The Past You're Longing For Is a Past That Never Was
I might be living in a time machine. Or at least that’s how I feel when talking to my American friends. When they complain how harder they have it than their boomer parents did, I’d never trade places with mine. When they speculate about how people used to live in the good old days, I still have firsthand witnesses to tell me how it really was.
My parents grew up in rural Poland behind the Iron Curtain. My dad and his twin sister were born at home, while their three older siblings were locked in the only other room that they had. He was tiny but relatively healthy, his sister was a large but almost died in the process. Their parents had already lost a kid at that point, a 6 smart year old boy who died of a lung infection a year or two before they were born.
My dad is quite reluctant to talk about his childhood. It’s too painful for him to revisit these times. As far as I’ve heard, he was 7 when they first installed electricity at his home, and plumbing only came several years later. They got their water out of a well in front of their house. They stored their food in an outdoor cellar. His parents raised chickens and rabbits but they could only afford meat once a week, one animal to share between a 7-person family. They only ate pork twice a year on Christmas and Easter, when one of their uncles killed a pig.
My dad’s mom was born in 1918, still within living memory of a violent peasant uprising that killed all noblemen and landlords in their region. I don’t know if my great-great-grandparents were personally involved in the slaughter. Maybe it’s better not to know for sure. I can’t imagine how desperate they must have been to think that mass-scale murder would change something. It didn’t, everyone ended up as poor and starving as they all were before.
I know modern life isn’t without its problems. Raising kids feels exhausting when there’s no one around to lend a hand. Many of my friends are depressed, overworked, or lonely, often all of these at the same time. This might be even more so the case in the US than everywhere else.
Watching from afar, the American way of living seems to care much more about the economy than about quality of life. I’d much rather live in a small apartment and drive the cheapest car than return to work a few weeks after giving birth. I don’t ever want to worry if a doctor’s visit would ruin me financially. I don’t want my children to start their adult lives in debt. America seems like the perfect place to start a business, but quite a challenging place to live or raise a kid.
But even more so, there’s no way I’d trade places with my grandmother, and I suspect neither would any of my American friends. I’m glad I don’t have to worry if I’m going to die in childbirth, or if some of my kids would die before they’re 18. I’m glad I don’t have to worry if our stockpiled food will last us through the winter, and can buy fresh fruit in January instead. I don’t have to endure a violent alcoholic spouse just because there’s nowhere I could live and survive on my own. And I definitely can’t imagine any possible scenario where I would team up with my neighbors and go on a killing spree because we’re so desperate for justice and revenge.
We can only find solutions to our problems looking forward. There was never a better time than this. When people talk about traditional ways of living, it doesn’t sound at all like how my grandparents used to live. The closest thing it reminds me of is modern rural Italy and Greece.
It’s true we lost a lot by moving to the cities, working outside of homes, or sending kids to school. But we can’t just go back, unless you’re fine with most people being so poor and desperate that they will seriously consider murdering everyone else. Luckily we don’t have to choose between one way or the other. We can start building small networks of belonging right where we are, whether that’s in a commune, typical suburb, or in an enormous city. Instead of looking back to a past that never was, let’s focus on the futures we’d rather want to create.
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Totally agree with the overall point of your essay, but I think it’s hard to understand what’s going on in America without having lived here for many decades. Ofc I know it can seem wild to Europeans who follow Americans online. America is going through a really rough time and it looks crazy from the outside esp since we export our culture so heavily! It’s personally heartbreaking being an American and watching an unprecedented epidemic of mental health problems here. A lot of us are losing family members young to addiction. I really do long for a time before the heroin epidemic and school shootings, but also realize that was a time with less gay rights and less civil rights for black Americans. It’s complicated. My grandfather lost his sister to influenza, I lost my brother to heroin. Different times, different problems. Although I still feel lucky overall to be here.
My perspective on childbirth is that we aren’t returning to work in America a few weeks after giving birth because our value system is messed up, it’s because we fear we’ll be fired if we don’t. There aren’t great labor protections for pregnant women here currently. I’d recommend the book “birth strike” if you’re interested in US vs European policy around pregnancy. US government/corporations want Americans to have more kids for the economy, but want to push all the costs and work of doing so on to individuals.
Included this post in a weekly roundup I do called Five Cool Things. Enjoying your writing as of late!