There’s no one like a 19th century novelist, enraged by the conditions of her world, to get you weeping and furious about a premature death—and very often, in the same book, to portray the callous, limited sphere of the privileged, snooty denizens of “Society” as Charles Dickens would write, with a capital S.
I am well-versed in the pitiful deaths of saintly children in 19th century novels—from Helen Burns in Jane Eyre to someone in almost every Dickens novel (Little Nell, Little Jo, Jenny’s baby in Bleak House). These stories are so powerful that the image of the malnourished Victorian street urchin is embedded into the culture, a symbol of a time when people really didn’t care about kids.
I haven’t tackled one of those novels this year, although it’s my annual tradition. There’s little pleasure to be found in them now, no coziness or quaintness, no satisfaction in saying, “We’ve overcome those times.”
Because we haven’t. We’re living in a neo-Dickensian moment, a society bloated by economic and social inequality. Dickens could have easily written about John McCain rising from his hospital bed to cast a vote against other cancer patients. Meanwhile Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are our real life answers to such subtly-named Dickens characters as Mr. Choakumchild, Mr. Gradgrind, and Mr. Murdstone.
This year, my first year as a mother, my first in Trump’s America, I realized that as a culture, we’ve given up even the pretense that we give a shit about children.
Of course, a nation that routinely bombs foreign kids and was founded on human bondage doesn’t have much moral ground to stand on to begin with. Our society has always been sick. But something has shifted of late in the way we talk about kids, and that’s scary. Sandy Hook demonstrated it, as did the way we reacted to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and now we’re seeing it again, centered around the consistent threat of the Republican healthcare plan—despite its narrow failure early Friday morning. The callousness of the last few years of political culture, the depth of racism and victim-blaming, has paved the way to a place where very few people are even assuming the mantle of “pro-child.” Any exhortation to “think about the children” (hey, even Jimmy Kimmel’s plea to help others like his son) has little political effect and may even inspire derision, or attract “truthers” who refuse to believe a mother’s story of woe.
Not caring has become the norm, and paeans to the innocence of childhood have scant effect on that norm. It even feels to me as though feminism’s old nemeses, the so-called pro-lifers, have mostly stopped trumpeting their family values and are simply pushing onward with their narrow agenda.
This trend in discourse is masked at times by all the noise about helicopter parenting and lactation communities and natural births among the affluent and educated, a seeming return to child-centered culture. But really, all this is a band-aid from parents who on some level are making up for the essential care that the culture lacks (because even privileged kids are vulnerable too, if they get sick or face a disability). What is baby-led-weaning as a momentary, child-centric fad in the face of a brand new healthcare bill that is so deeply anti-child
that it’s vehemently opposed by such radical groups as...um, the March of Dimes and the American Pediatric Association?
To me, the solidest proof that Dickens wouldn’t have even had to exaggerate can be found in the biggest “think about the kids” moment we saw recently: President Trump’s recent tweet bemoaning the fate of poor young Barron, exposed to Kathy Griffin’s cartoonish fake violence.
Consider that tweet, then think about the young daughter of Diamond Reynolds, in the backseat of the car as Philando Castile is shot. Think of Tamir Rice. Think of children with pre-existing conditions whose medicaid coverage, or lifetime caps, are likely to get gutted by Republicans, kids whose stories I keep reading and weeping over. Think about the kids whose moms still die in childbirth in this country at rates far higher than any other in the developed world.
Every day when I go to work and leave my baby at home, I think about the babies of moms who work at Wal-Mart, without adequate maternity leave and sick pay, and the first-graders at Sandy Hook, and the toddlers shot by guns left around the house or carelessly discharged on the streetcorner. I fret about the children whose gay parents can’t adopt them, LGBT kids whose civil rights are being ignored or denied. Kids are suffering, dying, from pollution-related asthma; allergies and tick-borne illnesses are increasing thanks to climate change. Syrian children are being denied entry to a safe haven. Kids whose parents can’t afford school lunches are shamed or have their food taken from them.
And what kills me the most, now that I’m a mom and I understand viscerally, bone-deep, what it means to take children from their caretakers’ arms, are forced separations. I’m talking about the kids whose parents and relatives are undocumented experiencing the terror of having loved ones disappear overnight, sent to detention centers without warning or a chance to say goodbye. Similarly, I’ve been haunted by the young kids the Times recently wrote about who are put in temporary foster care when their moms, under intense pressure for one reason or another, leave them alone for mere minutes.
And the cherry on top of this garbage sundae of child-hatred is the way recent right-wing “healthcare” proposals specifically target maternity coverage and reproductive rights— which means the the ability of moms and caregivers to adequately plan and implement the creation of our families. No surprise there, but it stings: the same folks who used to claim families need nurturing mothers at their core actually hate the shit out of us, and our kids.
On a larger scale, I don’t know what we need to do to change the narrative. I’d like to see the mothers of America go on general strike, but once your paycheck and your employer-provided health insurance keeps your offspring and not just yourself alive, it’s hard to take such a massive risk — another way Society is geared against families.
It’s nice to imagine that we need a new Dickens figure to sweep away our cynicism with a well-crafted story, with the indelible image of a modern-day Oliver Twist asking for more gruel. But it occurs to me that in the many infuriating examples I just cited, we have dozens of such images, and they’re real, and compelling —and they haven’t melted the hearts of any villains, or even enough bystanders.
While I attempt to find the best course for my own activist energy, I’m going to insist on trying to apply some sort of powerful label that encompasses “kid-hating destroyer of families” and applying it constantly to those in power who exhibit indifference (Bill O’Reilly was fond of “Baby-Killer,” maybe we should reclaim it?). I’m grasping for the right word to apply to the child-despising sadists in power. I remember that I used to make fun of Dickens for going so far as to name a character “Choakumchild,” but I’ve come to understand the rage he must have felt as he sat down to write. It’s my rage, too.
Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, journalism and criticism in New York City and the editor of Kveller.com, a site for moms.