Some gentle readers have suggested that my views of idyllic 19th century family life are egregiously misguided. “You write about families playing cards,” my detractors point out. “You don’t write about farms being foreclosed.” Hmm. “You opine about parents sharing heart-warming stories. You don’t mention siblings sharing dysentery.”
My critics go on: Little House on the Prairie was a book, a book of fiction not a biography. Then Little House of the Prairie became a TV Show–again, fiction. Little House on the Prairie was not mistitled The Real Households of Des Moines. Michael Langdon came home from a long day in the fields covered not in cow manure but in product endorsement contracts. An Iowa winter before central heating is more fun to read about than to live through.
Okay, so 19th century life was hard on farms in the midwest. The nearest credible restaurant was 1000 miles away and 100 years in the future. Nobody woke up one freezing Iowa morning and said “I have an idea: Let me suffer through potentially deadly child birth–antibiotics and anesthesia are also a lot of research and two World Wars away–so that I can sit by the fire years hence watching my grandchildren cheerfully care for one another.” Multiple births were a way of increasing the odds that some small percentage of offspring would survive to wipe the drool off grandma’s lip. Admittedly not so halcyon.
“Parenting” wasn’t a concept never mind a word a hundred years ago. In previous generations, the emphasis was on “child rearing.” Children were “seen and not heard.” Rods were seldom spared. Children “worked” around the house and on the land. (The “work” these children did by eighth grade would be enough to put me in the hospital.) Today, hitting children is appropriately called “abuse.” Not so years ago. Parenting could be summed up as “keep the children alive long enough so they can contribute to food production and then take care of us as we descend into senescence. “One more level” was not a thing. Neither was school refusal.
My yearning for a simpler time does not make me a Luddite. I don’t long for watching our children die for want of antibiotics. I’m not suggesting that the computer on which I’m writing this blog or the device on which you’re reading it be tossed into the volcano to appease the deities. Nobody misses the virulent racism and violence, even worse a century ago than today. Life was harder, but life wasn’t worse in every regard.
We don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, to pick an unfortunate expression. Just because electronic devices now exist doesn’t mean that books are obsolete. Less horse poop is only one advantage of cars over equine transportation. But mom doesn’t have to live in her vehicle frenetically driving from soccer practice to piano lessons. The point of all those labor saving devices is to allow us more time at home sitting on the couch with our beloved children. The dishwasher, microwave, and fridge should allow us more time for Parcheesi and sitting out in the backyard pretending we know the names of the constellations. Electricity should empower rather than enslave.
Can you even begin to imagine how content your great grandparents would have been to have your modern advantages? Ice cubes year round, air travel, medications that actually work, stoves that don’t require wood chopping. Your ancestors would have been thrilled. You don’t have to allow violent video games, recreational Xanax, Internet pornography, and limousine rides for seven-year-olds into the mix.
I’m not wishing we could or recommending we should go back to adverse times. But there is something to be said for sitting on the porch with your kids, all the chores done, talking about nothing, content just to be a family with enough to eat and little to worry about.