Friday, October 10, 2014

Reflecting on the mother who loved her husband more than her kids

Just emerged from a fascinating article by Danielle and Astro Teller entitled: “How American Parenting is Killing American Marriages.” In short, they attribute the child worship of the current American culture to the decline in American marriage and presumably its declining longevity. Their points are well-presented and they have a solid case for the poor parenting that is fracturing the culture at many points--much of which includes ideas of fostering entitlement, solving problems for their children, and sustaining the illusion that they are the centre of the universe. This latter is cause for great readjustment when they realise that they must now play the game in the world of adult rules.

Within the brilliance of the article, an example they used stood out to me: the mother who loved her husband more. Ayelet Waldman wrote a NYT essay back in 2005 in which she stated that she loved her husband more than her four children. The point that she was trying to make was that her love for him provided them with the security they needed to be stable young people. A solid marriage in the family is more valuable than being preferred. 

This simple statement whipped up the fury of lovers of children to ridiculous proportions: she was accused of being a bad mother, physically threatened by strangers, and in danger of being reported to child protective services. The Tellers (authors of the original article) pointed out the similarity to a religion persecuting a heretic; good analogy, folks.

Thinking about this comment of Ayelet Waldman which made her such a target brought a new understanding to me. 

She loved her husband more than her four children. Why did she feel compelled to say that? Who asked her to compare her loves for him and them? How could she sanely make the comparison and be taken seriously? 

We live in a society that thrives on comparing things. In scientific methodology, it is helpful and diagnostic. If we could not compare things, we would not be critical thinkers. But sometimes we have turned it into an unhealthy competition by using it to evaluate two things that are unlike and attempting to raise one up or put the other down. We use comparing ourselves to others to both make ourselves feel better or worse (depending on our emotional setting at the time.) We also thrive on comparing accomplishments (our own, our pets’, our children’s, yes--our spouse’s) with those of others. We compare brands of toothpaste, or anything for that matter. Advertisement is choked with comparing and putting down.

So, from that unfortunate mindset, Waldman made the absurd remark that she loved her husband more than her children. And she was castigated by a society that didn’t even see the absurdity. No one questioned if her love for her husband was of a different type than that for her children. Love is love. So it can all be on one huge scale. Her love of pizza is somewhat lower on the scale than her husband, therefore that much lower than her children. 

Oddly, it took me a while to realise what a mess she was in as I asked myself the ridiculous question: do I love my husband more than I love my two children? I do not love them in the same way. It is not a continuum. Phil is my friend, my confidant, my support, my sounding board, my “rooster”, my debater, my bringer-down-to-reality, and many other things. He is not my child. He has not been dependent on me for life the way they have. He has not needed me for the same things. I love him differently than I love them.

Now, if someone were so rude as to ask me whether I love my son or my daughter more, I could easily laugh in his or her face and say that is a meaningless question. It is not a competition. In our society, we do not have favourite children--or don’t admit it. We may not have them. That is unfair. Evidence for this is especially strong in our cultural reaction to the Joseph narrative in the Bible where we soundly condemn Jacob for placing Joseph in the unhappy position of being dad’s favourite. And we all know that “teacher’s pet” is no compliment.

Parents--mothers and fathers--know instinctively that children are individuals and each merits his or her own shape, colour, and style of love. The love I have for Luke is not greater or less than the love I have for Isabel. It is different, because he is different and he brings a wide spectrum of different memories and treasures to our mother-son relationship than Isabel brings to our mother-daughter relationship. If I had two sons or two daughters, the reality is still the same: their souls make me love them in different ways.

So if I am exempted from having to choose between my son and my daughter, where on earth does the expectation come that I must prefer either my husband or my children? It should follow reasonably that my love for Phil is different because of our husband-wife relationship.

Fellow humans, let’s drop the false weight of comparisons. Leave comparing to science and engineers and when we do critical thinking.  Let us make comparing more than a value judgement. We are free to prefer some types of art, music, movies, books, without the “better than” or “worse than” labels. And we especially should do that where people are concerned. I have quite a few dear friends. In modern lingo, a 20-something would call them BFFs. How can you have more than one “best” friend? I don’t know, but we do it.

Nobody calls us on that. It’s great that my friend Marcia is my best, and Debbie is my best, and Jarm is my best, and Fozy is my best, and May is . . . you get the picture. I could fill a very long paragraph. We see our friends as individuals, loving them for who they are. And who they are becomes what they mean to us, and each has her or his own category of love. 

Please, let’s take love out of the competitive mode.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God”

1 John 4:7

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: The Unbroken Song

Back in 1981, Es’kia Mphahlele wrote:

“Some years to come, when the house will no longer be divided, we may chat about these times of pain. And the season of creations will encircle the season of harvesting which will embrace the season of death which will encircle the season of waiting and enduring, spinning out the unbroken song of a people.”

What hopeful words for an exile from his homeland riven by apartheid. 

Now, those years have come. The house is no longer divided: it is a rainbow nation. And the time has come to “chat about these times of pain.” 

The Unbroken Song is a compilation of Mphahlele’s selected writings, short stories and poems. It was written over his years of teaching in the homelands, exile in Nigeria and sojourn in France. He was warned that to compete with whites in the field of letters could break him. He was advised to stay in his own territory and not be threatened with unequal competition. There were few enough publishers for black writers back in the 40s, so Mphahlele wrote because of his “desire to create strong and beautiful words.”

This he has done. In this day of tweets and posts, short stories are a powerful option to dipping into the past and gaining insights in less time than a novel requires. Finding the best authors is important. 

Mphahlele writes from a life segmented by exile, hope, dreams, and longings. He understands, though, that life is all of a piece and is strung out in unbroken music: hence the title of this collection of short stories and poetry.

Many themes are covered in these pages. “A Point of Identity” focuses on the exalted African quality of ubuntu: our humanity contingent upon interaction with other humans. His experiences and insights from Nigeria resonate in “The Barber of Bariga.” The secondary, submissive position of women is pronounced in “A Ballad of Oyo.” While “Grieg on a Stolen Piano” illustrates the choices of selective knowing and understanding in a world where you do not play on a level playing field. 

“The Suitcase” connects with the desperation of a man struggling with survival and providing for family. The arrogant god-complex of well-meaning whites is satisfactorily covered in “Dinner at Eight.” The tenuousness of life and reality of demonstrations under apartheid rule is vivid in “The Coffee-Cart Girl.” 

Each story is a lesson of life in itself, as truly good short stories are. The one which revealed the depth of Mphahlele’s insight into the mindlessness of white complicity was “The Living and the Dead.” His suspense and the aura of impending tragedy are brilliant in this story in which a white man’s dawning awareness of something he had persistently disregarded unfolds. As his servant describes the unjustified beating he received at the hands of two random white passers by, Stoffel “sensed agony in every syllable, in every gesture of the hand. He had read the same story so many times in newspapers and had never given it much thought.” There is a point where this man realises he has no connection with his servant, Jackson, there is no ubuntu in his soul. He reaches a state akin to anger within himself and seems at the tipping point of action. This outrage against another human being almost brings him to admit the inhumanity of his society. But the wave which peaks and breaks upon us a hope for his soul, ebbs back. 

“No. Better continue treating him as a name, not as another human being. Let Jackson continue as a machine to work for him. Meantime, he must do his duty . . . He was a white man and he must be responsible. To be white and to be responsible were one and the same thing.”

As this story fades, the reader is left with “responsible” reverberating; but responsible for what? Clearly, Mphahlele wants us to consider responsible for whom. (Mindful of another question: but who is my neighbour?)

This quality of short story will help us “chat about those times of pain.” If we do not reflect and learn from what happened, we will lose the benefit of those who endured before us.