cultural shifts and speculative fiction

So I’m aware that I released a book and basically disappeared for four months. Does it help if I had a good reason?

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A cute reason, actually.

Cuteness aside, I’ve had a lot of topics swirling about in my mind lately. Some of them are ‘off-brand’ because they aren’t about books, they’re about parenting or sewing, but they’re important things, maybe not for you, dear reader, but for someone. We’ll see what happens.

Today, I’ve been thinking about cultural shifts and how things can change from generation to generation.

For example, breastfeeding and prenatal care in the past 100 years. If you’re wondering how breastfeeding matters to you as a writer creating your own societies, bear with me. I’ll get there.

The history of breastfeeding is pretty fascinating even if you aren’t a woman who might be in the position to create then feed a baby. It’s proof that progress isn’t linear, and that something that seems as trivial as someone’s diet for two years can make a whole lot of difference in the world they grow up in.

Disclaimer: I am one of those crazy breastfeeding fanatics, but when I say that breastfeeding makes a difference, I’m discussing cultural shifts and our understanding of science and medicine and how it affects society (and world-building for writers), not the personal decision of feeding one’s children.

Though, to be fair, the personal decision does generally reflect culture, doesn’t it?

So, a history. For the most part, it’s safe to assume that human babies were given human milk for the greater part of our written and unwritten past. I hate calling it ‘natural’ because breastfeeding does not always come naturally, but it is nature’s design that mammals should feed their young until their young are developed enough to eat and digest their own food. I can personally attest to how instinctual and hormonal the drive to breastfeed my own children has been–and how absolutely fierce those drives are.

The last hundred years have been a little rough on this front. Someone decided they could make money by selling evaporated milk (you know, the stuff in pumpkin pie) as infant food. From there, once others realized that there was even more money to be had in formulating the dairy milk with extra vitamins, and with the help of pediatricians everywhere, infant formula became the norm.

There’s a ton of cultural baggage surrounding formula, and let me assure you that this is the most abbreviated version of the story ever. But what I know is that the pendulum has swung dramatically for new mothers. We’ve gone from breastfeeding (and wet nursing) as the primary and sometimes only way to raise a child, to synthetic is better, and back again, back to the breast. The back to breast movement is so strong that hospitals and health departments in many places offer free services–whatever it takes to get more babies fed with mother’s milk. We now realize that breastfeeding is the best way to avoid illnesses, infections, SIDS, and a host of other problems.  In fact, it took American society taking so fully to formula and experiencing these things en masse to realize the difference.

(And yes, formula has saved lives, because some babies fail to thrive or otherwise have problems eating in those early days.)

It’s easy to look back on that little blip of our history and dismiss a whole generation of people as foolish or chasing trends or gullible to marketing. But at the time, they truly believed they were on the cutting edge of progress.

Much of our lore, habits and wisdom for breastfeeding were lost when an entire generation chose to bottle feed their babies. All those breastfeeding grandmothers couldn’t teach their daughters. And that is the part I find fascinating as well as haunting. Sure, it’s disruptive innovation because so much else is happening like electricity and communications, but this is also culture at work.

Each generation responds to the way it was raised by embracing or eschewing old values. Trends aren’t limited to fashion.

When we talk about world-building for writers, we hardly ever talk about young families. I get it–children and new mothers are a trope to be exploited. There’s like this unspoken rule that the only reason to make a woman pregnant is for tension. Someone is going to die–probably not the daddy (you know, the ‘real hero’ of the story), possibly the baby or the mama, maybe even both.

We can do better.

The #normalizebreastfeeding movement inspires me to think about the way I build my fictional societies. When I feed my baby out in public, I’m not trying to be political, yet every nursing mama has a story of how a stranger treated her while feeding her baby, because in our Western culture breastfeeding has fallen out of favor. This is cultural baggage of a different kind, but it speaks of the culture we live in.

Children and their mothers have been isolated in our modern society. When mothers and their young children are shuttered away, never appearing in, it says a lot about the society, doesn’t it?

You can say ‘well, my story isn’t about breastfeeding’ which is fine. I think writing a story just about breastfeeding would be pretty moralizing and I don’t want to read it.

But let’s talk about imagery. Vivid details. Showing powerfully. Symbolism.

There’s the obvious: casually mention that one mother at a protest is nursing while she chants. Suddenly, she doesn’t just represent herself, does she? A mother with such a young baby, fed of her own body, represents the future. She speaks not for herself; she speaks for her children.

There’s the less obvious: when nursing mothers are welcome everywhere, they go everywhere–which means young children go everywhere, too. Maybe it makes sense to mention that in a crowd of people that many are children and some are babies. Maybe your reader won’t imagine it unless you make a point to.

Maybe this shows us a little about your other characters, even the ones who don’t have children. A world where young children are welcome suggests that the characters have been long welcome. If an attachment-style parenting with breastfeeding and baby-wearing is the norm when your characters are adults, the reader will assume that your heroes were also raised in a similar fashion.

Consider the breastfeeding culture in Mongolia compared to America. Did you have any idea that something as simple as breastfeeding attitudes can have ramifications for generations to come?

An extended family that lives under one roof will breed different characters than small families isolated by distance or estrangement. They’ll have different ideas on what should be shared–food, space, belongings. They’ll have different expectations of behaviors and roles of children, elders, and even genders, and they’ll respond differently, too. A character with seven young siblings may not like babies, but they probably know how to take care of one. That same character might grow up with the expectation that they, too, will build a large family. How do they feel about that?

Maybe it won’t ever come up in your story. But it can–not as a direct question ‘do you know how to take care of a baby,’ but in other ways. Giving yourself a broadly painted visual of your character’s earliest formative years can pave the way to confident answers to all kinds of questions. Pushing yourself to create some form of parenting/child-rearing culture in your fictional world might unstick a stuck plot in a surprising way, or it might give you more story seeds than you can possibly use.

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