Have I mentioned before that I love having a sister who’s a writer? I get to read really well-written stuff, bask in a certain amount of reflected glory, and every so often I get these extraordinary and delightful moments of seeing some detail from my childhood brilliantly reconstructed and deconstructed by the person who shared it.
Thus, in her latest (1) NYT guest essay Can We Really Love Our Children Unconditionally?, she writes about having to navigate the expectations of a middle-class intellectual family. Or, more specifically, a middle-class intellectual mother’s expectations with regard to music lessons:
For my mother, my musical industriousness wasn’t so much about achievement as identity. She was American by birth, and after marrying my university professor father and moving to London, she spent a decade working to be accepted into the snippy, fraught world of British intellectual society. […] In this environment, a diligent daughter lugging a giant cello was a tiny smidge of cultural capital, a ticket to belonging.
….OK, that explanation for the music-related maternal expectations never occurred to me, probably because it would never have occurred to me that my mother saw herself as having any difficulty fitting in. She’s a woman well described by the phrase ‘the kind of woman who never met a stranger’, and from my earliest memories she was part of our street’s community in a way that my introvert self can only look at with awe. My sister just shone a new light on a detail of my childhood.
With regard to the ‘unconditional love’ question, I do feel the need to say that this is not something I ever worried about; my mother is unconditional maternal love embodied. But the levels of complexity in this issue are, again, something Ruth has summed up perfectly:
And for my part, although I never truly believed that my mother’s love was conditional, I did have the nagging suspicion that there was a performance-related bonus in there.
And she also sheds beautiful light on the whole concept of unconditional maternal love:
Given the familiar guilty exhaustion that the phrase “unconditional love” evokes in me, I should have sniffed out that there was some sexism buried in the idea. The nagging sense that this emotional requirement is both essential to everyone else’s well-being yet impossible to achieve in practice certainly seems to be drawn from the file labeled “Unachievable Expectations Placed Mainly on Women. ”
Perfect. I know I’m biased here, but I do recommend the article.
(1) where ‘latest’ means ‘a month ago because I’m terrible at getting anything written’, so, um, sorry about that.