Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting is a shocking yet rollicking romp through parenting practices and beliefs from ancient times to the present, with stops along the way for everything from wet nurses to foundling hospitals to Freud. We spoke with its author, Jennifer Traig, mom of kids aged 8 and 10, by phone from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
LET GROW: Congratulations on your history of parenting!
JENNIFER TRAIG: It ended up really being a history of NOT parenting. I didn’t realize how recent the concept of parenting was. It was not the anxious experience we’ve made it. It was just something you did, and you didn’t give a whole lot of thought to it.
Parents were too busy with other things?
With what they were going to eat, or busy fighting off hordes. Their job was having children, but once they did, no one would blame you if your kid didn’t graduate valedictorian. Really, death was so common, it wasn’t really until Freud that we started blaming parents for everything.
What kind of historic period did Freud bubble out of?
It coincides with the time when mothers were suddenly in charge of parenting. It’s not that the men had been doing it. The help was doing it. Even the poorest people had some kind of house help. Or the kids would be watched by older siblings, or the neighbors, or not watched. Parents weren’t really doing it. But by the Victorian age, suddenly it was considered something worth our time and attention, and mom was home and now that she had a little free time –
Mothering became an activity that moms were promptly told they were doing wrong?
Freud introduces the idea of neurosis and the idea that you really can ruin your kids. But even though I think we’ve debunked most Freudianism, the guilt part -- that kind of stays with us. Like, I don’t think I’m giving my kid an Oedipus Complex. But I do wonder what’s going to come up in therapy in 10 years that I didn’t even realize I was doing.
What do you consider Freud’s strangest, or perhaps most disturbing parenting idea?
That you could ruin your kid’s life by toilet training them wrong, which is crazy.
How about before Freud? What were parents most worried about?
For early generations, you weren’t worrying about what other parents thought about you. Your job was just to raise a child who would turn away from sin. The early parenting books are almost uniformly religious.
What did they actually say?
Some instructed parents to toughen their kids, and raise them like peasants. Some said to hang artwork of martyrs around the house to remind them how they should model their lives, and that they could die at any moment.
Which was true, right? Childhood mortality was through the roof?
During the Middle Ages, a child’s chance of making it to their tenth birthday was around 50%. By the Victorian age, things had improved somewhat: 75% of British children made it to age five. That rate today would have meant that at least five of the kids in my child’s kindergarten would have died before enrollment. It’s not until the mid-twentieth century that child mortality rates really plummet.
I read that of Lincoln’s four children, only one made it to adulthood.
Yes! Even he couldn’t protect his kids. He did let them run wild, but that’s not why any of them died. They were notoriously indulged. He got the Navy to make weapons for them and these weren’t supposed to actually work, but they figured out how to make them fire. I think at one point they aimed a cannon at a cabinet meeting.
And just because death was common, that didn’t make it any easier for the parents, did it?
Their grief was real. Parents weren’t any less attached to their kids. I just don’t recall coming across blame, in general, when kids died.
So let’s talk about just how very different the outlook used to be. Going waaaay back to the ancient Romans, parents would “expose” their newborns – a euphemism for putting a baby outside and not coming back for it. Right?
In some places there was sort of a designated area, and I think it tended to be near the marketplace, and a child was left there. And sometimes it would be intercepted by a family that wanted a child, or by slave traders. And they were sometimes eaten by animals.
This was considered…okay?
It’s surprising how common it was – until you think about it as birth control. The Romans were all-in on the practice -- it’s estimated 20 to 40% of all Roman infants were exposed, suggesting that most families would expose at least one kid. But the Greeks did it too, as did ancient Norse, Celtic, and German families.
I guess there was no other way to cut down on the number of mouths to feed.
Some researchers suggest that most families would expose at least one child.
Then later on there were foundling homes – really, orphanages -- for the unwanted babies instead? These replaced the practice of “exposing”?
Foundling homes were up and running by the middle ages. They could differ from orphanages, which were typically for (legitimate) children whose parents had died or could no longer care for them. The children who ended up at foundling homes tended to be illegitimate offspring abandoned at birth. The homes continued through Napoleon’s time. At that time there were so popular that the homes put in turnstiles, so they would accept the child but wouldn’t see who was dropping them off. The homes eventually had to make the turnstiles smaller, because people were putting larger children in, and the kids would sometimes get stuck. It was pretty common throughout Europe.
How did the foundling children fare?
Most of them died, but the last name “Esposito” literally means “exposed.” So if your last name is Esposito, one of your ancestors was exposed and survived. The foundling homes gave that name through the 18th Century. “Columbo” means pigeon but it was the mascot of a foundling home in Milan.
So that name might suggest a foundling in a person’s past, too?
Yes. And so might Temple or Iglesias, because children were often dropped off in a temple or church. And Proietti is Italian for cast-off. And Bastardo – that’s pretty obvious.
In the old days, no one worried too much about the things we obsess about today, right? Breastfeeding. Attachment. Super foods.
The breastfeeding thing is particularly painful for me because I could not produce breast milk. As soon as I got pregnant, my ob-gyn said, “I want you to practice saying, ‘For medical reasons, I cannot breastfeed my child.’”
Did you actually have to say that to anyone?
Not in person. But I did get told online that, “You are subjecting your child to so many horrors.” Look, if you breastfeed, that’s great. I couldn’t.
Many women in the past couldn’t either, right? That’s one reason there were wet nurses who would nurse your baby for a fee?
Yes. The idea that loving mothers all breastfeed their children is not historically consistent at all. Children have been fed by other means for a very long time. Ideally you would have a wet nurse and those were very common. But they’ve also found pretty crude bottles from the B.C. era. They were made out of clay. I can’t imagine they were great for the user. And then later there were glass bottles. And I think they used cow teats and, later, India rubber. They also used live goats, especially in founding hospitals where you had to nurse a lot of children and there weren’t enough wet nurses. They would bring in goats and place them right in the cribs. There’s a great book from the 1700s: “The Goat as the Most Agreeable Wet Nurse.”
I’d probably find it more agreeable than a clay bottle. So what about another current worry: picky eaters?
That definitely feels like a problem we’ve created. Once there were special foods for kids, kids wanted to eat the special foods. Before, “kids’ food” wasn’t even the good adult food, it was the scraps, the leftovers. Often kids weren’t even allowed to eat at the table – they ate off to the side.
And then along came Gerbers?
Baby foods were among the first foods specifically for children. And then in the ‘50s and ‘60s all the stuff kids love gets invented. Tater Tots. Pixie Styx. Pizza comes to America. And then around the 1980s, suddenly there were nuggets.
Some of us adults love them, too, by the way. Anyway, let’s wrap up with you telling us about that strange era in England, when parents basically swapped out their tweens for a while. Got them out of the house.
The heyday for the practice was the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries. People of all classes sent their adolescents out. Everyone did it. You were either sent to apprentice or, if you were a higher rank, you would still be sent to live with another family in some sort of capacity that served as training for future life as a gentleman. And from what I understand, a family might both send out one of its own kids and take in someone else’s.
What was the point?
I think other people’s children are less enraging, even when they’re doing the same thing as yours. Part of what makes me so angry when my kids misbehave is that I know I taught them this—they know this behavior will work.
How long did the kids stay with the other families?
I think they came back when it was about time to get married.
You know, we sort of do that too – send them off to college, if we can. Sometimes old ways really are best.
Then they make new kids and it all starts again.