Three Essays on Ideal Families

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Maybe you’ve seen the new argument making its rounds on the religious-right-o-sphere, based on an essay by Robert Oscar López. López that argues that gay parents are, by definition, child abusers, because in planning their families they deprive their children of either a mother or a father. Then López goes even further, writing that “any choice to parent a child in a less-than-ideal setting for a less-than-grave reason” is child abuse.

López is a professor of English and Classics, so he ought to know the meaning of the adjective “ideal,” and he ought to know that he just called every parent on earth a child abuser (at least the ones who chose to have kids; I guess the ones who had kids by accident are off the hook). But he seems to mean it. Think of the gall, the self-regard, it takes to say something like that. López is a parent, and most of those who are spreading his argument are too. Assuming they don’t think of themselves as abusers, they’re saying either 1) they’ve put together the ideal family or 2) the ways they’re not ideal don’t matter.

Reader, if you are operating under either of those assumptions, let me disabuse you: you and your spouse are not ideal parents. Your family is not ideal. And the ways in which you miss the mark will matter to your children.  I don’t know what those ways are: maybe you’re poor, like me; maybe you’re an internet addict; maybe you’re self-righteous or lazy or a workaholic or you always have to be right. It matters to your kids, and there are therapist couches full of grownups who were raised by parents just like you.

But lots of kids raised by parents just like you also grew into whole, healthy, loving adults. So when your kids grow up, if they’re successful and whole, you can take pride in the lessons you passed on to them and the love you gave them, which helped them overcome the ways you disadvantaged them from the start. But you do not get to take pride in bringing them into an ideal setting. Because you didn’t. And if you see successful, whole children raised by gay couples, you don’t get to chalk that up to those kids’ resilience just so you can keep pitying them: they didn’t succeed despite their parents any more than yours did. If you need help with this, read your Bible, specifically the parts about throwing stones and digging specks out of your neighbor’s eye. 

López’s essay stands at the end of a long line of attacks on families that differ from a socially-sanctioned norm—attacks on divorced families, on families led by single mothers, even (as we’ll see below) on the families of only children. These attacks always end the same: by calling the parents of these families selfish, and by labeling their children as wounded or abused. This is poisonous thinking, so I want to highlight here three essays that, hopefully, can serve as an antidote to the ugliness.

The first is Lillian Daniel’s “Trial Separation,” the essay that closes her new book When ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’ Is Not Enough. Daniel’s parents announced they were separating when she was ten; they got back together a few months later before splitting up for good years later. But Daniel’s reaction wasn’t what you’d expect:

I worried I would never see my dad, but I ended up seeing him more than ever. He took me to the new James Bond movie, and then out to a restaurant to eat spaghetti. We had one-on-one conversations we had never had before. For a few months our little family tried the trial separation and I confess that I liked it.

When her parents temporarily reunited, Daniel was less than thrilled, because she knew what was coming. “The trial separation may have come to an end,” she writes, “but now, living together in the same house, we were trying out separation all over again.” Daniel goes on to write about the ways the family found itself after its divorce, how they continued to support, love and cherish each other, as they made room for step-parents and grandchildren. All of this crystallized when, as an adult, Daniel realized that she didn’t have to worry about how her parents would get along at her wedding. “And when the time came to say my own wedding vows,” she writes, “it occurred to me that my parents were still trying to keep theirs, long after the marriage had ended.”

Daniel is a minister in the United Church of Christ, and her essay closes with a meditation, set at her mother’s funeral, on God as the end of all trial separations. Loss, Daniel seems to be saying, is part of the meaning of family, at least while we’re here on Earth. So while she offers a hopeful ending, her essay also reminds us that if you only want to bring a child into a world without loss or pain, you’d better not have a kid at all.

On a more secular note, Katie Roiphe’s “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice” explores the moral disapproval the author met with when she decided to have her second baby on her own. It might seem weird to tie the liberal New Yorkers who tell Roiphe to get an abortion to the religious right types who are re-posting López’s essay, but the underlying idea is the same: there’s a right, perfect, ideal time and way to have a baby, and to have a baby in other ways or at other times is to sin. No matter how well your baby turns out. Both groups, different as they are, fit into the category of “those purveyors of wholesome and healthy environments” who “truly believe the child of a single mother is not whole or happy in his room playing with his dinosaurs.”

Roiphe writes: “The submerged premise here is that there is something greedy, selfish, narcissistic, or antisocial about having a baby on your own. But is there? It seems to me that if anything a baby born in these conditions is extra-wanted. The fact that having a baby is not necessarily the obvious or normal or predictable or easy thing to do at this particular juncture in life makes it all the more of a deep and consuming commitment.”

And she goes on to argue that there may even be some advantages to being raised by a single parent. She quotes a friend who says “Kids of mono-parental families have more and earlier opportunities than their peers to recognize that adults have stories and sensitivities and struggles of their own. In today’s age of imperious, entitled super-children, the kids of single parents often grow up a bit more modest and humane.”

Finally, there’s Alexandra Schwartz’s “Onliness,” posted at the New Yorker, which starts out as a review of Lauren Sandler’s book One and Only but quickly expands into a reflection on Schwartz’s own experience as an only child. Only children and their parents, Schwartz points out, have been stigmatized, too—not as severely as the children of gay or single parents, maybe, but for the same reasons and with the same language. The parents are selfish; the kids are damaged, plagued with “bossiness, perfectionism, unquenchable solipsism, a depraved tinge of genius.” She even quotes the first president of the American Psychological Association, who said, “Being an only child is a disease in itself.”

And while Schwartz acknowledges that her childhood did involve a measure of loneliness, like Roiphe and Daniel, she sees benefits in the way her family formed itself: “I’ve often attributed my best and worst qualities to being an only: the love of solitude and the fear of it, the itch to play the class clown and the sudden reticence that reads as aloofness, the debilitating tendency toward blinding self-criticism, the pleasure and discomfort of being detached from a given group—a self-appointed observer, taking notes on the action as the action goes on.”

And she asks, “What would have happened if I wasn’t an only child? What would I have been like? Would I have cared as much about my stuffed animals, tucking them into bed with their faces up so they didn’t accidentally suffocate in the night, flipping the whole gang over like chicken breasts in the oven when I shifted in the dark room?”

Full disclosure: I’m an only child, and my parents divorced when I was seventeen, so my family fits into two of the categories outlined above. And I relate to the frustration these authors feel at being told our families are broken, or that our childhoods were tragic—not because telling us that hurts our feelings, but because it’s not true. Recently, my wife, my sister-in-law, and I were sitting around talking about family. They know the facts of my childhood, and they know that I sometimes wish I had had siblings or that my parents had stayed together. But they also know my parents and the outsized regard I hold for them, and I simply could not convince them that my childhood was anything other than idyllic. These two sisters, now best of friends, who spent a recent Saturday night drinking wine with their parents and singing songs from their childhood on the same porch of the same house where they used to play as kids—they think my childhood was ideal!

And they have a point. I wouldn’t trade the way I was brought up for anything in the world. On the one hand, my childhood was imperfect because of who my parents were and the choices that they made; on the other hand, my childhood was perfect for the same reasons. I think most happy adults would say the same thing.

I get a little bit angry when people try to speak for me—when, say, they try to project their abstract notions of “the consequences of divorce” onto my actual, lived reality. And I get really mad when someone uses those abstractions to call my parents selfish. So I can only imagine what someone like Zach Wahls feels when he reads the sort of nonsense that López is putting out, supposedly in Wahls’ name. 

That’s the real problem I have with López’s piece. López tries to use his own experience (his mom was gay) to gain credibility in attacking gay families, but he wasn’t the child of a gay marriage, artificial insemination, or adoption. By his account, his father abandoned him, and he was raised by his mother, a tempestuous heavy drinker who saw her lover on weekends. If he wants to speak out about his own pain—against alcohol abuse, or abandonment, or in favor of family stability—that would be one thing. But that’s not what he does. “I do not feel I was abused,” he writes, because, understandably, he doesn’t want us to judge his parents. But then he presumes to tell Zach Wahls, and all the kids growing up in similar situations, that their parents are abusers. And that he has a right to speak for them.

Gall.

Daniel has smarter words for those who think they can judge families that are not their own. She writes:

There is much play-acting in the world, and often on the stage of suburban streets or chic urban condos, where from the outside the family looks like a unit, inside there is a rift that cannot yet be exposed to the light of day. So we make assumptions that this family is happy and complete, and that one is broken and in pain, but really we have no idea. We ought to treat every family with tenderness and compassion for all the things we do not know about them, and pray that they will deal gently with us too.

Don’t judge what you don’t know. That’s not liberal wishy-washiness or moral relativism. It’s plain, commonsense advice, and as Christian as it gets.

Note: I’ve linked the online version of Roiphe’s essay, originally published at slate.com on Oct. 5, 2011. But the third quote I’ve included, on the benefits of being raised by a single parent, comes from the revised version that appeared in her new book In Praise of Messy Lives

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