Saturday, July 24, 2010

Our Collective Memory Loss

I gave birth to Katie, my eighth child, naturally. No drugs, no epidural, just me and a whole lot of pain. It was the first time I'd gone without an epidural and I'm still undecided about whether I'll go that route again.

It's been interesting to hear people's reactions to my experience. By and large, women in my generation say, "Wow!" "Amazing!" "How did you do that?" or "I could never do that."

But women twenty years older say, "Oh," or "Been there, done that!" They are not impressed with my accomplishment because to them, it isn't brave or unusual to give birth without epidurals. To their generation, pain was an accepted part of childbirth, even if it wasn't particularly welcome.

You weren't brave, amazing, or different than any other woman by choosing that option; it was just something you did, a normal and natural part of life.

Life is pain, after all, and it was meant to be hard.

I wondered if as a society, we have a collective memory loss of what normal life has been for generations and generations. We wake up to an alarm, flip on the lights, take a shower, then walk from our air-conditioned house to our air-conditioned car to our air-conditioned job, run over to the gym for a workout, then hit the drive-through for a shake on the way home. At home, we warm up leftovers in the microwave or pop in a movie to relax. We take for granted the hot and cold water that comes into our sinks and the only time we even think about our toilets is when one of them is broken. We drive a block to the grocery store to fill up our car with fresh produce and convenient foods no matter what time of year it is.

Life has been made so much easier by technology that we are so impressed by those who do without it. We feel sorry for the poor soul whose air conditioning unit broke in their car. We are amazed at people who bake their own bread or grow their own produce in a garden. We complain about cleaning up after a child who threw up in the night, even as we turn on the lights, walk her to the bathroom for a shower, and throw the bedsheets into the washer.

I often get comments about the size of my family -- according to the positive ones, I'm "amazing" or "super-woman" or I must be "super organized," "have a lot of patience" or the like.

It makes me feel good to know that my efforts are recognized and the difficulty of task of raising a large family is acknowledged, but sometimes the comments get to me. They make me feel like what I'm doing in raising a family is so unusual, so different, and so brave as to be impossible for a typical, ordinary woman. And since most of the time, I feel like a typical, ordinary woman, it makes me wonder sometimes if maybe I have taken on too much. Wouldn't it just be easier to have fewer children, to spread them out a bit, to make my life less difficult? No one else is doing what I am; maybe they know something I don't?

My sister recently made a book about some of my ancestors and as I read through their brief histories, I suddenly felt connected across the generations. Here were the women who would look at my life and instead of saying, "amazing," or "how do you do it?", they'd say, "oh," "only eight?" or "been there, done that." Here were families of ten, twelve, or even fifteen children, all of them raised to be hard-working, productive, contributing adults, and all of them doing it with much more work involved.

Clothing their family didn't involve chasing down the latest Children's Place sale and then opening the huge box that arrived in the mail three days later. It meant sewing, and a lot of it. And it wasn't even all that long ago that clothing wasn't so abundant. My mother grew up on a dairy farm and remembers she only got two new dresses to wear each year, one at Christmas and one at Easter.

Feeding their families meant growing a garden, kneading bread by hand, bottling home-grown produce on a hot stove day after day in the sweltering heat of summer so that their children would have food to eat in the winter. It meant cleaning up after chickens (ever smelled a chicken coop?) and milking cows twice a day no matter what the weather was like.

Housing their family meant laying out all those beds in the attic room with the low ceilings and drafty breezes. It sometimes meant cutting down trees and laying them on top of one another. For one of my ancestors, newly arrived in this country from Sweden, it meant digging a hole in the side of a mountain and living in a dug-out for several seasons until a more permanent home could be arranged.

And they did it all with large families to tend to, children to teach and rear and educate.

What would our great-grandmothers think about our lives today?

I think we've forgotten that life for generations and generations wasn't about "finding yourself," "reaching for your dreams," or doing anything you could to make your life easier.

It was about work. Hard work and lots of it. It was about pain, from the pain of childbirth to the grief of early death. It was about praying over your children and hoping they emerged alive from their latest illness. It was about hard physical labor, breaking ground, planting, harvesting. It was about being busy and productive and taking care of each other. It was about sacrificing your own comfort for that of another. It was about wearing out your life in service.

It was about faith.

It was about family.

As a society, we've progressed technologically, but I wonder if we've lost something along the way.

I like feeling that others are impressed with what I've chosen to do with my life. It's nice once in a while to get some positive attention. Frankly, it's a good boost to my ego (which may or may not be a good thing!).

But I'd rather not give into the temptation to think my life is unusually hard and that what I'm doing requires a super-woman.

I'd rather think, instead, that I have within me the same strength and fortitude and capacity for work that my grandmothers had. I'd rather feel that I'm carrying on a blessed and honorable tradition.

I'd rather remember their sacrifices and realize my own pitiful ones don't compare.

* cross-posted from my blog, Hands Full & Loving it (mostly)


Jenny said...

Aww...well said, Momma. I only have 3 kids, which hasn't been my decision...I envy big families. We all have hard times, even those with small families or no kids. And I totally give my kids too much - not necessarily material's more that they are constantly entertained and amused, and I actually worry about that for them. Ya know?

Eriche said...

Well said. We are about to have our 3rd child and am getting sick of the negativity we get from family and friends. Kids raised well by Loving families are not burdens, they are a blessing to society!

Western society is now filled with greedy selfish individuals and as a result it is falling apart.

Baker said...

You would enjoy the book America's Women: 400 years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines. I read it over Christmas and our family (with 4 boys) was having the same discussion as your blog. We do take too much for granted these days...