I wrote this personal essay and submitted it to Brain, Child. It's my favorite mothering/parenting magazine. The editors read it, along with all the other 750 pieces they read that they narrow down to 7 for publication in each issue, and decided that though it was well written, that they were going to pass. I could shop it around. But where? Lucky me, I have this blog where I can essentially self-publish anything that I want. So what, it won't be a "real" publication? If that's all I worried about I wouldn't be a blogger with almost a decade of blogging behind me. So, here it is. I look forward to reading your comments and thoughts.
Last night my husband asked what I was writing. I looked up from the book I held and said, “My personal journal.” Then he asked whether our daughter’s baby book was up to date. And then he reminded me to preserve the details of her first birthday party-- a few days prior--before my memories of that milestone slipped away.
Our exchange made me question whether he would keep a journal of her first years if I did not. If I died, would he take on the responsibility? He’s not a writer and his disinterest in reading what I’ve written in Elsa’s baby book makes me wonder why it matters to him at all. His asking about her baby book seems like nagging and it turns the practice into one more chore to complete, or one more gold star that may earn me a spot on the list of good mothers kept by the universe.
Entering data in the pre-fab baby book I bought before Elsa was born makes me feel like one of a million robotic mothers collecting identical information about identical babies and their milestones. What value have vital statistics without context? I graduated from the pre-fab book to an 8 X 11 lined journal that my sister-in-law gave me as I lay recuperating from Elsa’s birth. I wrote in it regularly at first and now monthly if at all.
The first baby books appeared in the late nineteenth century; the earliest dates to the 1880s. Haberdashers and insurance companies gave free folded paper versions to customers, but hardback baby books with padded covers were sold commercially to those who could afford to buy them. Sylvia Plath’s mother, Aurelia, inserted a newspaper clipping with the headline “Professor Becomes Father” in Plath’s baby book when their local paper heralded the arrival of that babe. Plath’s baby book contained a description of her first shoes--size 4 bought at Filene’s--and lists who sent presents for her birth.
Family record keeping came of age in the Victorian era when mothers combined the separate activities of diaries, scrapbooks, and photo albums into one bonanza of a baby book, which rather predicted the modern scrabooking trend. The printing press made paper and books readily available and affordable to mothers of all incomes and for the first time, the middle class and literate members of the working class could preserve their child’s early years for prosperity. Unless a child was first-born and born into a wealthy family, her life was not recorded by her parents. Working class mothers might lack the time, education, and impulse to record every detail of their children, as would mothers tending three or more of their children.
What value are baby books, anyway? They have not been considered academically and are rarely available for scholarly analysis and comparison in library and archival collections because they have not been collected. They are considered unremarkable given their very personal, specific, and private nature. Surely, they hold insight and value as both social and historical documents. Baby books serve functions in individual identity and memory formation. They demonstrate the evolution of ideas and practices pertaining to child rearing. Plus, they show the development of the child’s personality, behavior, and quirks. We can look back on the incident with the crib-climbing and determine baby’s first inclination for great prison escapes.
At the same time that paper became available, in the late 19th century, mothers were explicitly pushed to record each child’s milestones as a means of contributing to scientific knowledge. They should chronicle affections, tantrums, nightmares, the child’s attempts to please, her idiosyncrasies, and stages of development including first teeth, first words, and how well she plays with others. But to what end? Who keeps baby books, and why? Are the keepers of early childhood memories mostly women? Does the role transcend class, race, national origin, and sexuality? So, it seems then, that men of scientific ilk collected data on their children for scholarly purposes as though they were lab animals. And women mostly keep them for personal reasons, though there was a spell when they were encouraged to keep track of baby’s milestones for scientific purposes.
Is the keeping of the baby book a matter of role specialization? Traditionally, in childhood boys aren’t given the responsibility of caretaking or correspondence or preserving the family history. And so the lack of expectations on that front follows them from childhood to adulthood. Yet, today’s generation of fathers drive the trend for more involved parenting. They are deeply committed to the mundane aspects of caretaking: feeding, bathing, rocking to sleep, etc.
But is the baby book a dirty job? Julie Bawden Davis kept a diary of her daughter’s journey from infant to preteen. She never imagined forgetting the charming things her daughter said, but she did. If those events preserved on paper, those milestones are easily recalled.
Children brim with gratitude at insight into their early years when parents take the time to create a permanent record of their childhood. I know I would have been. My mother didn’t keep a baby book. I never paged through a book and read about my first birthday party or when I learned to read. And it’s been almost forty years since I was born, so each question I ask my mother earns the same reply. This week I asked whether I chewed my books like my daughter does and she said, “It’s been so long ago, I’ve forgotten.” When I told her that my father remembers me climbing out of my crib twice and climbing onto the high-backed piano once, she says, “Your father’s memory is better than mine.”
I asked her why she didn’t keep a baby book for me. And these were her reasons: First, she was seventeen when she birthed me. When she married my father in 1969 she dropped out of tenth grade because married girls didn’t continue going to school in the small southern town where she grew up.
Second, she lacked a high school education. Nobody encouraged her to keep a baby book. Her mother, Marie, had not kept baby books for any of her three children. Marie didn’t complete high school, either. She didn’t stay at home with any of her children; she worked factory jobs until she died prematurely from heart failure at age 53.
Increasingly, pregnant women start writing of their cravings, the first time they felt the baby kick, and continue this practice as much as they can once their child is born. I was lazy and didn’t feel inspired to chronicle each visit to the obstetrician’s office.
Rather than a typical journal entry, some mothers approach the practice by writing letters to their children. First Sgt. Charles M. King wrote a 200-page journal containing thoughts, remembrances and pieces of advice meant to guide his son through life in the event that King “did not make it home” from Iraq. It was published posthumously as Letters to Jordan.
Writing for a child helps a mother create awareness of her development and growth as a parent. The baby book serves as a forum for working through frustrations, anxieties, and disappointments. Someday as an adult, Elsa may read what I wrote as I experienced her milestones and commiserate as a parent in her own right. Such a document also provides insight into the family’s organization, philosophy and particular dynamic. It helps the adult child to understand her identity and the mythology behind its construction.
In keeping a baby book, mothers preserve something very special for children, a picture of their rich and complex childhoods. Thus, the ubiquity of those pre-fab journals and organizers for pregnancy, journals for the first year, and keepsake journals serve a purpose: They lessen the guilt that mothers feel when they cannot write lengthy narratives documenting every day of their child’s early years.
Finding time to write is tricky. And remembering everything that I want to preserve on paper is challenging as well. I use my blackberry to note things that Elsa does that I want to write more in depth about later like the way she smacks her lips to kiss goodbye and opens her mouth wide so I can share my lip balm with her. Or the heartbreak of her first swim lesson because she cried through most of its thirty minutes.
These days grandparents are encouraged to fill in details in baby books so that the child has a permanent record of family history from each and every perspective. Though my mother never kept a baby book for me, she writes frequently about my daughter, noting that Elsa’s attention span increases weekly and how quickly she figures out the mechanics of electronics. That Elsa rates a baby book and I didn’t isn’t the only thing I envy my daughter for, nor will it be the last. We always hope that our children’s lives are bigger and better than our own.
The memories of childhoods lost should hold equal places in eternity and baby books should be created and preserved regardless of the person’s obscurity or notoriety. How I’d love to browse a baby book that chronicled my parents’ every delight in my growth and development. I have photos. That isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing.