By Jennifer Szalai
Americans supposedly have little patience for expertise these days — except, it seems, when it comes to parenting experts, who continue to churn out guides as quickly as their audience can consume them. This appetite for counsel inevitably reflects deeper, often unspoken middle-class aspirations and anxieties; as psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips once observed, the appeal of such books goes beyond the immediate need to deal with a sullen teenager or a sleepless newborn. “Our obsession with child development and with so-called parenting skills,” he wrote, “has become a code for our forlorn attempt to find a sanity for ourselves.”
Jennifer Traig apparently agrees. In “Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting,” she takes solace in how useless, contradictory and downright harmful so much advice has historically been. “The things we take for granted as normal and natural strike parents in other parts of the world as absurd and dangerous,” she writes, in this brisk survey of child-rearing tips through the ages.
As the parent of two children and the author of previous books about obsessive-compulsive disorder and hypochondria, Traig wanted to examine how “developed-world, middle-class Westerners” learned to follow a script that is so culturally specific. She ended her research feeling not just informed but relieved: “People have done crazy, crazy things to their children throughout history, and the species continued all the same.”
The species may have survived, though the fates of individual children were another matter. The history recounted in this book is studded with violence and death. Child abandonment was once routine; in ancient Rome, 20 to 40 percent of babies were left to die of exposure. Even the advent of foundling hospitals in European cities didn’t help much; the mortality rates in some institutions (understaffed, suffused with disease) could reach 90 percent.
Parents have always found raising children to entail a great deal of work, enlisting relatives and servants — sometimes handing offspring over to religious orders. As Traig says, “the history of parenting is, in large part, a history of trying to get out of it.” This was true even when babies were considered little laborers-to-be, expected to contribute within a few years to the family livelihood.
Philosophers like Locke and Rousseau published treatises on childhood education, but it was only toward the end of the 19th century — when children became, in sociologist Viviana Zelizer’s memorable phrase, “economically worthless but emotionally priceless” — that parents began to see themselves as wholly responsible for cultivating a child’s intellectual and emotional life. In the 1970s, the term “to parent” emerged as an active verb.
A lot of parenting advice has historically had to do with the physical needs of the mother and child; a lot of it also turned out to be fatal. Colostrum, for instance, was once considered so toxic that mothers were instructed to feed their newborns honey instead, thereby trading the antibodies in breastmilk for botulism.
It was often male doctors who dispensed such advice — the same cohort that was so sure of its expertise that it unwittingly infected laboring mothers with puerperal fever in maternity hospitals during the 18th and 19th centuries. Doctors blamed the epidemic on sour breastmilk, tight corsets, bad air; it took a while before they grudgingly bought into the germ theory of disease and started to wash their hands between patients and after autopsies.
Traig’s book is filled with tales of men telling women what to do, and she’s candid about how furious it makes her. She calls one eminent 19th-century doctor “A PATRONIZING CHAUVINIST” (the all caps are all hers; she later admits that her go-to disciplinary move with her own children is to yell). Old medical textbooks, from the ancient Greeks through the medieval Europeans, are filled with men’s specious assertions about feminine hygiene: “I think we can agree that anyone who feels qualified to hold forth on something he has no actual knowledge of can, rather accurately, be called a douche,” she quips.
She isn’t wrong, but the nonstop vaudeville can get wearying. Some of her punch lines are so broad that they should be accompanied by a sad trombone. She describes the Puritans arriving to the U.S. “like a wet, smallpox-infected blanket to put a damper on all the fun” (genocide, amirite?). Lewis Carroll’s creepy overture to a young girl “starts to sound an awful lot like an invitation to a pool party at Roman Polanski’s.”
Parenting is a subject that generates so much piety that you can’t fault Traig for having a sense of gallows humor, though the calibration is off. Part of this has to do with how skillful and fluid a writer she is otherwise — the facts seem to tumble forth, in a way that makes her jokes feel superfluous (when they aren’t awful) and strenuous (when they are). Much of the story she tells is pieced together from other books, including Ann Hulbert’s “Raising America” and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s “Mother Nature.” Still, it’s a fascinating narrative, tracing the long history of mistakes and reversals and cultural presuppositions that have structured our most intimate relationships.
Depicting herself as both extremely lazy and extremely anxious, Traig says that what she wants the most as a parent is some reassurance that she isn’t doing it wrong: “Parenting is so hard; and like our kids, we’re all looking for permission to slack off in some areas.” Sometimes, though, Traig can’t help herself, declining to step away from the kid or the joke. “Doing nothing,” she admits, “is often the hardest thing to do.”