The Phenomenon of Parenting

History professor Jill Lepore's take on recent parenting memoirs

Two new parenting memoirs, Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman, J.D. ’91, and Home Game by Michael Lewis, have been getting lots of press. In the June 29 New Yorker, Jill Lepore offers a fresh take rooted in the American past. The perspective makes sense: Lepore is Harvard's Kemper professor of American history.

The concept of parenthood is relatively new, she notes:

An ordinary life used to look something like this: born into a growing family, you help rear your siblings, have the first of your own half-dozen or even dozen children soon after you're grown, and die before your youngest has left home. In the early eighteen-hundreds, the fertility rate among American women was between seven and eight children; adults couldn't expect to live past sixty. To be an adult was to be a parent.

As the birth rate declined and the average age at first birth rose, adulthood and parenthood began to emerge as separate phenomena, Lepore writes—and she introduces us to Clara Savage Littledale, the founding editor of Parents' Magazine and, as Lepore tells it, the leader of a charge to make Americans think they couldn't figure out how to be a parent without the help of a magazine.

Lepore brands the new books by Waldman and Lewis "memoirs by parents determined to profess their parental ineptitude," and confesses she does not find these books as "winsome" as most apparently do. She agrees that Americans "are more inexperienced and more unskilled at caring for [children] than ever," but prefers Anne Lamott's "wry and smart" memoir, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year.

The New Yorker website also has an audio interview in which Lepore discusses her parenting article.

From the Harvard Magazine archives, read about the book Lepore herself recently cowrote—not a parenting memoir, but a novel set in 1760s Boston, in the form of fictional letters. And for more on Ayelet Waldman as stay-at-home mom, see "Quantity Time."

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