Today’s middle-class parents have a unique cohort of obsessively loved children. No wonder they’re attractive targets to young men intent on inflicting pain.
In America, we are experiencing something unique: For the first time in history, the clear majority of children die after their parents, not before. Before the modern era, half of all children died before they turned 5. That’s why Jane Austen’s parents, who could afford to do so, farmed all their children out to a wet-nurse until the children were three. Not only did this process get the parents past the midnight feedings and dirty diapers in an age before indoor plumbing, it also prevented the parents from bonding with children who were likely to die.
Even if children survived to five, life for everyone in the pre-modern era was so Hobbesian that there was still no guarantee that parents would predecease their children. A young woman’s mother might have survived childbirth, but there was no saying that the young woman would. People died young constantly, from viruses, infectious diseases, infections, food poisoning, internal maladies, and accidents. Death was always “Just around the corner.”
Nor is this what I’ve described long-dead history. I’m only middle-aged, but my parents still came from the generation in which you stayed home if you had a cold, because a cold was never just a cold. It was a doorway to pneumonia, pleurisy, and all sorts of other nasty diseases. My father had scarlet fever and measles, and my mother had diphtheria and tuberculosis. A family friend dragged his legs behind him from polio.
Daddy was born within just three decades of the “Golden Age of Germ Theory.” He and Mom were the first generation of children that routinely got pasteurized milk (although given the Weimar-era Berlin slum into which my Dad was born, while he may technically have been of that generation, he probably wasn’t one pasteurization’s beneficiaries). My parents were children when Fleming made his accidental breakthrough with penicillin. They were adults before antibiotics became a part of every doctor’s arsenal.
If antibiotics had existed during WWI, Rupert Brooke might have lived long enough to walk away from his youthful Victorian romance with chivalric war and have become a more jaded poet, a la Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. As it was, he died early in the war, not from a bullet, but from an infected mosquito bite he got during the Gallipoli campaign. Something we would treat with a smear of Neosporin and a clean Band-Aid killed him.
One of my friends, a man in his early 60s, boasts of being one of the first people in America to survive a ruptured appendix. It’s true that operations had become common in the first half of the 20th century, before he was born, thanks both to the Golden Age of Germ Theory and the development of anesthetics. However, without antibiotics, once someone’s appendix ruptured, spreading infection throughout the abdominal area, no surgeon could stop death. Only antibiotic’s advent changed that, allowing my friend to live.
It wasn’t until 1955, just six years before I was born, that the First World wiped out polio. Before Jonas Salk’s vaccine, polio was a scourge that routinely savaged children. As I noted above, I still knew one of the survivors. Because my children have not been to Africa, they’ve never seen someone showing polio’s effects.
It’s therefore only since 1955 that the norm in America is for children to survive their parents. We bury them; they don’t bury us. [Read more…]