How Did Great Grandma Do It All?–She Didn’t.

More Work for Mother describes the social and economic effects of the last 2-3 centuries of household technology.

People in pre-industrial times did a lot more heavy physical work, but they had fewer possessions and textiles, and more adults per household–men weren’t yet heading off to the office, mine, or factory every day, and it was common to hire servants or house young relatives for help. Cooking was mostly one pot meals over a hearth, clothing was mostly made of wool and other materials which were brushed rather than washed. There’s no question that they worked hard, but they weren’t hand scrubbing an American family sized pile of laundry every day either! (They didn’t even use diapers all the time… children were bowel trained early and pee messes weren’t a big deal with all the hard surfaces. When Tudor families changed babies’ wet swaddling clothes, they generally just hung them over the fire and used them again later without washing the urine away.)

Growing up, the Little House on the Prairie books gave me this idea of a solitary mother cooking, cleaning, and rearing children to modern standards, all alone, day in and day out. And that was partly true for women on the frontier, but even there it was common to send for young relatives to help. Women on the frontier also spent more time on food preparation and less on childcare than modern mothers. And, frankly, lots of them succumbed to depression out on the prairie. ( This was written in 1893!)

Up until the 1930’s almost every family who could afford it hired someone else to take care of the laundry, the most onerous task. Families who couldn’t afford help with the laundry just did less of it. The “great unwashed” was no joke. Our great grandmothers didn’t do it all–they got help or they resigned themselves to a lower standard of living.

The Depression drastically decreased hired help for the vast majority of Americans, but household technologies like refrigerators, vacuums and washing machines became increasingly available soon after. Soon short-staffed housewives were able to employ machines to help reach a standard of cleanliness that was almost impossible to achieve alone and unaided. But it saved housewives time on tasks that would have been entirely taken on by hired help a generation ago.

Parenting also became more intensive in the 1930’s. Germ theory had taken hold in the earlier part of the century and cleanliness, routine, and record keeping became staples of American child rearing. As nannies became less affordable, magazines and books emphasized the importance of mothers’ involvement with their babies. You couldn’t trust a mere servant to feed, bathe, and observe your baby in the new scientific ways. Only a mother could do something of such emotional import, even though child rearing responsibilities had traditionally been distributed among servants and relatives as well as parents. Mothers’ prestige increased, but so did their household pressures.

Once rates of childhood mortality declined, parenting manuals began to focus more on children’s emotional and psychological development. Mothers were advised not to smother their children, but also to devote themselves to safeguarding every aspect of their children’s wellbeing. (Turns out women’s magazines have been ridiculous shame bombs for like forever).

More Work For Mother was published in 1982, but Emily Matchar took up the household technology torch in 2013 with Homeward Bound: Women and the New Domesticity. She delves deep into the new DIY and homesteading movements of the 2000’s and describes the pressure it creates for women.

There’s even been a lot of change in the last 75 years or so…. Our grandmothers mostly raised kids in neighborhoods with a number of other stay at home moms whom they would have known from church, rotary clubs, or everyday commerce in town. They could let kids run around with their neighbors because they could reasonably expect other adults in the community to keep an eye on things. Moms could go to the doctor alone without much trouble–just let the neighbors know you’ll be out for an hour or two. Faith in public institutions was greater at the time, so children walked to the public or parochial school together and walked home. Mothers didn’t have to make their own curriculum or plan out every social interaction their children engaged in.


Parents were expected to nurture their children emotionally and provide physically, but they weren’t expected to engage in a hundred extracurriculars requiring two hundred long car trips. They could reasonably expect their children to get decent jobs with a high school diploma, so the imperative to turn out a wunderkind was less. For the most part, they gave birth at the local hospital and sent their children to the local family doctor and more or less trusted the directions they were given. This sometimes had downsides–1950’s birth practices come to mind–but women’s mental load was nevertheless lighter.

Our contemporary lack of community and faith in public institutions shifts the burdens of family life from the community to individual parents, who suddenly have to not only maintain their households, but hold down jobs, and sift through mountains of information to  become experts on everything from bronchitis to calculus.

Historically, THIS ISN’T NORMAL. Most mothers throughout history were not solely responsible for curating every single aspect of their children’s physical, social, emotional and intellectual lives. Not even close. Most mothers throughout history relied on an extensive network of relatives, hired help, schools, doctors, government agencies, friends, clubs, and neighborhoods. Traditionally, women weren’t even solely responsible for cooking and cleaning. Hiring help was very common, as were lower standards of food and cleanliness. (Also note that the size of the average American home has doubled since 1950!! That’s so much more to take care of!!)

I always used to wonder how women did it all back in the olden days, and I felt totally inadequate in comparison. But the reality is that they didn’t do it all–not single handedly anyway. And, frankly, the ones who sort of did it all by having dozens of children in dire poverty frequently died young and broken. Now when I cook a frozen pizza or struggle to get all the laundry done, I think of the tears of joy my foremothers would have shed to have had a frozen pizza or the freedom to avoid laundry for a whole week. When I feel crushingly lonely I think about my foremothers who might have wondered why we’ve all chosen to be so alone.

If you’d like to know more about social and technological history I’d recommend


More Work for Mother by Ruth Schwartz Cowan


Homeward Bound by Emily Matchar


How Babies Made us Modern by Janet Golden


And The Design of Childhood by Alexandra Lange
Raising America, by Ann Hulbert, gives a good basic history of 20th century child rearing advice as well.

Happy reading! (And buy some microwave corn dogs in honor of your ancestors who would have absolutely loved them!)

Say the Magic Words

Crying babies are trying to manipulate you. A child who’s having a public screaming meltdown needs a spanking. Tears in adults are a sign of weakness, like Barack Obama’s “fake tears” over the slaughtered kindergartners of Sandy Hook. Children must obey with a good attitude, without anger or tears. That would be too strong an assertion of the self, the feelings, the needs. They must remember their place.


By the time I had my daughter, I didn’t look at tears as manipulation. I wanted to respond warmly and kindly. I read (in retrospect, extremely problematic) articles about how African babies don’t cry because their mothers are so warm and attentive. They anticipated their every need.


When my daughter was a newborn her cries made me nauseous. I got cold and started shaking. I would put her to the breast and flush hot. I was so tired. I couldn’t get her to sleep in her little bassinet. Her cries interrupted my sleep and were like a knife to the middle of my brain. It’s like my body didn’t know that she had separated from it. And in a way her body was still an extension of mine. I was her habitat. Where she slept and ate and watched the world.
I called the midwife and asked if it was normal to get nauseous and feel like I was dying whenever she latched on. I had been feverishly googling to figure out what horrible disease I had.
She paused. “Have you ever struggled with anxiety?” I guess I have, yes. “I think you’re describing an anxiety attack, babe. But you’re going to be fine, and you’re taking care of your baby, and you can do this. Call back if you need anything.” And with that my anxiety attacks slowly dissipated. I hadn’t been able to admit the fear that her little body would engulf mine now that we’d been rent in two. Ordinarily losing eight pounds of blood and bones would be fatal after all. I dreamed that she was draining the life out of me with every gulp of milk and I thought I would die. But no. Not death, just fear. Once I named the feeling it lost some of its power.
A few months later my smitten father-in-law gazed lovingly at the rosy baby kicking on the rug and said “it’s like lookin at your own leg.” And I knew just what he meant. And I loved him for being part of the baby who was part of me.
Once when my newborn daughter woke crying my husband continued sleeping like the dead. I held her quivering mouth directly to his ear and was enraged when I realized he was deaf to the sound. “HOW ARE YOU ASLEEP” He tells this story as an example of the madness that overtakes the newly postpartum and insists that she was barely crying, but I know. When I tell other women, they shake their heads. They know.
It was hard when she was a newborn because everything was new. But her needs were relatively simple. Nurse. Diaper. Nurse. Carrier. Sleep. She wasn’t yet crying about moving away from the only home she had ever known or having nightmares about a skeleton stealing her hula hoop. Soothing her was like soothing myself. I’ve seen countless mothers adjust a squirming baby’s little sock as unconsciously as brushing hair out of their eyes.
When I couldn’t soothe her, I cried too. When she screamed for hours in the carseat, I sang countless tearful verses of “Monkey Tambourine” a family ditty I had desperately composed while rhythmically shaking her little monkey rattle. The nausea returned. When we finally got out of the car I held her and we both became calm again. She was a serious baby, but one of her first laughs came when I took her out of the carseat and into my arms after a long drive.
She grew and changed.
One day when she was almost two she wanted to walk into the street and I wouldn’t let her. She screamed and cried and, for the first time, I felt angry at her tears.
Why? Why should I feel mad at a baby’s crying? I asked myself what I thought she was trying to say. “It’s your job to make me happy and you’re failing.” Well. It wasn’t my job to make her happy all the time and really, she was probably saying something more like “I’m frustrated.” her tears weren’t about me any more than the rain is. Toddlers suffer when they learn that they’re not the center of the universe, and now I had to learn that I wasn’t the center of her universe. A greater separation began.
When I was an Evangelical, I believed that children’s tears were a reflection of their parents. Their parents hadn’t trained them well enough, or their parents needed to address the tears so that they wouldn’t still “act like that” at age 12 or beyond (as though children never change).
I wasn’t an evangelical anymore, but I still believed that children’s tears were a reflection of their parents. Their parents weren’t attentive or empathetic enough, or they needed to address some unspoken emotional need so they wouldn’t feel abandoned at age 12 or beyond (as though children are passive, blank slates).
Somehow it had become two sides of the same coin. Her tears were me. But I realized that she wasn’t just a part of me anymore. She had her own body and her own emotions. “I’m not upset, she’s​ upset” became my mantra. And my panic and anger slowly dissipated. The words anchored me to reality and broke the feverish emotional spell.
Thanks to the Internet, it’s possible to find advice about just about any minute parent-child interaction you could possibly imagine. Most positive parenting experts will tell you, for example, to tell your toddler “feet on the floor” instead of “no climbing”. The child understands the request better and you’re aren’t stuck fighting and saying “no” all day. I drank all of these words in, hoping that they would make our lives together perfect and peaceful. If I could just say the right words, she would feel loved and she would be happy.


I quickly learned that mere words are not enough to contain a toddler’s emotions, despite hundreds of blog stories about the magic of empathy. Just because you’re empathetic with your child’s struggles doesn’t mean they won’t have struggles. I began to wonder if the real magic of all of these positive words and phrases was the change they work in the speaker. Saying “I hear you” doesn’t change my child, it changes me. It’s a ritual that brings my attention to her smallness and her needs. I have to strip away my ego and aspirations and see my children as they really are to give them the closeness they need.
When I reflect on my own relationships and those of my friends, it strikes me that most of us don’t regret particular techniques our parents used so much as their attention and acceptance or the lack thereof. I was spanked a few times as a small child and I don’t remember much about it. I don’t feel especially traumatized by it. The real pain is in feeling like my parents dedicated their lives to replacing me with an ideal daughter designed to bolster their ideal selves.
I want to raise my children well. I want them to know that they’re loved. I do sometimes wish I could cast an anti-tantrum spell. But I find that the real magic comes from watching, thinking, and attending. From constantly disentangling my emotions from my children’s despite my visceral bonds of feeling. I’ve had to develop personal boundaries and take responsibility for holding them.
Sometimes our separateness is painful, even shocking. We don’t have as much control over our children or their fates as we think. But we can watch and listen, and let go just enough to see them face to face—to let a bond of love tie two selves together where there once was only one.

A Muskrat Memento Mori

“This muskrat skull is real and it looks alright on the shelf but if you look closer you can see glue on some of the teeth. It makes it seem fake, but otherwise it’s okay. Four stars.”
The skull was long gone by now, but if she couldn’t have it, she could at least write about it. Other online shoppers would no doubt appreciate her perspective.
She had hoped to stave off postmodern alienation from the natural world by making her room a sort of cabinet of curiosities. She had a very respectable leaf collection, a stupid bucket of rocks that were half concrete, various seed pods and acorns in a dirty pile on her nightstand, and formerly, briefly, a glorious muskrat skull.
She was sixteen now, but she didn’t think of herself as a teenager. “Teenager” was just a made up concept for a decadent society in which people under the age of twenty (or thirty, for God’s sake) were selfish and ill-equipped for life. She was trapped into a sort of monastic existence at home at home anyway, so she decided she might as well study and make a more natural and wholesome life for herself.
When she was a child she used to run down to the pond to watch for turtles and muskrats. It was hard to catch a glimpse of anything other than pervasive, noxious algae. She had stepped in once and immediately sunk to her knees in sticky, stinking black mud. But the grassy edge of the pond wasn’t so bad except for the hordes of biting insects. Every once in a while she saw a tail slip from the tall grass into water with a dull plop. A muskrat. Maybe it had a whole family. It was a shame it was so hard to see. What did the little creatures do with their time anyway? But how marvelous to think that they could thrive and produce thick glossy coats in a pitiful, fetid hole! What purity! What perseverance! Of course they must not have known anything different, but their virtue was inspiring nonetheless.
She still went to the pond on occasion, but there was a drought, which meant that the stench of mud and dead fish was overpowering. She snorted with disgust. No one should have dug this pond in the first place. It’s brought nothing but filth, even when her aunt tried to install a scenic fountain. “A urinating monument to the hubris of man,” she thought. She considered hunting a muskrat but she wasn’t sure how. Shooting it would be too banal, but spear hunting was almost certainly beyond her skill level. And she didn’t really want a muskrat to die either, much to her embarrassment. If society ever crumbled she’d have to get over her sentimentality.
Her sixteenth birthday had arrived with meager celebration. Her mother had very excitedly made her Mickey Mouse pancakes with little sightless blueberry eyes, forgetting that she had hated that damn mouse since she was eight.

“Would you like to open your present, sweetheart?”
She felt a tiny glimmer of warmth, maybe even excitement, although she tried not to show it. “All right.”

Her beaming mother disappeared into the coat closet and returned with a gaudy pink
package. The wrapping paper was almost entirely obscured by a mass of glittery ribbon curls.

Mickey’s malformed pancake ear turned to dust in her mouth. She thought about feigning delight but decided against it. Her mother was nearly jumping for joy as she tore away the paper to reveal a huge porcelain doll.

“Isn’t she gorgeous? I thought you could add her to your collection. You can see the tucks
and gathers on her dress were hand sewn! I know she’s a little large, but she was too beautiful to pass up–much nicer than the small ones. If we just move a few of your books to the basement she’ll fit just fine!” she laid a confident hand on her daughter’s shoulder, “I think you’re ready for a real collectible now!”

“Thank you, mother. She’s very ornate. I should probably start my school work now.”

She shuffled up the stairs to her room and closed the door. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. The doll stared at her faded tee shirt and second hand skirt. She shoved the doll into a pile of sweaters and papers in the back of the closet and sat on her bed listlessly. It was probably time to start thinking about her future. She figured she could be a scholar of some kind but it would be nearly impossible to find a suitably Christian university. She might have to toil in obscurity like the desert fathers.

But there was some short term hope. She had received a gift card from her aunt a few
days before. She generally avoided the Internet but this was an exceptional opportunity. She leaned back on her pillows and envisioned the possibilities. She would make her room a haven of uncorrupted natural goodness. A beautifully curated shrine that would be a sign of contradiction in a house reeking of artificial apple cinnamon.

Maybe butterfly specimens would be a good addition. She had never been any good at catching bugs, so her entomology collection was weak at best. Last summer she had caught a few butterflies but she couldn’t bear to feel their frantic wings and wiggling legs on her fingers long enough to pin them. She had saved a few crickets in a jar, but they quickly died and were disposed of by her mother. “UGH! Why do you have dead bugs in here? That’s disgusting! Let me help you clean up,” and they had endured several hours of mother daughter housework bonding. It took at least a week for the “vanilla” scent to dissipate, but it kept her mother out for about a month. Her mother seemed to believe that these bouts of cleaning would permanently preserve the room, and was periodically shocked to find it changed.
She could get one nicely framed blue morpho. That could do, but wait, one hundred specimens?

Ah. Unmounted. That’s just a hundred pack of dead butterflies. Maybe if she kept them in a box? No. But the related items looked moderately interesting. There were some nice skulls, including a muskrat skull for only $13.88. She admired the monstrous orange incisors. There were a few reviews: “the spongy sinus bones are still intact. Wonderful!”

This was very compelling. Add to cart. Check out.

And now to wait. She already treasured it in her imagination and smiled. She solemnly processed toward her desk with her hands aloft, anticipating the great moment. Wait. Get rid of the box of crackers, the hairbrush and that godawful literature textbook first. She wasn’t really sure where anything belonged, so she carefully balanced each item in the nest of clothes and unworn hair bows on her dresser. The textbook slid to the floor and landed on her foot. She grimaced but didn’t cry. No goddamn textbook would tell her what to do. She thumped it back down on the desk and decided it would make a very fine pedestal. The skull would be a muskrat memento mori. She hadn’t killed it herself, but maybe it was better that way. It would remind her of the fragility of even the most noble animal life and of her own limitations. It should inspire humility.

For the next three days she lit a candle on her desk before bed so she could imagine her new treasure. She gazed at the warm glow in the little space she had prepared. The flame flickered in the window as she drifted to sleep. Unfortunately it left a very stubborn pile of wax, but it wasn’t really in the way. She didn’t really know how to get rid of wax and she didn’t particularly care to learn. But she really did need to do something about her other collections. She tried to arrange her seed pods in a more pleasing way, but couldn’t decide whether to sweep up the dirt that had accumulated beneath them. Well, rocks then. She would get rid of the lesser rocks and put the reasonable ones on the window sill for display. She was finally getting somewhere with her homely house.

“Well you’re certainly chipper this morning.”

Today was the projected arrival date. She had braided her hair and was eating her oatmeal with unusual relish.

Her mother continued, “I thought we could go shopping together today. Maybe get some new curtains or decorations for your room since you’re in there so much these days. You know I do worry sometimes…” She stared at her mother. “Well, anyway, I saw a bedspread at Target the other day with the most darling horses on it–”

“Well I was going to go to the pond today.”

“Well maybe you could do that afterward. You haven’t gotten out much lately and I thought it would be a nice treat. And you know how I love spending time with you!” her mother smiled for a few seconds. “And we could get a new shelf for your doll collection, since I know you don’t have a good way to display it right now and–”

The doorbell rang.

“I got it!” She sprinted to the door full of hope, her jean skirt flapping in her wake. The delivery man was already quickly marching away, but the box lay waiting for her.

“What was that? Did the delivery man go already? I didn’t even get a chance to say hello!” her mother seemed affronted. “For you, I see! Well, what is it?”

“I used my birthday gift card.”

“Oh? Well, open it, I want to see!” Her mother was already opening the package with her eyes.

“I’ll just open it upstairs.”

Her mothers expression grew cold. “Ruth.”

She slunk to the kitchen with a heavy stomach and returned with a pair of floral scissors. She felt an angry knot in her throat as she tore through the little strings in the brown tape and revealed a small wooden box.

“Oh, jewelry! How nice!” her mother seemed ready to pounce.

“Yes, I should put it away.”

“Oh try it on, honey, you’ll look so beautiful! I nearly got you some earrings myself! “she laughed with satisfaction. “Shows how well I know you!” Her mother wrung her hands and waited.

She opened the box and carefully lifted the delicate skull into the light.

“What is that?”

“It’s a muskrat skull.”

“WHY?” her voice had gone hard.

“I wanted it.”

Why did you want it?” Her mother leaped to her feet with a wild look.

“I thought it would be a good reminder of mortality.”

“Mortality?” The wheels were turning. Her mother’s voice reached a wail. “Like killing? You want to kill? Oh my God. Give it to me,” she snatched the skull from her daughter’s cold hand. “I should give it to the dog. But, oh Jesus! its teeth–” she shrieked, and dropped it to the floor with a trembling hand, knocking one of the magnificent incisors askew. “And the diseases!” she was out of breath. “I’m going to bury this. I don’t know what it is or why you have it, but I won’t have…Satanism! In my house!” She collected her wits and bellowed “go to your room!” before collapsing into a kitchen chair.
Ruth climbed the stairs and seated herself mechanically at her desk. She could see her mother outside with a shovel. She felt too leaden to cry and almost regretted it. She opened the window a crack to feel the cold air, and pushed a single rock over the sill to hear the silence and then the faint thud. To dust you shall return.

Then another. And another.