Monday, April 5, 2010

Many Mothers

When I was about five or six, I had a dream that a new mother blossomed for me, seemingly out of nowhere. She told me she would take care of me. When I woke up, I still saw her, and I contemplated her for a while. 


My family and I were in the car. Dad driving, mom next to him, my brother usually sat behind my dad and I sat behind my mom. My dad noticed me staring out of the window, being quiet, and he asked, "what are you thinking?"

"A new mother," I replied.

My dad giggled, and my mom looked vaguely amused yet insulted. I think I hurt her that day. We didn't really fight in those days; we didn't even have much of a relationship. My mom likes to make a big deal about how she would cut her workday short so she could come home and take me swimming, because I was asthmatic and apparently swimming helps asthma, but while I do remember her teaching me how to swim, I don't really remember it happening a whole lot and besides, that was probably something like twenty years ago. 

I didn't hate my mom. I just didn't know her very well, and she didn't really act towards me the way I thought mothers should act. I got more attention from the housemaid, who was pretty much my nanny all the way until I was twelve, than I remember getting from my mom. 

Nor did I feel that I had any monopoly over my mom's attention. She had to work. She had her friends. She had her own life and did a lot of other things besides being my mom. Being my mom was not the sum of her life. Which was okay by me! But I still would have liked to have had someone else to talk to. 

I think this monopoly over children is not helpful - one mother and one father per family doesn't quite work out quite so well when it's looked at more closely. The nuclear family is simply not sustainable, economically, and there isn't really enough social grounding for it to work either. Plus, why should a child, or a set of children, only have one mother and one father? And why should they be treated like they're little traitors if they find other people to be their role models? And what if something should happen to either parent? 

Moreover, just because someone gives birth to a child, doesn't mean they're going to have the right skills, empathy, kindness and resources to bring that child up. Why shouldn't that parent have the right to the parenting skills, empathy, kindness and resources of other parents?

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, one of the characters explains to the narrator, each woman has the right to maternity, that is, to get pregnant and give birth to a child. However, not all women are qualified to be mothers, as in their society, motherhood is a special skill dedicated to serving the weakest and driving focal point of Herland society: the children. Thus, young women have to study and practise hard to show their mettle as mothers, and only the very best are selected to take care of children. Several women are in charge of a single nursery, sharing duties of motherhood. No single woman is left to take care of a single child full-time, because that would be stressful, and moreover, cuts the child off from having a wide range of experience with different people. 

Even as these women are charged with the profession of caring and raising children, they also share their duties so each woman can have her own life beyond child care. 

Women need that. And children need mothers and fathers who have full, happy lives, so they can get their first starts in life with full happy people giving them the best care. Parents deserve to have more people pitching in to help raise children. 

Communes, kibbutzes, systems within which children were raised by all the women (and uncles) with no specific possession over which child was whose, multi-generational households where uncles and aunts live together... all these are much healthier than the nuclear family system of today. 

3 comments:

  1. You make the statement that the nuclear family isn't feasible, but you never really support that position. I would agree that it isn't perfect, but communes and kibbutzes are just as bad when they go south. The issue isn't the structure, it's whether or not the people involved buy into and invest themselves in it. In my experience, the nuclear family is economically and socially feasible. I'm in no way saying it's the best or only way, but as someone who continues to have a positive experience of it, both as child and parent, I think you need to qualify your statement. Those communes and kibbutzes CAN be healthier, or provide good alternatives, but that doesn't necessitate knocking down the nuclear family. I like how you're offering alternatives for people who don't get the Norman Rockwell painting for a nuclear family, but I think you're swinging the pendulum too hard in one direction.

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  2. I first heard about the nuclear family not being sustainable from an economist (and we all know how WELL I do with economics!) so I'm still mulling over the position and how to explain it. The nuclear family's very much the norm and I'm still considering what's in its favour to properly debunk.

    I can't deliver long essays all the time :P

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  3. Sis, you may want to qualify how communes could function better than nuclear families. Its a little vague there.

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