without acknowledging that traditions are really ever-changing historical constructions. These conservatives know that people find the idea of timeless tradition comforting, even when those "traditions" are only a few generations old — that's why they present American social and cultural history as stagnant until an imagined rapid decline post-1965.

By presenting the post-war era as "normal" and implying that Americans of that era lived by age-old traditions, these authors expunge all historical thinking from their critiques of modern America. The only proper response to a hand-wringer like Jeffrey is to point out that having a mother raise her biological children in a nuclear-family setting in which she does no work other than maintaining the family/household is the exception in American history, not the rule.

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