With the advent of modernity and urbanization, the cyclical rhythms of the agricultural world increasingly fell away, to be replaced by the idea of life as a relentless drive toward progress, beginning with infancy. “The Mansion of Happiness” traces how we came to perceive life as a series of discrete stages, some of which, such as adolescence, did not exist as a concept before the Industrial Revolution. (Although adolescence is an inescapable biological fact, Lepore notes that it was in a newly urbanized America that this stage of life came to acquire the characteristics we associate with it today, such as rebellion and the potential for sexual activity outside marriage.)
Most notable is the part played by science and technology in managing life. In an early chapter entitled “Baby Food,” for example, Lepore examines American breast-feeding historically, leading up to the current moment where breast-feeding is medically recommended, yet women have less time than ever to do it, particularly when government-mandated (yet unpaid) medical leave is only 12 weeks long.
“There were three ways to bridge the [human milk] gap,” Lepore writes, “longer maternity leaves, on-site infant child care, and pumps. Much effort was spent on the cheap way out: option 3.” The larger point, subtly addressed throughout the book, is that the breast pump, like a number of other modern innovations, comes to be accepted as natural even while literally disconnecting us from the natural rhythms of life. Pumping rooms allow mothers to maintain their productivity, to the point that there are even “boob cubes in the very halls of government. Strangest of all: not many people seemed to find this freakishly dystopian, merely troubling, or even objectionable.”
In the early 20th century, science and technology promised to make our lives more efficient. Proponents of scientific management, such as industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, the prolific parents of the book and movie “Cheaper by the Dozen,” argued that, whether at home or in the workplace, we could all employ scientific methods to get more done in less time. This has had lasting effects. “Efficiency was meant to make for a shorter workday,” Lepore argues, “but in the final two decades of the twentieth century, the average American added 164 hours of work over the course of a year. . . . Eating dinner standing up while making a phone call to the office, supervising a third grader’s homework, and nursing a baby — or pumping your breast milk — is not the hope of democracy.”