Monday, July 28, 2008

History with children

I live with four children (and three adults; my partner and our two daughters share a two-family household). Since being a parent has changed the way I think about writing and research (well, it’s changed everything, but I can’t possibly blog about that), I thought I’d write about the process of being scholarly and maternal at the same time. (Disclaimer: Mary actually asked me to share “tips,” but since I have so few of those, I’ll stick to a few comments and leave you to figure out the take-away).

There is nothing like having children of your own to make you realize that the present will soon be the past– which makes understanding that past even more important to me. I have often wondered (and will always wonder, I’m afraid) if I should be doing something more immediate to make the world a place in which I want my kids to live. But I also believe that reckoning with what’s come before is a powerful way to nudge the future in a better direction.

I’m not very good, however, at explaining what I do, and why it matters, to my kids. They are young (four and five years old), which is part of the challenge. But only part; it’s easy for non-academics to comprehend the work of teaching, but the research, and the institutional work (faculties do help make universities run, even as committee work is among the most disdained activities in the profession), are much harder to translate to outsiders. I’m still looking for clearer ways to explain the value created by producing good scholarship and building good law schools.

Parenting takes so much time and energy it’s an easy target when looking for excuses about not writing enough. But I think the forced slow-down can be beneficial, too, in finding the right topic, argument, sources, ideas. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Your thoughts don’t have words every day” (1452).

Having children has also forced me to see multiple perspectives and to be precise with language. Perhaps most important to me as a teacher, it has made me appreciate anew the unruliness of learning.

The other day, my housemates and I had straightened out the playroom, imposing order on a sea of stuffed animals, dress-up clothes, books, blocks, and plastic. Between dinner and bedtime that evening, that fleeting order was entirely undone: there were toys scattered everywhere, across the carpet, on couches, under tables. It was worse than the usual chaos; things had literally been turned upside down. Irritated, I asked the girls, “What were you doing up there?” They said (as they always do in response to that unhelpful question), “We were playing.” “What were you playing?!” I asked, intent on getting an answer. “Tornado!” they exclaimed happily.

As I cleaned up again (and failed, alas, to post the blog entry I had been contemplating that day), I thought about how they’ve learned –in less than a year of being Californians –how close we live to disaster and how to we try to prepare for it (part of “Tornado” was packing food and shoes for the road). They didn’t learn because we told them about it, but because it's where we live.


Mary L. Dudziak said...

Thanks, Beth! I love the Emily Dickinson quote, “Your thoughts don’t have words every day,” and the Tornado game. My daughter was little, and there were many family complications, when I was writing my first book. At the time I thought I should have finished long before I did. But I think the time made it a better book.

Anonymous said...

Ironically I'm in bed laying next to my sleeping 10 year old, while reading this blog. He fell asleep to me reading A Wrinkle in Time to him (how appropriate). I had shoved our greyhound to the bottom of the bed, spread out some documents on the U.S. v. Cruikshank case I'm using for a chapter in the forthcoming Women and Law stories, due in four days, and then did a quick email check, discovering this post. My partner decided this was all too much, and after pulling yet another set of Post-its from her pajamas, has decided to sleep in the guest room.
I love being a mom and a partner and a historian, and I love my life and work. Thanks for sharing yours.

Rebecca Hall

Shag from Brookline said...

Parenting is on-the-job training. Do our own childhoods prepare us, provide us experience, for being parents? How much thought do we give BEFORE becoming parents to how we will parent? The passion that results in parentage may not be sound reasoning for the subsequent role. But this is how it has always been and one hopes that progress in parenting has been a result. I remember vividly at the age of 42, pushing our twins in their double carriage in our affluent Brookline community when an elderly woman stopped us to admire these babies and then said:

"Small children, small problems. Big children, big problems."

The passage of 35 years since then has not removed this observation from my mind. Of course, it's how we handle the big problems that determine how well we have done with our on-the-job training.