I came across a conversation on Twitter over the weekend and I can’t stop thinking about it. A woman named Nicole was talking with a friend about historically high child mortality rates. The friend has a PhD in a relevant subject.
Nicole asked, “So people just emotionally withdrew from their babies and small kids, knowing the rate of lethal childhood illness?”
Her friend answered, “No. They changed their naming conventions [they might delay naming the baby], but they felt the exact same misery anybody would feel now.”
When I read the thread, I had a sudden flashback to learning about early Americans. I was taught they had lots of children because they knew many if not most of the children wouldn’t make it to adulthood. And I remember thinking that losing children is too unbearable, so they must have come up with some sort of mental/emotional defense mechanism to somehow make it easier?
I remember telling myself the same thing when I learned about Mormon pioneers burying their babies and young children along the trail as they crossed the country. My brain couldn’t comprehend it, and self-soothed by thinking that those pioneers must have somehow thought of their children differently in order to endure something like that.
And then I remember reading about a similar topic, this time in medieval China. Only now I had babies of my own. And instead of thinking those medieval parents must have somehow gotten used to babies dying, it was clear to me: No. It’s horrible every time, during every part of history. They were no different than we are as far as loving their children. I’m just lucky.
The comments on the thread are thoughtful and interesting. One person shared a gorgeous, heart-rending essay her mother, Heidi Hemming, wrote about this topic. Another shared a sweet and sad account from an early 17th century Chinese father at the loss of his daughter to smallpox.
Several people recommended the book Death Without Weeping by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, about a specific favela in Northern Brazil with a very high infant mortality rate. (I should note: in the reviews, someone mentioned the book is 30 years old and that the author wrote an article with an update on the area in 2013 — and that things have gotten better in that area.)
The comments on the thread also include dozens and dozens of stories of grandmothers and great-grandmothers with lost babies that they never got over, and tons of other historical references with examples of how fondly babies and children have always been loved — including myths about children from the middle ages.
It reminds me of the story of Job from the Bible. The story is typically positioned like: See? If you are as faithful and patient as Job, you’ll be blessed. Everything Job lost was restored and then some. But even as a kid I remember thinking: Really? He didn’t get his original ten kids back. He got new kids. I certainly hope he loved his new kids, but that wouldn’t make the loss of the original kids hurt any less.
Is this a topic you’ve ever thought about? And has your brain ever tried to convince that parents who live in high-child-mortality areas must somehow get used to the idea of children dying? I’d love to hear your thoughts.