Via Steve Sailer, I came across Emmanuel Todd’s maps of family structure in Europe. HBD Chick blogged about all of this and was the one that brought it to Sailer’s attention. I’ll let you follow those links if you are interested in the subject. The basic takeaway is twofold: 1) Western Europe (as opposed to Eastern Europe) has different traditional family structures; and 2) the Anglo-Saxon world (Denmark/Norway, the Netherlands, and England) has a particular traditional family structure that actually has the latest marriages and loosest inheritance laws. As an American, and a descendant of the Anglo-Saxons, this interests me. (I’m largely Celtic and Nordic by blood, but there’s bound to be some Anglo-Saxon mixed in, and as an Amercian I live in a country founded on the ideas of the Anglo-Saxons.)
All this discussion (and it’s fascinating, I encourage readers to investigate those links) made me think about the how the notion of adolescense has changed. There are all sorts of cultural factors, of course. People live and dress like children well into their thirties and even fourties these days because we’ve done away with the notion of respectably adulthood. Being young and cool is valued, whereas being old and wise is not (except for in a maudlin way). But young people have always been “cooler” than old people (even though the notion is a modern one); and old people have always been wiser, on average. But wisdom used to be desirable, something a young person could yearn for. Nowadays it’s just a consolation prize for the old losers in the all-important game of staying young and cool.
It’s a bit reductionist for my taste, but I was thinking about the concept that major hormonal changes in the body could serve as markers as transitions from one phase of human life to the next. Hormones are massively important in human behavior, and to go through a major hormonal change means to become a different person (socially speaking), whether you want it or not. The most famous such change, one which all adults can recognize, is the change that happens at the onset of puberty. I went through puberty from about 14 to about 17. I was a radically different person when I was 18 than I had been at age 13. All my interests, my foci, my ways of approaching the outside world and even my own family — all this had changed dramatically in the space of 5 years. This is perfectly normal and almost all people experienced something analogous in their teen years.
Now, I certainly changed between ages 23 and 28, but the change was nowhere near as dramatic. And indeed, though I changed between age 3 and age 8, the rather rapid changes a small child goes through in cognition and socialization are still of one piece, if you will. That is, I was changing all throughout my youth, as all humans do, but the change I went through in my teens was simply different.
(I should also mention that there is a strong hormonal change between the moment an infant is breast-fed and when that child is weaned. Few of us remember this transition, so it’s hard to talk about. But from a biological perspective, this shift is real and significant.)
Traditionally, for a woman, the next big hormonal change after puberty is the gestation and birth of her first child. For a woman, pregnancy and early motherhood are times of radical hormonal change. Just as in her puberty period, she finds her whole world turned upside-down, and she becomes in some senses a new person. Just as with puberty, her core essence might remain the same, but also just as in puberty life has been radically altered — on a chemical level.
Further pregnancies and other life events can obviously change how our hormones interact with our bodies, but the next radical change for a woman, hormonally, is the onset of menopause. Menopause represents a strong and radical change in the hormones of a woman, and she simply can’t continue on as a “young woman” anymore once the chemicals in her own body have changed. It’s not a bad thing, and indeed it can result in noble old women, but it’s a joke to pretend this is not an epochal change in the life of woman.
So then, simplifying far too much, I break woman’s hormonal life down into: 1) breast-fed infant, 2) pre-pubescent child, 3) pubescent and post-pubescent adolescent, 4) fertile mother, 5) post-menopausal old woman.
Or: Baby, Child, Teenager, Mother, Old Lady.
So let’s look at that “Teenager” phase of a woman’s hormonal life. Menarche happens much earlier in Western societies than it used to. Most of this, presumably, is due to stronger nutrition. I maintain that some of it is cultural/psychological: that is, girls get puberty cues much earlier in life than they used to. I haven’t seen a study proving this, but it makes sense to me. But certainly young American girls have a much richer diet than medieval or ancient girls, and so it’s not shocking that they go through menarche at a younger age.
At the other end of the “Teenager” period we have the moment of a woman’s first pregnancy. Pregnancy starts changing the hormonal balance in a woman’s body from day one. Many women these days, of course, end up aborting their children. But they also used to miscarry much more frequently than they do today. So — while I actually could write a whole new post about the hormonal (not to mention spiritual) trauma that abortion causes a woman — let’s just assume for the sake of argument that “pregnancy” refers to pregnancies carried to term: babies.
Western white women have babies later and later in life now, if they have them at all. It’s pretty typical for a college-educated, upper-middle class woman in America to have her first child at 33 or 34.
So, if girls used to go through menarche at 16, and have babies at 20, the period of being an “adolescent” or “teenager” was abour 4 years, give or take two years. Now, a girl goes through menarche at 11 and pregnancy at 33. “Teenage” hormones are active in her for 22 years. Five and a half times longer.
That’s five times as much teenage-ness. Think of all the stupid ways of teenagers, and think of how societies have always accomodated the craziness of teenagers, and then multiply the teenage factor by FIVE. Women are only half of society, of course. But then… ahem… women are HALF OF SOCIETY!
I can’t prove any of these numbers with links just now, but I invite readers to disprove them. Even if I am off by a few years here or there (which I must be, considering that I’m not using any hard data), the point stands. Women are teenagers for decades these days, whereas being a teenager is meant to be a brief and intense period in the life of a woman. We have a world of teenagers in the West today. No wonder we act like such adolescents.
Of course boys and men have their own method of prolonging teenage-ship these days. But one can only write so much in one blog post. For today, dear and lovely ladies, the spotlight is on you.