Tales from the Archives: “It’s not just wedding bells and diaper pails”

Balancing the responsibilities of parenthood and those of a medical career is challenging, and this was certainly also the case for those at Duke in the 1970s. During the twentieth century American conceptions and ideals parenthood shifted drastically as a response to medical advances, social movements, and more and more attending college and/or working outside the home. Tucked away in old issues of the Intercom, Duke Medicine’s primary news publication from 1953 to 1986, we can find clear evidence that Duke faculty and students were grappling with these shifting perceptions, expectation, and values surrounding parenthood throughout the 1970s.

Beginning in 1972, Professor Betty Harris, an instructor at Duke University School of Nursing began offering a course entitled “Parenthood,” also known as Nursing 121, a course designed to give Duke students a basis for whether or not they wanted to have children. In this course, male and female students were required to explore their fantasies about parenthood and compare these fantasies with “the realities of modern parenting.” “The assumption that normal people grow up, marry and have children as a matter of course is still prevalent,” Harris states. “Students are challenged to question this assumption. There are choices now. People should think about whether they want to be parents.”

The course looks at parenthood chronological, exploring topics such as why people have children, the realities of pregnancy, family-centered maternal care (which gained popularity in the 1970s), parenting children of varying ages, and the relationships of grandparents. Speaking to her perception of changes to the realities of parenthood experienced in the 1970s, Harris states, “More people are having problems being parents today… A lot of that is associated with the high divorce rate and more women working. Many families are faced with the problem of not being accessible as their parents were to them.” Her course was designed to help students analyze these issues, allowing them to make rational decisions when choosing if they want to have children, and if so, why and when.

This story captures Duke’s participation in the cultural debate surrounding parenthood during the 1970s. This hidden gem in our collection is not only offers fascinating insights into our intuition’s past, the topic continues to be relevant for Duke students today. To learn more about our collections, please contact the archives. Or explore past digitized versions of Intercom and let us know if you find any other fascinating stories.

This blog post was contributed by Archives Intern Caroline Waller.

“It’s not just wedding bells and diaper pails”