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Rocking Mammy to Sleep

August 26, 2015 So this is just for fun. A piece about rocking chairs. Really, just for fun. I became curious about rocking chairs quite a few months ago when I was rocking my son to sleep. Then I fell asleep. Since it’s August, I’m even more enamored with the things. They are a stationary staple of the vision I have of American summer. The thing that endears me most about the rocking chair—even more than its mystical place with mother and child—is the American porch. Rocking chairs are on relaxed porches across America in all types of settings—lake houses, tract houses, small houses on big acreage, farm houses, even the front porch of my aunt’s condominium. A couple rocking chairs flanking a screen door on a wood-decked porch, and bam, you have an image of an American home. I picture relaxing to the rocking rhythm on that porch with a cold drink in my hand, maybe even at sundown when the relentless summer sun finally breaks and all is calm and still. The symbol of the porch chair conjures a classic image of the American home that tells a story of daily life and changing, even misunderstood, American values. Lately, I’ve come to associate rocking chairs with mothers and babies, especially now that I have used one for this purpose. I look forward to the times when I get to go rock my child. Family and friends criticize me for doing so. “He needs to self-soothe,” they say, “You’re spoiling him.” The truth is that I crave the quiet time I have with my child in the rocking chair. In the evening, I unwind by the rocking motion of the comfortable leather chair. It's so soothing that I often fall asleep. I imagine that mothers for centuries have looked at rocking a sweet babe to sleep not as another chore, but as permission to escape—for a moment—the repetitious household fodder. Legend says that the rocking chair is an American invention. I find this quite ironic. America, then, is simultaneously known for hard work and relaxation. Our country was built on hard work—the bent over back of the families who came here for a better life and were willing to work hard for it. And at the end of the day, I guess, they rocked. There is a giant rocking chair in the Amana colonies, or so says the children’s book I read to my son. It’s a classic nineteenth century style. Isn’t the classic rocking chair, sitting lone somewhere—anywhere—an American symbol in and of itself? It evokes a story of the people who sat—or sit. American people. Hardworking people. Ironic, right? The empty image of a chair meant for relaxing conjures an archetypal telling of the hardworking, bootstraps American family who rocks in it. In October of 1952, Doris Odlum wrote about attachment and the rocking chair in The British Medical Journal. Here, Odlum laments that we no longer rock ourselves, that we seem to be averse to relaxation (in 1952). She says that in her childhood, rocking chairs were a household staple. In 1952, probably some 40 years or so after her childhood, that wasn’t the case. She claims that as evidence of children being soothed by rocking, children without a stable home life often rock themselves back and forth to soothe. She goes on to say that in 1952, no one seems to rock her children anymore. Perhaps in the post-war demand of motherhood and house maidenhood, mothers didn’t have time to rock their children. Plagued by the rhythm of annual babies, women had their hands full—literally. In came the cry-it-out methods and detachment parenting. Now we have turned a 180-degree corner and embrace attachment parenting and ultra-cozy rocking chairs. Rocking chairs for mothers really have come a long way. In 1840, mothers had what they called mammy chairs. It was a stark wood bench with a rail on one side. The idea was that mothers could sit next to their babies while they rocked them to sleep, freeing their hands. Freeing their hands, of course, for other chores. Later, came the fashionable Windsor-style rocking chairs. Now we have Lazy-Boy style rockers, and even simple upholstered chairs with rocking legs. Generally speaking though, these leisure beasts really aren’t in our households anymore. They are in nurseries. That isn’t the living space of the household. And now they are marketed with ultra-plush fabric and cushions—perfect for the weary-eyed mother at two in the morning. At one point in American history, the rocking chair became a symbol of American indulgence. They are, after all, meant to soothe and relax. The style of the rocking chair, to me, chronicles American furniture taste and even function and values. We’ve traded the hard, Windsor rockers for something a bit more plush. Chaucer once referenced the “rocken” cradle. This is the first ever reference to rocking furniture. It is said that the rocking chair is an American invention, yet, clearly the idea of rocking furniture had been around a while—for babies. But the rocking chair was not initially meant for mother and child, what I had in mind when I was first inspired by them rocking my own son—and self—to sleep. One source says they were first used in gardens. The original intent of the chair was for unwinding at the end of the day. Many sources site 1710 as the first year of the rocking chair. Benjamin Franklin, who is credited with inventing the rocking chair, would have been 4. Perhaps it’s just convenient to credit Franklin with the thing. Who’s really going to question a Ben invention from the eighteenth century? John Gould in The Christian Science Monitor believes that Jacques Cartier invented the rocking chair. He was a Frenchman exploring Canada in the 1500s, and Gould believes the French Canadians introduced the chair to the area that is now the state of Main long before Ben Franklin was even born. Many French Canadians went to Louisiana, but some settled in Maine in the St. John River Valley that flows into Canada. If they had the rocking chair and indeed brought it to Louisiana, it makes sense that the rocking chair is a symbolic icon on every Louisiana porch. In fact, we associate the southern porch with the rocking inhabitants, long thought to do so as an escape from the blazing heat. These really are the only mid-life people who get any association with the rocking chair. For the most part, the rocking chair is associated with the end and beginning of life—the ones who need soothing. How dare we associate middle life with any kind of relaxation besides Yoga—an active relaxation. Such an indulgence. The first Europeans to mention the rocking chair in the 1830s after traveling to America called it an “indulgent” thing. It was, to them, a symbol of American decadence, and by then, they were everywhere. How funny. On the threshold of the Industrial Revolution, the country that was built on the sweat of the immigrant’s back had an indulgent image because of a leisure chair. The French Canadian migrants to Maine, if they brought the rocking chair, may have contributed something else to America—the symbol of the porch chair entirely. Maine and Louisiana are the two most porchiest images we have in our culture when it comes to chairs. Where do we place the Adirondack chair in our minds? Or the southern rocker in his overalls? Gould claims he saw a rocking chair once in a French museum with a dummy farmer seated in it. It would have been constructed 500 years before Franklin. Gould wonders, appropriately, if Franklin saw the chair in France, came home, and built one here. Doris Odlum (1952) says that records from the “earliest times” reveal that rocking babies in cradles is practiced around the world. These cradles had rocker arms on them. It’s hard for me to believe that it took until 17-something to create a rocking chair for soothing babes. Amongst the current dialogue of detachment versus attachment parenting, I'll quietly bow out and escape to my "indulgent" rocking chair.