Our Collective Memory Loss

I gave birth to Katie 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 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 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 family 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 hope that my own will also be acceptable.


Courtney said…
What a beautiful post! I always comment to my husband about how much I like you- and he says 'do yo know her?' No, I don't, but I sure feel like I do.
You have a wonderful family and I love following in your footsteps about 4 kids behind.
By the way, I love that you had your last one without medication, have you sen this film, The Business of Being Born- it is excellent and compares and contrasts birth practices today and explains ALL the benefits of a drug-free, intervention-free birth.
Sometimes I think my lot is hard with 3 and a half little ones, BUT you are right, we have it so easy. I think are challenges are different in this day and age and will be more mental than physical.
mom-e-mae said…
Love this! I often think of this. I especially loved watching "A Journey Home" about the Waller family and wonder if I could leave it all behind. Sometimes i get romantic notions about living an agrarian lifestyle without electricity, but it was a hard life. However as I have come across hard times I find that it brings my focus away from the unimportant and back to the paramount reality of faith and family.
bjahlstrom said…
This was a fantastic, thought-provoking essay. I really enjoyed it.
Well, I think you are pretty amazing!!

A few other thoughts . . . when I first started having children no one used medication. That was "unnatural" and harmful for the baby. But when my mother had me they knocked her completely out. Funny how things go in cycles.

Second--about trials and air conditioning. . . I have a friend whose daughter's car (that her husband drove for years) does not have air conditioning. So my friend will loan her daughter her car and find a ride for herself so the daughter doesn't have to "suffer" in the heat. I always laugh at that. I think it is great when my kids have difficulties. After all it is "character building" as my husband would say.

Also having a large family is a challenge that you handle very well. But I think no one gets out of this life without challenges of some sort. I think everyone will have difficulties--and lots of them-- and we will all have to choose how to face them. I have watched friends deal with poverty, loneliness, death, illness etc., and been so impressed with their optimism and courage. I think I am surrounded by wonderfully great people! I am so glad I can learn from all of them.
Handsfullmom said…
Lori, I hope it didn't sound like I don't find raising my family challenging -- it is! I just don't like the idea that I have to be some super-woman to do it; I'd rather believe that I'm capable like so many women before me.

And I think you're right that we all get tested to the limit of what we can endure sometimes. I've dealt with health issues and other problems in the past and I've seen people deal with more than I would believe it possible to handle.

I mentioned something of that idea in this post before: http://handsfullmom.blogspot.com/2008/09/im-amazing-but-so-are-you.html

I love your story of your friend and her car! How funny.
Rachel said…
It's funny, but I really think it is my challenges that have brought me the greatest joy. We just got chickens, and the first day I found an egg, I was extatic:) There is something beautiful in working hard and recieving the rewards for that. Love the post! Rachel
Mostly Diane said…
This is a good, thought provoking post. I have often thought about all of the hard work that went into just staying alive 150 years ago. I think that one of the biggest causes of immorality in our day is that we have too much free time. Hard work is good.

I too don't like it when people say either I am a super mom or just insane for giving up the "good life" because I have lots of children. I actually think Heavenly Father makes us all equal to our tasks if we work hard enough at it. I feel amazed at parents with children with disabilities. But I see that they are made equal to their task just as I often am, and just as the faithful pioneers were. In many ways, I suspect what we will face today will be just as difficult as the pioneers.
Michelle said…
This is a great post! With childbirth, I had my first naturally, but due to complications, the rest have been c-sections. Honestly, I'd take natural over c-sections! On the other subjects, my husband and I have often talked about these things. we live in a historic home and it makes us think so often how glad we are to live in the time we do- when our house was built, there was no A/C, and cooking on a wood stove. So glad that on these hot summer days I can turn on our A/C units when the kitchen heats up from cooking! We do make our own bread and butter, and are growing a pretty extensive garden. It's interesting to me that in the little area where we live so many of our neighbors grow their own produce, some have chickens (not legally!) and so many of us make our food from scratch. I have very talented friends that have sewn everything that goes in their home. Living here has taught me a lot. My mom and her friends are the ones that are surprised by butter making, canning, etc- I get a lot of "why would you want to do that" and "more kids?!!" ha! I think there was a generation that was all about making their lives easier and living for themselves. Granted, I'm tired...but I wouldn't trade any of it!
Claire said…
I think your exactly right. It's crazy to think of the things that our children have now that even we didn't have as kids. Computers for example!

I remember complaining to my Grandma once when my husband was in Iraq and I hadn't gotten an e-mail or phone call in several weeks. She then told me about her son's two year tour in Vietnam...which was followed by a one year stay in a VA hospital. Needless to say there weren't any e-mails from him... It made me really thankful for what we do have now.
Claire said…
I think your exactly right. It's crazy to think of the things that our children have now that even we didn't have as kids. Computers for example!

I remember complaining to my Grandma once when my husband was in Iraq and I hadn't gotten an e-mail or phone call in several weeks. She then told me about her son's two year tour in Vietnam...which was followed by a one year stay in a VA hospital. Needless to say there weren't any e-mails from him... It made me really thankful for what we do have now.
Stacey said…
Amen!! I don't think I'm all that amazing too, although it's nice to hear sometimes. I've gotten the comment that, "If you guys can make it to church early enough to sit in the pews, then we can too since we only have three children." It's nice to hear, but at the same time I was early when I only had three children as well.

It is interesting how our perception of what is hard has changed so drastically. I hope that our children are able to learn to work hard and be productive citizens, despite modern conveniences.
Lisa6Kids said…
This is a GREAT post Christina. I have contemplated on these things often as well. I have to say I am the kind of person that gets a little miffed when I hear all the 'superwoman' comments directed at me. I almost always reply, "I am just living life." I wish that the way we live was not so out of the norm. I definitely think there is a lot that people take for granted now.
Mommy Matters said…
Great post - you so perfectly summed up so many of my thughts and feelings!!! I get the "super woman/mom" comment and it makes me cringe a little - I always want to say "I'm just like you, I put my pants on one leg at a time" and when they ask "how do you do it!?" I want to reply "how do I NOT do it?" Having a big family is a "labor of love" sums it up best for me - yes, it is work, but there's all that love, too! Anyway, awesome post ~ I love it!!
Mama Rachel said…
I sooooo love this post!!! :-) Mind if I reference it on my "Old Fashioned Motherhood" blog? (www.oldfashionedmotherhood.com)

Maryanne said…
I think often about how much easier life is now than in previous generations and then wonder why life still seems so hard to me. I think reminding ourselves that hard work was and still should be the norm is helpful. Thanks for sharing this! I am particularly surprised when people comment on my large family (4 kids)-- it's not what i think of as a large family. :)
Ambrosia said…
What a thought provoking post. Loved it. I was just thinking of you the other day when it was a rough day and I thought....meh...4 is plenty. 5 doesn't sound so enticing at this moment. Then I thought about you and it made me feel like girl...you hands may be full but Christina's are more full so just get back at it with a good attitude.

I think people may say you are "superwoman" because you have chosen the full hands that you have. They know it requires more time, focus and hard work and perhaps...they just don't want to go there. They marvel that you have made that choice. That makes you super at being selfless, opening your arms to your capacity and being willing to stretch yourself and working hard for what you want--a good, loving and large family.

Sure--they could do it but they aren't. You are and you are incredible for having made that choice. I often wonder if I am willing to make that choice. I wonder if it is the plan that the Lord has for me in the first place. I don't think it is. Very likely 5 but probably not 8.

Superwomen are those that people look to and are inspired by. They give people extra hope to go on with their own lives and responsibilities knowing that their superhero is out there. If they are smart, they allow it to ignite their own superpowers. :)

Thanks for being that for so many.

Anyway, I love your perspective. I think you are incredibly insightful and you gave me a much needed uplift and encouragement.
Angie said…
I am grateful for pioneer sacrifices. I firmly believe, however, that we are given the trials we can handle and the trials we need. My grandmothers both talked frequently about not being able to do the hard things my sisters and I do in our lives--and they both lived hardscrabble lives of poverty, hard physical labor and pain. But they looked at our lives of rushing, of tech ease, but tech dangers, of modern convenience, but modern hassle and expense we can't get around (the need to have cars with enough seats and car seats for each person in the family, for example) and they instead see their own pasts of sweat and toil as having it easy, which it by no means was. Our ancestors had to work constantly to physically feed and guard their families but their work was often together as a family while we have to work tirelessly to spiritually feed and guard our families and the physical part requires much less sweat and far more finesse to manage and constant separation for our family members. I have no delusions that either is easy but I also don't think that easy is always all that desirable and definitely isn't what we're here to learn. No one in our ancestors' world thought that ease was a goal or even possible, but we are bombarded constantly by how to achieve ease and how necessary and deceptively important the pursuit of ease should be.

Our work may be different, but it is still work. No we aren't super women, but seeing the divinity and virtue within us allows us and emboldens us to make the difficult choices to choose work when it is ennobling and to fight the dangers that beset our families and be grateful for the dangers of the past we are able to avoid.
Michelle said…
I think it's important to remember our ancestors, and I think it's awesome that you feel a connection with them.

I like Angie's comment...captures a lot of what I was thinking. I also think the complexity of our day, including the multitude of choices we can make (including to some degree the size of our families (although some of us sort of had that choice made for us by circumstances not completely in our control)) makes our day 'hard' in its own way. They had no choice about pain or working to survive. We have the challenge of more ease but also more difficulty that they never knew.

I do feel that the principles that grounded them -- as you said, faith and family -- are principles that can and should ground us. My 'hard' is different from yours, but I resonated so much with how you found strength from your foremothers to try to face your life with the grace that has come from them through the generations...their legacy is REAL.

Yours will be, too. ;) I'm sure it already is. You inspire me, and I only know you through little glimpses in cyberspace. Keep up the good work.
Anonymous said…
What a wonderful post! My husband and I have three children (so far!) and are hoping to have a "mega-family" someday with 8-10 children. You are living proof that I can do it! Thanks so much for your post.

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