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It might be hard to imagine yourself living in a different historical time period. If everything were different, you wouldn’t be the same person anyway. But what if you could change just one thing? Imagine how just one aspect of your life would be different if it had taken place in a different time. For example, Judy and I married after college and were together more than 10 years after that before we decided to have children. During that time, we lived in five different cities, we each earned two advanced degrees, and we experienced many aspects of independent adult life without the responsibilities (and joys!) of parenting. But such a decision would have been unusual 50 years ago and almost unheard of 100 years ago. The acceptability of “starting a family” so long after starting our family—just that difference—changed the whole structure of our lives. If we had felt more pressure to have children earlier, I could imagine a whole sequence of events—paths not taken—that would have changed everything. • • • • • Looking at your own family history, identify a key decision point or event that shaped your family life in the years that followed. For example, it could be a marriage or divorce, the birth of a child, or a change in family structure. Make a list of family events and decisions that followed from that turning point—things that depended on that historical event: for example, how divorce set different family members heading in their own directions or how births changed a family dynamic. Using your imagination, relocate that turning point to a different historical moment. For example, consider the family living in colonial America, the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, or the 1950s. In a short essay or even a brief outline, describe how the decision or event you selected might have been different in the alternative time period. How would cultural or economic pressures have led family members to make different decisions? In your essay or in a class discussion, try to spin out the implications of this imaginary scenario. What would be different for the family if that turning point had been reached at a different time in history? Your answers might help explain how historical context shapes the paths of our lives in ways we don’t notice at the time.
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