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Why Are People Obsessed with Their Kids?

Our current interest in children and parenting is neither normal nor historical. Nor is it very healthy for kids, parents and society at large.

Last week, America's two most famous parents filed for divorce. It's not really any surprise.

"As always, my first priority remains our children," said Kate last night. She's the mother on John and Kate Plus 8, a reality TV show about two parents' efforts to raise their twins and sextuplets.

"Our kids are still my number one priority... My job is being the best, most supportive and loving father that I can be to my kids, and not being married to Kate doesn't change that," said John.

Their divorce announcement was the main story in the tabloids, bumping the previous top story, " Gisele Bundchen, Tom Brady Expecting a Baby!" and other top-five stories, " Matthew McConaughey and His Girlfriend Expecting Second Baby," and " Report: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick Welcome Twins!"

Some people are starting to (unpopularly) point out that our current interest in kids and parenting is neither normal nor historical. The "parenthood" concept is, in fact, a recent invention, a type of obsession, and even a form of insanity. Some would say "parenthood" is responsible for divorces, like sweet Kate and John's, and other types of fallout, like, say, Kate's not-so-sweet temper. When humans can't stand the heat, sometimes we don't get out of the fire; we fan the flames and sometimes get burnt.

Blame Clara for 'Parenthood'

"I blame... Clara Savage Littledale, whose job it was to help invent American parenthood," writes Jill Lepore in this week's New Yorker. Littledale was the first editor of Parenting magazine, and helped create an industry that turned normal adults into parents, and normal parents into bad parents in need of saving.

"Stages of life are artifacts," writes Lepore. "Adolescence is a useful contrivance, midlife is a moving target, senior citizens are an interest group, and tweenhood is just plain made up." Lepore argues that parenthood at first seems different -- in that, duh, there have always been parents, and those parents have "always been besotted with their children, awestruck by their impossible beauty, dopey high jinks, and strange little minds." But she says "parenthood," the word, and our current understanding of it, dates only to the mid-19th century, and our idea of what it means is "historically in its infancy."

Life used to be like this, according to Lepore. You were "born into a growing family, you help rear your siblings, have the first of your own half-dozen or even dozen children soon after you're grown, and die before your youngest has left home." In the early 1800s, the fertility rate of American women was between seven and eight children (now it's just over two for American women, and about one and a half for Canadian women). Adults died by age 60, and almost every household had children in it. By 1920, only about 55 per cent of households had kids. Now, it's under a third.

Most people today don't grow up caring for young siblings or other kids, and don't know how to do even basic things like bathing or soothing babies. First-time parents can't count on grandparents anymore in most cases. And all of this means parenthood has become mystifying.

You are a danger to your kids

Into any scary, mysterious void come snake-oil salespeople. In this case, magazines and experts, like in Parenting magazine, arrived on the scene about a century ago, and turned child care into a science.

The public bought the idea that they were essentially a danger to their own kids and had better pay money for advice, that they'd better try really hard to do a good job, and they'd still inevitably fail. (Even though, as Lepore points out, kids are actually safer now than ever. In 1850, more than one baby in five died before its first year, by 1920 that had dropped to one in 20, and today infant mortality is at one in 200.)