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New Worlds: Lost and Unwanted

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Content warning: This essay will be talking about child abandonment and murder.

As tragic as it is to say, not all mothers and families want to — or even can — care for the children they have.

Infanticide, though relatively rare today (especially in developed countries), has been a common practice for far longer than recorded history. I’ve mentioned before that hunter-gatherers tend to have children spaced about four years apart, because they need the previous kid to be able to walk reasonable distances before they acquire another babe in arms. Some of this was achieved by e.g. nursing a child far longer than we tend to do today, which has the effect of suppressing fertility . . . but we also have evidence to suggest that parents would kill infants who were born too soon after the last. Harsh as this is, it was also born of pragmatic necessity: those who found themselves overburdened with children risked more deaths as a consequence.

That pressure doesn’t go away when the population becomes sedentary, either. Although agriculturalists tend to have much larger families — farms both providing more calories without the need for wandering, and requiring more hands to bring those calories in — when drought or blight threatens a famine, or a household’s personal fertility outpaces that of their fields, the grim fact of the matter is that having too many mouths to feed can result in crisis. At times like that, survival means prioritizing the well-being of the adults and the children old enough to work.

These deaths are not distributed with an even hand, though. Children born with visible disabilities and deformities have always been more vulnerable; in fact, some societies have mandated infanticide in such cases. Sometimes this is pragmatism at work again: when you’re practicing subsistence-level agriculture, barely producing enough food to keep your population fed, a child who might not be able to work in the field when they grow up (or might not even survive to that age) is a drain on resources the family simply cannot afford — to a degree hard to imagine even on the more impoverished end of a developed country today. But ideology also comes into play, when deformities are seen as evidence of a curse, divine punishment, or a bad omen. Then it’s superstitious fear that drives families to kill those children.

Ideology also exerts pressure on other fronts. Where society is heavily patriarchal and patrilocal, sons stay with their families and keep whatever wealth they have right there; daughters, meanwhile, go away to someone else’s family and may take a dowry with them. The result may be a tendency to preferentially get rid of female children as “bad investments.” In other circumstances, unmarried mothers may kill their babies because their only alternatives are ostracism and absolute poverty, while adulterous wives may kill the evidence of their infidelity (perhaps for fear that their husbands will otherwise kill them). Men sometimes murder children as well — e.g. if their wife has cheated on them, or if they’ve cheated and want to eliminate their bastard — but in contrast to most violence, infanticide is more often practiced by women than by men.

The methods used could be the same as for any murder, but they often follow certain patterns. Especially in times of shortage, a family may just stop feeding the child in question, saving what food they have for others. Suffocation is common, sometimes by laying a wet cloth across the child’s face; drowning is common, too, with stories of mothers throwing their children into rivers. Cases of ritual sacrifice notwithstanding, I believe that overtly bloody methods are rarer (though not unheard of): possibly the visible horror that creates is unpalatable to the people responsible.

But around the world, one of the most common approaches to infanticide segues neatly into the second half of this topic: just abandon the child somewhere.

This shows up again and again in stories, with parents leaving their children on hillsides or along roads, or hiding them next to a river in a basket (hello, kids ranging from Moses to Elora Danan). As a method of infanticide, it may have been a way of disclaiming responsibility: you didn’t kill the child, just put their fate into the hands of the divine. If someone else found them before they perished, so be it.

And sometimes this worked! Although there’s folklore about the sound of a crying child actually being a supernatural creature luring the kind-hearted traveller into a trap, it seems to be true that sometimes children were found and taken in. Mind you, that’s not necessarily the rosy fate often enjoyed by the protagonists of famous tales, who disproportionately wind up being raised as the children of kind herdsmen. Under some legal systems, any child found in this manner could legally be claimed as a slave. Still and all, that’s better than dying of exposure or starvation.

Rather than leaving this up to chance and the weather, some cultures have systematized it. In medieval Europe, for example, people could abandon their children on the steps of a church and know the religious authorities would take them in. Such foundlings might be raised as monks or nuns, or fostered out as future indentured servants to families who could support another mouth to feed. In modern times, various countries have laws permitting women to give birth anonymously and then depart, or “baby boxes” where infants can be left in more sheltered, monitored circumstances. You can also have foundling hospitals, institutions that exist to raise such children en masse . . . which segues us toward the topic of orphans, but I’ll save that for next week.

As a narrative trope, foundlings have been catnip for many authors both past and present. They’re abandoned due to a prophecy they wind up fulfilling because they were abandoned (e.g. Oedipus), or their abandonment is a device for allowing a humble protagonist to find love and success across class boundaries before their real, invariably high-born parents arrive and restore the status quo (too many Victorian tales to count). In service of drama, the child is often abandoned with some kind of token that can later be used to identify them as someone’s long-lost child.

That latter isn’t entirely false. Sometimes desperate parents abandon their children not with the intent of killing them, but instead with the hope of reclaiming them on some future, more prosperous day. For that to work, you need some way of knowing the four- or fourteen- or forty-year-old in front of you is the kid you last saw so long ago. Which in turn means that if some nefarious rival has stolen the token, the possibilities for drama get even more intense.

I don’t mind the drama. It’s vastly preferable to the grindingly bleak circumstances that force people into the tragedy of infanticide.

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4 thoughts on “New Worlds: Lost and Unwanted”

  1. Also in so many cultures and times, parents sold one or more of their children to slave traders, and frequently not even to stave off starvation — pretty girls and little boys particularly, though mostly it was the girls. This is another favored plot trope for characters — though not frequently for the protagonist.

    1. Yeah, I think I touched on that in the essays on slavery, and it’ll probably come up again when I finally get around to talking about prostitution — these things all interweave in so many ways.

  2. Also letting your protagonist be an orphan solves the why-the-hell-do-their-parents-allow-them-this-adventure-problem. Otherwise, most YA books would be more sensible solved by letting the adults handle this big bad evil guy instead of some teens.
    Other solutions than the parents being dead, away, ignorant, mean and/or terribly incompetent are hard to write I think (or at least this is how I feel when writing YA).
    One example that had a loving and healthy parent-child relationship is The Incredibles, but besides that I know little stories that do that well.
    I think this problem is also the reason why boarding schools are so often featured in YA. When the parents don’t know what there kids are doing, they can’t forbid it.
    I’d be curious what other creative solutions there might be that support a healthy relationship.

    1. It depends a lot on the type of YA and the setting — not all of them involve life-threatening danger of the sort that parents should really intervene on, or the culture may be one where teenagers have a lot more independence than they do in the modern industrialized world. But yeah, we have a ton of orphans, boarding schools, and terrible parents in order to let YA plots happen.

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