Sunday, August 7, 2011

Industrialized children?

Last week, I was at a theology conference, hosted by Moreau Seminary at the University of Notre Dame (yes, I brought my baby, while Philosophy PhD Husband and my three year old went to a family gathering).  This was one of those lovely conferences where the papers are good, but sitting around the table at dinner (or while sipping an after-dinner wine) is equally as good, if not better.

One of the topics of conversation around the dinner table one night was children and having parents that work out of the home.  We all agreed that the idea that a woman should stay at home and raise the kids was largely a product of the nineteenth century and that in previous centuries, both parents had worked "at home" and raised the children in more complex patterns than our modern world allows.

Then we turned to the topic of raising children.  Several of my interlocutors were pressing the point that even if women are working outside the home, one of the spouses should be staying at home taking care of the children and that this has generally been the way people have raised kids through the centuries.  It is only now that we are seriously screwing up our children.  But kids, they maintained, are only really loved by their parents and it is the parents who need to be there full time.

My initial response is that something in that history seems a bit off to me - I'm thinking not only of an upperclass world of governesses, nannies, nurses, and boarding schools, but of middle and lower class apprenticeships or being sent away to work in service.   I think there were few times and places that children were actually being raised directly by their parents every single day.

Of course I have a bone to pick here: I am paying for the modern equivalent of nurses and nannies as I drop off my kids at the on-campus daycare.  I drop in 2-3 times a day to nurse the baby and check in on the three year old; my day becomes a patchwork of nursing and day care drop off, two hours grading, nursing, two hours writing, nursing,  two hours doing more writing, day care pick up, coming home and cooking, playing with the kids, doing the bedtime routine, and then at the end of it all, another 2-4 hours of writing or other work.

As I watch other people respond to and help raise my kids, I see them often teaching them good things that I would never have thought about, and I see them giving hugs, kisses, pats on the head.  This doesn't diminish the fact that when I come to the day care, I too, will be called on for hugs.  But it isn't an exclusive thing or a limiting thing in my view: I'm not the only one who cares for and loves my daughters.  They do too.  I recognize that it's different, and that for all sorts of good reasons, I'm the one who stays home with a sick child or who takes them to the doctor.

All that said, the conversation at that dinner table got to me in later reflections, because I think they're (perhaps unknowingly) alluding to something else very important about raising children - something that has only cropped up in the past couple centuries - and that is the way children's lives are being engulfed in industrialized patterns.

Day care of the kind that I send my kids to is possible only in a world that conceives that it is reasonable to group children into classrooms by single ages - showcasing a desire for efficiency.   After all, changing a baby's diapers isn't a very efficient enterprise when I, at home with the three year old haranguing me to do puzzles, discover that the diapers haven't yet been washed so I scramble to find something, anything to cover the baby's bum.  But diaper changing is very efficient when, in a class of twelve babies, three teachers take turns in whipping down the paper diaper from the appropriate cubicle.

The work day, too, is institutionalized in an 8-5 time frame (a far better cry from the early factory days, of course, but still institutionalized).  So it is interesting, too, to reflect on the ways in which office space arbitrarily demands my time during those hours and not others; of course, there are plenty of jobs in our late modern culture that demand more (to what end, I always ask?).  (I hasten to say here - one of my reasons for going in to academia is precisely that it does not cater to those same time frames - there are good things about the fact that academia is largely based in medieval institutions.)

And I could take it further still to all of life: eating is industrialized, so is elder care, so is clothes shopping, or anything else we would want to buy.  Nearly everything we have is predicated on sleek efficient machines having brought our stuff to us.

At what point does it end?  At what point would I say, "Now I am really responsible for the care of my children" and this industrialized world has been staved off?  It doesn't happen.  Even if one of us stayed home and homeschooled, and we grew all the vegetables and raised the goats and the sheep and the chickens (I have actually long had this kind of dream and maybe someday I will buy just such a house in the San Luis Valley in Colorado), at some point there would still be points of complicity in modern culture.  The people I know who try this still have hard decisions to make - and still end up participating at some level.

I think it is highly legitimate to ask where the point is that we want to try to over turn that industrialization or at least stave it off.  I think my friends sitting around the dinner table make some really good points.  Maybe they're right and I'm too defeatist about it - maybe the way to get around the industrialization of children (and ourselves) is to opt out in just these ways.  Wendell Berry fans unite.

But in the end I'm not sure how far that goes because I'm not convinced that we can stand apart from that culture. Would it be better, instead, to try to find evidence of God's handiwork here even in spite of ourselves, in the chinks of this life?  Like, for instance, the day care worker I saw the other day - she did not know I was there, just outside the door, watching as she hoisted up my baby with a look of joy, and my baby laughed too.  I loved seeing two people laugh - it was good salve in the rather depressing times we live in.  And, laughter, thankfully, does not operate on a scale of scarcity.  For when I opened the door, they both turned to me, and I got "that look" too - and we all shared in some joy and laughter.