Here is a common dilemma in modern parenthood: a husband or wife leaves town on business, placing the full responsibility of caring for the children and managing household chores upon the spouse who remains at home.
These moments can become all the more stressful when one or more of the children is ill. As it turns out, this dilemma is hardly new. In fact, the annals of history are filled with examples of couples experiencing such moments, bemoaning their temporary separation and expressing anxiety for the welfare of their sick children and the intense labor required of the spouse who remained at home to care for them.
A particularly insightful example, which will appear in a future volume of the Joseph Smith Papers, shows Joseph Smith traveling to Washington, D.C., in November 1839 on church business and leaving his wife, Emma, behind in Commerce, Illinois, to care for their children and other loved ones who were stricken with malaria.
On Nov. 9, 1839, 12 days after departing Commerce, Joseph wrote to Emma from Springfield, Illinois, to update her on the progress of his journey and to ask about their children’s health. “I shall be filled with constant anxiety about you and the children until I hear from you,” Joseph confessed, adding that “it was so painful to leave” their sick 3-year-old son, Frederick. Then, in a moment that demonstrates Joseph’s concern for his children’s short- and long-term well-being, he urged Emma to continue to “watch over those tender offsprings in a manner that is becoming a mother and a saint” and “to cultivate their minds and learn them to read and be sober and do not let them be exposed to the weather to take cold and try to get all the rest you can.”
Joseph apologized for being away at such a difficult moment, just as many present-day fathers and mothers lament similar periods of extended separation from their families due to pressing business. In Joseph’s case, his business was lobbying President Martin Van Buren and the United States Congress for the restoration of the rights and property of Latter-day Saints in Missouri. “Nothing but a sense of humanity,” Joseph assured Emma, “could have urged me on to so great a sacrifice but shall I see so many perish and not seek redress? No, I will try this once in the name of the Lord. Therefore be patient until I come and do the best you can.”
On Dec. 6, Emma answered Joseph’s letter with one of her own. She apologized for “having omitted writing so long already on account of so much confusion and some sickness” in the Smith home.
Emma was caring not only for her own children but also for two other families she had taken in and was nursing back to health. She reported that Frederick’s health was improving but that their 8-year-old son, Joseph III, had taken a turn for the worse. She updated Joseph on events in town during his absence, but then, as any parent taking care of sick children can understand, she ran out of time. “The time lingers long that is set for your return,” she wrote to conclude her letter. “The day is waning and night is approaching so fast that I must reserve my better feelings until I have a better chance to express them.”
A Jan. 2, 1840, letter from Hyrum Smith filled Joseph in on more details about his family’s condition, and he wrote again to Emma on Jan. 20, 1840. “I am now making all haste to arrange my business to start for home,” he explained. “I feel very anxious to see you all once more the time seems long that I am deprived of your society but the Lord being my helper I will not be much longer.”
By March 1, Joseph had returned to his family in Commerce to discover that Emma and all of his children were well.
While 19th-century America was in many ways drastically different from the country today, the letters Joseph and Emma left behind remind us that the parental concerns and anxieties of that era persist in the present. This account may not make a father or mother’s task any easier the next time he or she cares for sick children in the absence of a spouse away on business, but it does offer a certain degree of comfort that in such instances parents are not alone in their child-rearing struggles.
Spencer W. McBride is a co-editor of volumes in the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers.