Transition Day; Or The Emotions of Parenting

Today is a big day in our household – it’s Transition Day.  For those not in the know, it is the day when school children test out next year’s teachers and classrooms.  In our house, it is also the day that my baby goes to school for the first time.  I know that those of you without children will be rolling your eyes at me, as I would have done seven years ago, but it’s a big thing.  Even though I’ve done it once before with my older child, even though she already spends three days a week at pre-school, even though she skipped into the classroom with barely a backwards glance towards me, I felt a bit funny as I walked home.  The closest word I can think of to describe it is ‘bittersweet’ but that doesn’t really capture the mixed emotions that I am currently experiencing.  I am happy – that my daughter wasn’t upset, that she’s excited to learn new stuff, that between us we have managed to get her to school age despite her frankly suicidal tendencies on climbing frames.  But I am also sad and quite painfully so, that she needs me just a little bit less.

Why do I feel the need to share this with you?  Well, I’m currently thrashing my way through the historiography of the history of emotions.  It makes me overthink just about everything .  When the swimming teacher suggested to my eldest that she should launch herself into the deep end of the swimming pool without flotation devices (that was Wednesday’s emotional crisis) were my emotions culturally constructed?  Or were they universalist?  Would a parent in the depths of the Amazon jungle have felt the same panic and fear about the very real possibility of their precious first born sinking like a stone to the bottom of a pool as I did?  Would they have experienced a different emotion?  What might it have been?  If they did feel panic and fear, would they experience it in the same way that I did?  Would their tummy flip and their heart beat faster?  Or would their bodies react differently.

Irwin family

The same question must be asked of my eighteenth-century parents.  Did they feel sad and happy at the same time when their children went off to school, or to foster parents, or to get married?  Did they cry? Did they feel a little bit distracted and hollow afterwards?  Did they go home and inflict their emotions on everyone else through their blog?  Probably not, but they did write to their friends about it.  My historical crush (don’t laugh – we all have one) Frances Irwin wrote a little of her intense parental emotions to her friend Susan Stewart when her daughters (pictured above) were toddlers:

‘I hate and abominate the thoughts of stirring & cannot bear to think of untwisting the two little Tendrils which twine round my neck as well as my heart.’[1]

In using the words ‘twist’, ‘tendrils’ and ‘twine’ Frances conjures an image of a clinging interdependence – two people that are so close that they are difficult to untangle.  Nor does she want to be untangled – she ‘hates and abominates’ the thought of being separated from her daughter.  I recognise that feeling.  In another of her letters, Frances wrote to Susan:

‘I must pity the Duchess of Argyle for loving so delightful an animal as a Daughter & daresay her wing will feel very cold and uncomfortable without her, the eldest Daughter too! What man in the World can deserve ones eldest Daughter?[2]

Again, there is a dread of separation.  In the tone of this paragraph I can hear Frances’ empathy.  She who can’t bear to disentangle herself from her daughter’s arms knows that she will eventually be in the same situation as the Duchess of Argyle.  I recognise that feeling too and here’s the thing that is concerning as I try to analyse the emotions in these letters.  Am I imposing my own feelings upon Frances?  Am I confusing my own emotions as my daughters grow up with hers?  Does the affinity that I feel with Frances make be a better historian, or a worse one?  When I blogged about William Hey’s casebooks, my own emotions made me a bad historian.  I judged him for his actions based upon my own feelings and experiences.  When I went back to him a couple of weeks later, I tried to be more objective and understand his actions from a broader perspective (see my second blog post on the subject).  Is parental love a universalist emotion?  Do we all and have we always experienced these intense emotions as part of being a parent?  Or do we feel them because we are expected to?  Perhaps some of the answer lies in the way that people that do not express this intense parental love are treated.  These days, it is medicalised – considered a clear sign of depression –  but the eighteenth century understood emotionally cold parenting in a number of different ways.  Cruelty was a possibility, as was poor psychological health, some actively disliked their offspring, whilst others imitated the parenting techniques of their own parents.  Something  to think about as I revisit my infanticide cases in the coming months – watch this space!

[1] PRO 30/29/4/2/23

[2] PRO 30/29/4/2/44


3 thoughts on “Transition Day; Or The Emotions of Parenting

  1. again, beautifully written. i shed a little tear reading it, as i did this morning on my ripponden ramble after seeing my third get the bus to ryburn on her transition day. thank you x

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