Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Wedding Gift


...for Mad and Jen. With my best wishes.

In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about the months her family spent huddled in their house in town, burning straw for warmth and subsisting on a single loaf of bread each day, baked from coarsely ground wheat, their only food. Kept indoors by blinding, life-threatening blizzards, Laura complains about their isolation from even their closest neighbours. Ma is, reportedly, shocked. "I hope you don’t expect to depend on anybody else, Laura," she admonishes. "A body can’t do that."

It’s a strange lesson to append to a story of a tiny band of settlers, cut off from the rest of the world by snowdrifts that block the trains from getting through with supplies. Within each home, family members lean on one another, sacrifice for one another, but beyond those boundaries there is a determined avoidance of solidarity: Almanzo Wilder and his brother hoard their private store of bacon, and Charles Ingalls never hints that his family is starving when he drops by for the occasional plateful of flapjacks. All transactions outside of family boundaries must be economic ones: the free market must be allowed to operate, unfiltered by considerations of sentiment or need. Only when there is a very real danger of starvation does the town begin to work together, pooling their resources and creating a rationing system.

This is the social model Edward Said calls "filiation." In five years of graduate study, one of the most useful concepts I came across was Said’s distinction between filiative and affiliative bonds. Filiative bonds are thrust upon us: they are created by blood and proximity. Affiliation, on the other hand, refers to the relationships we choose, the ones we create for ourselves. Elementary school is a filiative environment: everyone knows everyone else, and desk location can play a key role in the forging of friendships. College, on the other hand, is an affiliative environment: social networks are loose, flexible: there is a freedom to find one’s place, to insert oneself wherever one best fits. The transition from feudal to modern societies has been, fundamentally, a transition from filiative to affiliative communities.

The blogosphere is, I suppose, the ultimate affiliative environment: freed from the constraints of geography, we can create communities based on shared interests and ideals. Such communities can transcend traditional boundaries based on race, class, and culture, but they can erect new boundaries of their own: they allow like to meet with like; they allow us to ignore personalities antagonistic to our own.

Affiliation is one of the greatest pleasures of our urban, technological age. But it has a cost, and a deep one: the loneliness, the isolation of those who fall between the cracks. The affiliative bonds fostered in our culture often focus on entertainment: people cluster around soccer fields and gaming tables, drawn together by music, or dance, or the love of a good book. These friendships can’t really replace the role once played by family: it’s not always easy to call up your tennis partner when your baby won’t stop crying and your sanity is slipping dangerously.

Churches do their best to fill the gap. Every day this month, my mother will jump into her car at 5 pm and drive for twenty minutes so that she can put in eye-drops for a member of her Bible study group, a disabled woman who has just had cataract surgery. My mother has taken on this obligation willingly, despite the attendent disruption to her supper routine, and yet I wonder why no one else in her church has stepped forward to share the load. I don't have to look far for the answer: it's for the same reason that I haven’t stepped forward - we are depleted by our jobs and families; it’s hard to perform such tasks for those not related to us by blood. Affiliation can never quite replace filiation; blood is thicker than water. But what happens to those who are cut off from their families by choice, or by geography, or by the vagaries of life? The terror of the modern age is the fate anticipated by Miranda in an episode of Sex and the City: to die alone and be eaten by cats.

Becoming a mother has made me more aware of my reliance on others: on the grandparents who babysit so I can keep a doctor’s appointment, on the husband whose arrival home at the end of the day permits a long-postponed trip to the bathroom. While friends provide a much-needed safety net of sympathy and fun, it is family members with whom one can play hand-off-the-baby – they’re the ones who can be depended upon to be interested in the variegated colours of my baby’s poops, rather than grossed-out by their diaper-busting explosiveness.

Every day, since becoming a mother, I’ve wondered how single moms cope. If I’m just barely keeping my head above water with all the support I’ve got, what happens to women who don’t have a husband to whom they can pass the baton?

For several months now, I’ve been the silent partner in an attempt to address that question. A friend with far more organizational drive than I has taken the reins of an idea we hatched together last September: a parenting-class/support-group for women referred to us by the Crisis Pregnancy Centre – mothers who have made it to the end of their "crisis pregnancy" and are now dealing with the demands of a new baby. While my friend has made countless phone calls to secure funding and create the program, I have mostly sat back and worried. How arrogant is it to assume that I can teach anyone about parenting? What is the best way to run a program hosted by a church so that it can be welcoming to women of all religious backgrounds? Do I have what it takes to do this in addition to teaching three courses and raising two toddlers?

That last one, I think, is the question that lies behind the panicky feeling I get whenever I start thinking about our first meeting in January. Because ultimately mothers need more than a free picture book or a few housekeeping tips cribbed from Flylady – we need people to catch us when we stumble, people who can do the baby-holding and poop-wiping and eye-drop-putting-in when we’re depleted from doing all that ourselves, every day. It’s like what Marcus says in About a Boy: we need a pyramid of people underneath us, each one bearing a bit of the weight. In a story that’s all about affiliation, Marcus collects people the way other boys collect rocks and bugs: his parents are divorced, and his mother is subject to suicidal bouts of depression, so he builds his sense of security on his ability to create alternate networks, "little patterns of people that wouldn’t have been possible if his mum and dad hadn’t split up."

If we can do that – if we can manage to create a few pyramids for people who need them – then I’ll feel that we’ve accomplished something worthwhile. That’s what I’m hoping for.


Antique Mommy said...

I wish I could write and think with such clarity. I am certain I would love to be a student in one of your classes.

cinnamon gurl said...

What a great idea! I'm sure you will be a great support, especially with your whatever makes today easier let tomorrow worry about itself approach. For me, that's what keeps me sane.

Julie Pippert said...

That's a fantastic idea. Simply having Others with whom to comiserate is a tremendous supprt and help for any mother, I think. Beyond that is huge. GL with your venture.

And I HEART HEART HEART Nick Hornby and About a Boy is my favorite of his, I think. Although it's hard to say.

cmhl said...

excellent, excellent post...

(and I love the little house books---)

Jenifer G. said...

My goodness. Where do you keep all have a depth I admire. Your writing never fails to make me ponder a bit, inspire, and generally brighten my day.

A gift indeed.

I also would love to be a student one day!

Mad Hatter said...

Argh, I had written a long, involved comment of much thanks and then the internet went down and ate it. Argh. Here is my attempt at recreating it (after two glasses of anniversary champagne).

B&P, I love you.

Funnily enough, I was just talking with my husband about how all this posting this week about issues I have such a tenuous grasp on has left me feeling awkward, arrogant, and impotent. In my efforts to explain my unease to him, I said, "If you ever find me quoting Edward Said on my blog, just shoot me." I said this because I haven't actually read Said myself; I just know his theories second-hand. I literally left the room to come to the computer to email you on another matter entirely when I found this glorious gift. It is clear that it is a gift written by a woman who has not only read Said but understands him and can apply him in daily life. Thank you for this articulate and eloquent gift.

I live far away from family--away from the filiative. The only people in my community who have a relationship with my daughter (beyond my husband and myself) are paid to do so. This saddens me deeply. I have spent a lot of time wondering how single moms--economically disadvantaged single moms particularly--do it. I have wondered what kind of resources exist for them in the community. Now that I know, you are one of the resources, I will rest easier.

I'm looking forward to seeing you at the wedding on Sunday. When you spin "Come on Eileen," I plan to let 'er all hang out.

BTW, I still need to email you on that other matter. Heads up.

Mad Hatter said...

Sorry 'bout the comma problem there but I did mention the champagne, right?

lildb said...


wishing I lived in your town right about now.

Lady M said...

Beautiful. I have unconsciously helped create some pyramids in the past and am now trying to consciously build one for someone. It's not easy and I don't know how it's going to turn out. But what a worthwhile venture.

Pieces said...

Your brain is so much bigger than mine. It's embarrassing. (I even had to ask my husband how many r's are in the word embarrassing. And then I share my shame. Not so smart.)

What the women in your new support group will need more than anything is someone to listen to them and to encourage them to keep on keepin' on. You'll do great.

jen said...

what a beautiful post. and what a beautiful thing you are doing.

i, too, often wonder how single moms do it (let alone single homeless moms) how terrified and weak i think i would be.

what strong arms you have.

thank you. i'll see you on sunday, and i bet you'll be dancing.

Mamalooper said...

Wonderful idea. I have been thinking more on this topic because of the murder/suicide this past week in Toronto. One telling comment to me was made by the grandfather - "she was a good mother; she spent all her time with her son". What I read between the lines was "single mom gets no break at all and is overwhelmed".

On the personal side, I am in a similar situation to Mad Hatter (wave) - our families live thousands of miles away and our daughter does not have anyone here that is close enough to be like family. We are the affiliative folk at an age and stage where many seem to be full up on affiliative and filliative ties.

Thought of this as well when I saw a woman at the drop in place that I go to - she didn't talk to anyone else and played on her own with her daughter. I wondered if she had any friends. I said hi to her but didn't really spend the time to talk to her (was with Urban Mommy and Her Bad Mother and their kiddies). I will look out for her and talk to her next time I am there.

Suzanne said...

That is a terrific idea. From what I've seen here, you do indeed have enough wisdom and insight about parenting and life in general to make a real contribution in someone else's life. Good luck!

Andrea said...

B&P, What a great idea. I know you'll do a wonderful job.

Can you email me? I have a proposition to make adn I don't want to make it in your comments box.

(Not THAT kind of proposition.)

bubandpie said...

Mad - If it's any comfort, I'm pretty sure that's the only idea from Said (or, really, almost any other literary theorist) that actually took up residence in my brain like that - became part of the lens through which I look at the world.

Everyone - I really have been torn with self-doubt about this, and I still am to a certain extent, but your words echo what I've been feeling: that what we say matters less than our ability to listen, that the most important thing I can bring to this is an ability to recognize an individual need and act on - and hope that others do the same.

mamatulip said...

You are amazing.

Beck said...

Beautiful post. One of the things that comes up at the various church groups that I'm on is how the same 15 people in our little town do EVERYTHING. Everyone else just coasts - and I'm including myself in the "everyone else", by the way. Anyone who manages to find the energy and time to help other people as well as looking after their families and working has my admiration.

Oh, The Joys said...

I think your simple presence for the women involved will be enough. Showing up for the relationships that aren't those you would necessarily choose is tough.

mamalang said...

Not only the sounding board, but the chance to hand that baby, child, whatever to someone else, even for 15 minutes, will undoubtedly be a relief. I'm not a single mother the majority of the time, but when the military sends my husband away for months on end, I am. And while I know I CAN do it, I'm glad I don't have to regularly. Someday I wish to be as strong and courageous as you!

Joy said...

I can always count on you to get me thinking, Bub. I am someone who does have a very hands on husband (not that he is not a pain in my arse many a time) but my family is in another country literally, while his is mentally. We're on our own, and many a time I wish I had my parents near by just to help out. But we've built our own pyramid--finding ourself in a neighborhood where people actually rally together and help out (several neighbors took care of my son while Huz and I were in hospital). These folks and our other friends have brought over gifts and meals; babysat or entertained our older boy. And then there is my group of female friends who have just listened when I've blubbed about being overwhelmed. This is my pyramid--and the folks in the blogosphere fill several holes in its construction.

So, of course you help will be invaluable. Just being there and listening, as you say. Go for it and good luck!

metro mama said...

Sounds like a great project. Good for you.

I want to get involved in something in the new year now my course load is a little lighter. We need more things like this.

nomotherearth said...

I know that I couldn't have survived this whole baby-business without the help of my family - my mother especially.

It's such a great idea that you have here, so please don't be nervous about doing it. The amount of empathy and understanding that comes through in your writing would benefit anyone.

Jill said...

Love the Little House, filiative/affilitive intro!

How about respite care for your moms? Or even a respite care calling tree made up of the other moms in the group. You know, an easy way to find free child care in a pinch.

Momish said...

What a wonderful idea and plan put in place to really make a difference. I often wonder how single moms do it all by themselves. It crosses my mind each time I am rendered helpless for the five or ten minutes my husband is not around when I need him. Yet, my mom raised us alone and she is solid as a rock. Sometimes you just do what you have to and you don't know it until you must. Still, a helping hand (or open ear) is always welcome and what mom couldn't use one?

sunshine scribe said...

You are beyond amazing. Such a superb idea.

And this post ... took my breath away. Sometimes I think I am just not worthy enough to read your blog. You rock.

Jenny said...

Beautifully written!

Support and care is such a wonderful gift to give someone.