I think Jennifer Traig wants to make us feel better. Parenting is, as she points out (very) frequently, hard. And she wants us to know that it always was. So much so that people do whatever they can to get out of it. And that’s a good thing, from an evolutionary point of view: kids demand more than they can get, and parents give less than they can offer, generally. And both sides come out okay. Most of the time. It turns out, as Traig chronicles in the first few chapters of Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting (HarperCollins, $26.99), that for much of human history most kids didn’t come out at all. In absence of reliable birth control and safe pregnancy- termination procedures, many more kids were born than could be supported and sustained.
Traig tells us all about the various techniques of neglect—benign and otherwise—that resulted from too many babies. Many had their desired effect: fewer kids to take care of, either because they were sent away to foundling houses or wet nurses, or simply abandoned, or because they just did not make it. And even those who did have the resources (scant or otherwise) to take care of their children barely did so. Babies were parked, tied, swaddled for days on end, or stood in the equivalent of stocks, and Men who parent get praised; women who parent can only ever fall short, though kids have survived no matter how they were raised. then left alone.
Parents simply didn’t parent their babies; even the use of the word as a verb is rather recent, as is the action it describes. This is a hugely ambitious book, spanning hundreds of years of history and almost as many parenting trends, fads, and perspectives. Traig tells us about out- sourcing and childbirth, advice manuals and diets, age expectations and sibling relationships, and discipline trends and children’s literature.
Her survey spans a wide swath of Western countries and religious approaches, with a clear mastery of Jewish- related topics and a rich sprinkling of Jewish anecdotes. The feminist tone is reassuringly clear; as much as any book about parenting can be empowering to women, this one is. That’s a heavy caveat though: while the term parenting, young as it might be, is meant to be inclusive, we all know that it really means mothering. Men who parent get praised; women who parent can only ever fall short, though not in Traig’s treatment, which does as much as it can to show us that through time kids have survived no matter how they were raised.
The one constant across the book is that every parenting framework is ever- changing. That should be reassuring: to date, no one has gotten it exactly right. Yesterday’s practical allocation of resources may be today’s abandonment, and last century’s effective discipline technique is today’s psychological torture. And maybe we don’t even have it all right today, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that others have certainly made our same mis- takes, and a whole lot of other ones besides. With a light touch, Traig takes on a pretty heavy topic. And while the jokey tone makes for quick reading, sometimes the judgment on the past feels harsh.
There isn’t a lot of the context we might need to understand why people were doing what they did. This can make it all too easy to simply laugh at the foibles of history. Traig is refreshingly willing to turn that same mocking approach on her own parenting, making readers feel like we’re all on the same team. No judgment here, at least not for today’s parents! But sometimes that willingness to laugh at herself is estranging, taking us outside the narrative of the book to question Traig a bit too often. For example, she explains the recent emergence of the term parent and the ways that parents in the past simply did not do that job. But she undercuts the real gravity and depth of work that she’s done by taking the joke too far:
“Most parents did not parent; the verb, and the concept, did not exist. Unlike us, I doubt they felt much guilt about it, much as my mail carrier doesn’t feel guilty for not mowing my lawn. It’s simply not his job, no matter how much I try to convince him it is.” No you don’t. At least, I really really hope not.
Thankfully, those moments are few and far between. At one point, Traig mentions that she’s not sure she’d take parenting advice from some of the women whose writing she’s read, but she’d love to go out with them for a beer. I think that might be true for me too: I’m not sure how much depth I got on parent- ing trends throughout history (though I learned a great deal of interesting anecdotal detail) but I’d love to go have a drink with Jennifer Traig.