...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.