Saturday, September 20, 2008

The proprietary child

I woke up this morning with the oddest series of thoughts.  I woke up thinking about cultural clashes between Native Americans and Europeans during the 17th century, most of which eventually led to horror and destruction.  I rarely remember any of my dreams, and don't know if this was follow-on from a dream state.  Nothing I've been reading or working on has any relationship to this: Pamela Stone's book, Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, Rick Barot's poetry, a report on community colleges and federal financial aid, Sarah Messer's Red House.  

I woke thinking about the early European settlers of the Americas and their reactions to the warfare tactics of the Native American tribes of the Eastern seaboard, particularly moving from the late 17th to early 18th centuries when relations became more and more antagonistic.  And I'm going to set aside what I think are fairly clear lessons to be drawn about European politics and the failures of social justice in order to discuss other matters.

When I was much younger, say middle school (even elementary school) through high school, and intermittently into adulthood, I was fascinated by Native American culture of the Eastern (now) United States.  Forgive me if, in relying on memory, there are errors here--or please correct them.

The Europeans saw their own contemporaneous practices of beheading, burning at the stake, drawing and quartering, and other forms of torture as wrapped up as final stage punitive processes of a legal and political system that arrived at its findings through deliberation.  Many of the early English "settlers" perceived the existing English system of justice as discriminatory and corrupt (for example, the Puritans) and took their chances leaving to establish, de facto, their own system of government (which had its own problems).  Hangings were a feature of Puritan life, but beheading, drawing and quartering, and some other Elizabethan/Jacobean torture practices are not what I remember being part of their justice system.  All of the accused and tried in the Salem witchcraft trials were hanged, not burned at the stake.  They may have seen themselves as a society in reform from extraordinary political cruelty.

They collide with a northeastern Native American culture that has very different attitudes toward the body, punishment, social justice, and deliberative political action.  Some of the warfare and torture practices engaged in that were recorded by the Europeans were, if viewed solely through the lens of what we now perceive to be human rights, gruesome and abhorrent--and the same goes for the various human rights violations of European settlers.  I don't even want to detail some of those that I remember.

One of the things to which Europeans were unaccustomed was the taking of prisoners and their required assimilation into the culture of the victorious people.  John Demos wrote an extraordinary book, The Unredeemed Captive, that focuses on a particularly famous captivity narrative of the 18th century (I think it was 18th and not 17th) but discusses that event within the context of those of the entire period.  Demos points out, I remember, that these captivity narratives were very, very popular, written down, published, and printed, and widely disseminated.  The narratives struck deep chords of anxiety in readers, and were symptomatic of deep societal distress over cultural boundaries and assimilation.

Native Americans of the northeast tended to kill the adult men outright during a raid, taking captive women of all ages and young boys (this was their practice not only with Europeans, but other Native American tribes).  The return passage, by foot, to the tribe's current location often covered hundreds of miles.  Those prisoners who couldn't make it, couldn't keep up with the pace, were summarily executed, usually by having their skulls crushed.  Children tended to survive because their bodies are sometimes more adaptable to hardship, but also because even these fierce male warriors were often willing to carry them for some distances.  Because the men were already beginning to see the children as their own, not as individual fathers, but as collective parents.  While a number of captives were able to escape or were rescued, others, especially younger children, assimilated.  The Demos book tells the story of a young girl whose remaining extended family was able to negotiate her release, but who refused to return home.  (There's also a John Wayne/John Ford movie that deals with similar themes and is based on a somewhat similar true story--"The Searchers"--which takes place in the 18th century among Native Americans of the southwest).

Native Americans in the northeast up through the 18th century (before their way of life is destroyed) tended to raise their children in much more collective arrangements than Europeans ever have, even now.  The Algonquins and the other long-house tribes of the northeast had collective living arrangements, and what we now think of as "day care" for children was a cultural norm.  Some women were tasked with produce gathering, or with water collecting, or any other housekeeping task, while others were tasked with caring for children too young to be assigned chores.  

So the assimilation of non-biological children was easier: in a Western household, children are proprietary and shared care is a matter of bargaining or the State stepping in to correct neglect.  If you are a non-biological child in a Western family unit, you may be welcome and wanted, but there are still fine boundaries that remain, even within a nearly complete assimilation.  In these types of northeastern Native American family units, children have loving biological parents, but the group care, as in, It-Takes-a-Village-style-care, offers a number of non-biological "parental" models as normative.  Thus, familial bonds are less linear and more flexible, and assimilation can be more complete.  

Now the weird leap that typically occurs within dreams or after dreaming: this sort of leap of consciousness that follows some kind of intuitive logic that poetry can make more easily than narratives.  What I had been reading about in Pamela Stone's book yesterday was the anxiety of upper-income professional women over leaving their children in the care of babysitters with lower socioeconomic status as the children move through elementary school.  They perceive that their hired caretakers are not capable of delivering what Stone calls "the transmission of human and social capital."  Their husbands are unwilling and unavailable to do it, as their roles as high-earning breadwinners have been prioritized for the ostensible good of the family unit.  So these women quit to stay home and perform that function.  

But underlying these actions, isn't there the glimmer of a fear of assimilation?  Or of improper assimilation?  A faint relic of early American captivity narratives?  It seems, sometimes, that the United States has a greater cultural anxiety about day care and shared care of children than do other societies.  Where does this come from?  The U.S. is now much more culturally diverse than it has ever been--but our leaders still reflect an earlier version of our society--and even if the majority of U.S. citizens are not descendants of pre-Revolutionary settlers or early Western settlers, does this sort of primal cultural clash with a displaced and demolished Native American population somehow still haunt and echo through a collective cultural European consciousness? And does the emergence of a powerful Latino population and voting block trigger these long-buried cultural assimilation fears among Americans of European descent?  Our government has gone to the nutty length of attempting to build a several thousand mile fence between the U.S. and Mexico, which I can only read in symbolic terms--its practical applications are laughable and insane.

The children that Stone describes are enrolled in pristine public schools or exclusive private ones that serve, certainly, as reliable transmitters of human and social capital.  Stone writes about the model of "intensive mothering" that includes shepherding of children through social events, after school activities, and homework.  Yes, schools contribute to put pressure on mothers, certainly, by assigning homework in all earnestness to children who are not mature enough to handle it, requiring a great deal of, yes, parental supervision.

While this post has, as a necessary matter, tracked a certain thread of racial/ethnic anxiety on the part of upper-income women, I had also meant it to point up cultural and social barriers to the problems of women reconciling raising children and maintaining careers.  Yes, there are clear "tribal" issues, including assimilation, but there is also the matter of gender.  Stone describes a "pattern of male career hegemony [among high-income couples], for whom the husband's exemption from household labor is granted more legitimacy by virtue of his high earning power."  She discusses patterns of male household labor among moderate- and middle-income families, and acknowledges that these men do more on a practical level than upper-income men, but that they add significant stress to the marriage due to disagreements related to male privilege.  

Finally, there's the issue of the "proprietary" child.  If the anxiety about collective child-rearing is so strong, and the draw toward proprietary child-rearing so ingrained and reinforced at the level of society, how can women reconcile these pressures without feeling that they are violating not only cultural norms, but moral and ethical strictures?  Multi-generational familial care is one answer, but that's only operable if work and career aspirations, as well as other economic factors such as housing prices, allow families to remain in the same geographic location.  What cultural shifts are necessary, in addition to changes in workforce attitudes and the assumption of equal responsibility on the part of male parents, to alleviate women of what they may perceive as ethical and moral barriers to career aspirations?

1 comment:

Roger said...


It seems like social science studies are proving some of your basic points: