May 3, 2009 in Opinion

Motherhood at mercy of the marketplace

 
Tags:column

Last week my husband discovered in the newly revealed floor joists of our remodeling project an empty tin can of 1930s-era Cherub Brand evaporated milk.

Pity the poor baby who drank it.

Eighty years ago, American mothers were expected to live in a private world where they leaned on a mishmash of pseudoscience and mechanization designed to raise dutiful, disciplined babies who might grow into the workers the industrialized country needed.

The economy and motherhood itself have undergone dramatic changes since then, as evidenced by both the current recession and a new state law banning discrimination against women who breast-feed in public. Yet one theme remains constant: The choices we make in our families still hinge more on the needs of the marketplace, less on our common humanity.

Dr. L. Emmett Holt wrote in 1894 a guide for American mothers. According to Steven Mintz’s “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood,” Holt called the young child “a delicately constructed piece of machinery.” This baby did not require breast-feeding, but rather a strict schedule of bottles and a mother who resisted the impulse to pick him up when he cried.

In 1928 behaviorist John B. Watson wrote a book of strict child-rearing advice. “Never hug and kiss them,” he admonished. “Never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning.”

Watson believed that by adhering to his principles, parents could manufacture whatever kind of child they wanted: “A doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even a beggar-man and thief.”

After that era of evaporated milk, it’s taken decades to convince American women to return to the practice of breast-feeding. In the meantime, the twin forces of the economy and feminism pulled women out of houses like mine and into the public sphere.

They perform surgery, sell condos and manage engineering firms. They legislate and litigate. Now postfeminists, veterans of women’s athletics and clothed in the fashions of the cleavage era, contemporary mothers often have less interest in the boundaries of privacy and discretion than earlier generations.

But as this law demonstrates, they still live on that edge of tension between the world as it was, largely segregated by gender, and the world that still needs to come. Cultural expectations, workplace traditions and even public architecture lag behind.

Today’s busy mothers struggle to find a few hours sleep to fuel a demanding day of work and caregiving. They rarely can afford to do more than press on, tending a baby at the ragged ends of the day and through the weary night. And when the child needs feeding, it may happen in a private room in a progressive professional office or at the day care center. But some days it may well occur on a bench at the shopping mall or a booth at a restaurant. Either choice winds up a far more sanitary spot for a liquid snack than the average public bathroom.

One of my earliest memories revolves around watching my mother breast-feed my younger sister when I was 3 years old. But when I reached my teens, I was startled to discover that some people reacted to that sweet human experience with disdain or a certain smirking squeamishness. I know I was naïve. But that reaction annoys me still.

How can this profoundly human act, which reduces children’s risks from illnesses ranging from asthma to leukemia, nurtures their emotional development and saves their parents anywhere from $1,160 to $3,915 a year, be dismissed as disgusting?

Michael Pollan writes about Americans’ distance from where their food comes from. In his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” he traces a McDonald’s cheeseburger back to Iowa cornfields and Kansas feedlots.

But that’s not the half of it. We Americans now have the capacity to be shocked by where our own babies’ milk comes from.

We no longer know how we are born or how we die. And while sex has some use in the commercial world, so handy for luring and selling products, we ignore its logical result.

The 1930s baby who once lived in this house may have been raised with the echoes of Holt and Watson to become a colonel, or at least private first class, of industry. His mother likely carried out her role largely behind the door of this house. Bottle or breast, that baby likely fed in the privacy of this leafy old neighborhood.

No woman’s lived here untethered from a work life for decades now. The architecture of nurseries and bedrooms remains. But the doors slam shut in the morning and the houses stand silent until night.

Where must a baby eat now?

Often in the full, revealed light of his mother’s public life.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is now an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. She may be reached at jamietobiasneely@comcast.net.


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