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January 5, 2009

On Context: Dream Babies and Great Expectations

The kinds of stories in Great Expectations: Twenty-Four Stories about Childbirth (eds. Dede Crane and Lisa Moore) are the kinds that any woman could tell. About labour gone long, rings of fire, gruff obstetricians, and idyllic birthing pools left unattended as women are rushed to the hospital in a cab. Certainly, after reading Ina-May’s Guide to Childbirth in a state of dumb bliss, I was in need of this sort of reality check: Stephanie Nolen’s contribution begins, “For about forty perfect minutes, I had the birth I wanted…”

Anyone can write about childbirth, and the experience of becoming and being a parent, but what I remain most grateful for is that good writers actually do. I felt this profoundly after reading Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work and Anne Enright’s Making Babies: that thank goodness novelists write about this sort of thing, for who else would be so capable of doing so? Of capturing the various sides of this most multi-sided and and ordinary event, and then casting them in a light that is entirely new. For anyone can write about this stuff, but not everyone will do it well.

So I had confidence in Great Expectations, which comprises contributions from Canadian novelists I love including Lynn Coady, Christy Ann Conlin, Karen Connelly, and Lisa Moore, as well as journalists (including Nolen), poets, editors, and other writers I should have already read. Caroline Adderson’s essay made me scream on the book’s first page, with its mother with the burst blood vessel in her eyes. “She paid at both ends, poor thing.” Esta Spalding’s essay on twinship followed, which broke my heart and made me fall in love: “Joy and sorrow. Twins.”

And onwards. I read this book in a single day, twenty-four births (at least) and the moment never ceased to be a miracle. I appreciated the points of view of the few male contributers (including Curtis Gillespie’s advice to those who follow him: “take off your wedding ring to avoid crushed fingers”). As a pregnant lady, I’ll note that Great Expectations is not an easy book to read, and certainly doesn’t serve to ease any fears (for I just learned new fears I didn’t even know I could have), but it was the context I found most reassuring. That this sort of thing happens all the time, and very often things go wrong, but then they’re okay, and in the end there’s a baby. How at the the end of her piece, Sandra Martin says of her children, “without them my journey would have been soulless.”

So 2008’s reading finished with Great Expectations, and I began 2009 with Christine Hardyment’s Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford, in which context is the object, providing the most fascinating illuminations. That we have always had “childcare experts” among us, from Rousseau (“Emile [was] the most famous childrearing manual of the age”) whose own history shows desertion by his father, and abandonment of his own children to foundling hospitals. “His dream children were born free, natural and innocent, but became instantly oppressed.”

Hardyment’s book is a 2007 update to her 1983 original, and surveys childcare advice and practice from the 17th century to the present day. She shows that advice and practice were not always the same thing, but that both were influenced by fashion, politics, and sociological changes– how one thing has always lead to another. During the 20th century, with “behaviourists” between the wars creating model citizens, post-war Soviet backlash leading to Benjamin Spock’s acknowledgment of babies as individuals, child-centred babies raising their own children, to how childcare manuals have become the “parent-centred” volumes we see today. And throughout all these changes, parents have been grappling (differently) with the same problems: how to deal with feeding (breast best or not, depending on the era), sleep patterns, intellectual development, and toilet training. The evils of mouth-breathing, however, thankfully have ceased to be considered.

In noting how successive editions of 20th century childcare bibles were constantly adapting with the times, Hardyment makes clear how our ideas of baby raising are always in flux. Which is often a good thing, some advice of yore completely ridiculous so it seems from where I stand– hanging apartment dwelling babies out of windows in cages for daily airings was one, as were midwinter dunks in cold rivers, and mothers who were amateur apothecaries.

But on the whole, Hardyment marks no divide between a “silly then” and “sensible now”; there is no such thing as progress but parents are going in circles instead. This perspective making Dream Babies as useful as it is fascinating and amusing, the past available for the choosing of its best ideas and not just ridicule. Also making clear that the contradictory advice of those most ubiquitous baby user guides is just as chaotic as it seems to be, and so it has ever been. This most interesting corner of history (and history is all corners) providing a context so absolutely necessary, for otherwise, how would we know not to be told what to think? Hardyment writes, “Manuals need to be kept in their place: tools, not tyrants, a helpful indication of the varied options that face us, not holy writ.”

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