03 May 2008

Drama or Farce

The story of people with spouses, children, mortgages and SUVs is usually told as a sitcom, a genre I have always been so averse to that as I child I would flee the room when one was playing on TV. The downside of this habit of mine is that now that I have arrived on this particular stage I have no idea what my lines are supposed to be.

This is not a tragedy, however, because even an ordinary life has so much more potential in it than a sitcom.

Taken seriously (and my regular readers know that even in humor I play the straight man), children drive the mystery and suspense of the story. The looming question is "what kind of people will they be when they grow up?" At first, you don't get much insight. Babies, personality researchers tell us, come in three basic varieties: fussy, quiet, and in between.

But as children grow up, they get more distinct and develop personalities of their own. Where these personalities come from is sometimes a mystery, and sometimes obvious.

At one of my first jobs, everyone in the office would feign mock ignorance at where my hard charging colleague's children, who were near Olympic class skiers, got their fearless passion for speed.

More commonly, tracing personality traits to various parts of the family tree is more of a murky parlor game that frequently leaves you with "where did that come from?" wild cards. Of course, it doesn't really matter where any of those personality traits came from, the real job of the game is simply noticing them take shape. It is like watching a portrait being drawn, first with broad outlines, then greater detail and shading, until someday, eventually, a full color image will emerge.

Another fascinating shift as children grow older is the transition from a focus on preventing your children from suffering accidental death or out wailing your neighbor's stereo, to a focus on their education, which is to say, on letting them grow into the people they have the potential to become.

The trouble is that kids sometimes do seem to have traits that come out of nowhere. How do you help them develop and nurture interests about which you have absolutely no clue of your own? Latch hook and carpentry, for example.

A parent's role in education is so much more than simply hounding them to do their homework, although there is certainly some of that involved. Teachers, for better or for worse, get the rote basics. Parents have to simultaneously consider that their most powerful lessons are delivered by modeling behavior, rather than by formal instruction, and also have to make sense of the "everything else" portion of the more formal curriculum -- what spare time books should you suggest? what television and movies should you make available? what sports and activities should you present as options? what requests should be considered reasonable and which ones should be overlooked (an inevitable reality as children have a capacity to want things more quickly than the wealthiest king could deliver them).

There is, of course, a multi-threaded romantic element to all of this as well. Romance is generally what brings children (even adopted children) into one's family. Romances that you don't become really aware of until you have your own children, are generally what brought you into your own family. Children, in due course, will have their own romances as well, and before then, will learn the skills they need to have romances later as they start to form friendships, and as they watch you and other people in your life to collect subconscious clues about how to go about doing this romance thing. Tendencies in relationships aren't entirely plastic either. Some of it appears to be hard wired and individual, a part of their evolving personalities.

The romantic elements are sometimes the sappy stuff of romantic comedy, but they come with drama attached as well. Your children's futures are profoundly impacted by your own ability to hold a long term relationship (or more than one) together. Indeed, as I frequently explain to divorce clients with children, while you can end a marriage, your co-parenting relationship is forever. People who share children can choose to have a more distant and less exclusive relationship with each other, but they are never truly unbound. Serial polygamy has gone mainstream.

For those of us who were not emotional geniuses as children or young adults (alas, a designation I no longer fairly lay claim to any more than I can fairly consider myself either a "young lawyer" or a "young Democrat" any longer -- when I pop by the odd gathering of Drinking Liberally I start looking in the mirror to see if my hair has turned white yet), the tasks of parenting and high stakes romance, requires some remedial education.

Suddenly, we have to learn to understand the secret language of the other gender, which sounds familiar, but contains many deceptive false friends. We have to go from having a toddler's ability to name emotions, to having a practical ability to make sense of them, in ourselves and more dauntingly, in spouses and children.

Another thorny piece is the bit of writing all those scripts for living. In the post-sexual revolution secular world, figuring out how to go from "tradition" if one even remembers what that was, to a day to day, and holiday to life threshold recipe for living is no longer straight forward. You aren't always sure when you are making choices, you have to have faith in the choices you make, and you have to be acutely sensitive to instincts you didn't even know that you had to tell you if you are doing the right thing.

The Marxists talk about a dialectic of revolution, counter-revoultion and synthesis. My generation comes into the gender and parenting role discussion on the synthesis cycle, although not the first one.

We have had, by my reckoning, at least four major waves of feminism revolutions in the last couple of hundred years. The first was the feminism of the sufferagettes that produced the Married Women's Property Acts and a related reconceptualization of marriage and brought the idea of women in politics to respectibility. The second wave culminated in the flapper feminism of the 1920s that actually secured the vote and opened up cultural doorways. The third was the Rosey the Rivetter wave brought about by the necessities of World War II. The fourth was the sexual revolution we associate with the 1960s that opened education and employment to women in practice, as opposed to merely in theory or in cases of dire necessity.

The generation before mine ushered in "free love". My own generation, in synthesis, has had to balance free love with AIDS, date rape, sexual harassment, a moral framework for making choices about abortion now that it is available and a recognition that there is more to gender identity than male or female (i.e. straight, gay, transgender, etc.).

The generation before mine reversed the default assumption about men and women from one in which gender is a primary factor in martial roles and career choice, to one in which the default assumption is that gender doesn't matter. My own generation remains committed to a gender-blind, equality oriented default assumption about gender, but is increasingly recognizing that the default assumption comes with exceptions: Men and women are, generally and on average, different in important ways that go far beyond anatomy, and the focus of our generation is on acknowledging those differences in an even handed way, rather than ignoring them in a gender-blind way.

For example, having discovered that men and women are equally capable of completing law school, the bar exam and business school, we are now trying to figure out how to restructure those institutions and the careers that follow, so that solutions to the home-work balance other than having one spouse follow a career while another is a homemaker can be developed that give both jobs and kids a fair shake.

Like it or not, we are engaged in science fiction, redesigning society, day by day, under modernizing pressures we aren't sure we fully understand.

Gender roles aren't the only larger social trends playing out in our daily lives. We have to come to terms with an aging world that has abandoned in just the last few generations, hundreds of thousands of years of the get pregnant early and often fertility strategy. A smaller world is increasingly creating a cultural melting pot that rewrites tradition even further. Economic decisions like finding a place to live and figuring out how to get to work or buy food, are playing out in the context of the final act of the oil age and our strangling of our own ecosystem.

My kids like to listen to stories in the American Girl franchise. These fictionalized social histories tell family life as dramas that illustrate their eras. One day, maybe they'll make an episode about us. With any luck, it won't be a tragedy.

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