Monday, March 09, 2020

Duality & the traditional family

I saw the following tweet recently:

I found it interesting as an example of the duality that can exist between men and women (she clarifies later that she meant to say "filling" it with love). Obviously there are points of difference between men and women that set the sexes apart, but there are also points of difference that are complementary, through which the sexes "fit together" in a significant way.

Men do have an instinct to be the providers and protectors who create a protected space in which women like Rachel Bock can then exercise their nurturing and homemaking instincts.

This is an example of duality in role or function. If the role or function of men and women were exactly the same ("gender role convergence") then the basis for relationships would become thinner. Men and women would no longer need each other as much, nor would we have as much to gift to the other sex, nor would there be the same feeling of gratitude to the other sex.

This "gender role convergence" is what is happening in modern society. It explains, in part, why modern women so often express the feeling that they don't need a man, or why so many people in the most "gender" advanced societies, like Sweden, live alone. If complementary roles are lost, then the motivation to establish and maintain relationships will be less compelling.

The novelist Rachel Cusk discussed this issue some years ago when writing about her divorce. She believes that her parents brought her up to follow male values, so that when she married and had a child she felt confused in her identity. She couldn't readily embrace the more feminine values described above by Rachel Bock, namely to make a house feel warm, to fill it with love and children, food and comfort. And so she did a role reversal with her husband, who agreed to stay home to do this while she pursued her career.
To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values...motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live...its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine.

So for a while I didn't belong anywhere. I seemed, as a woman, to be extraneous. And so I did two things: I reverted to my old male-inflected identity; and I conscripted my husband into care of the children. My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female. He gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children.

It didn't work out. She wanted both herself and her husband to be hybrids, half male and half female. That was her notion of equality. Instead, her husband seemed to be content with the homemaking role and with being dependent - and Rachel Cusk had been brought up to value independence above all. And so her feelings for her husband changed:
I had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother's; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot.

Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence

Which brings her to an interesting insight about duality. Rachel Cusk admits that rather than her mother being dependent on her father, both were dependent on the other and that in this arrangement there was a duality between the two that connected them closely together: might be said that dependence is an agreement between two people. My father depended on my mother too: he couldn’t cook a meal, or look after children from the office. They were two halves that made up a whole. What, morally speaking, is half a person? Yet the two halves were not the same: in a sense my parents were a single compartmentalized human being. My father’s half was very different from my mother’s, but despite the difference neither half made any sense on its own.

But she herself had a notion of equality in which people remained disconnected:
My notion of half was more like the earthworm’s: you cut it in two but each half remains an earthworm, wriggling and fending for itself.

She was aware of one of the negative consequences of being entirely self-sufficient:
Sometimes my awareness of my own competence alarmed me. How would I remain attached to the world if not by need? I didn’t appear to need anyone: I could do it all myself. I could do everything. I was both halves: did that mean I was whole?

The official model now is the earthworm one. Men and women are no longer supposed to have complementary, interdependent roles. Equality is understood to mean sameness in role and function. It is common to hear feminists complain that men aren't fully embracing the earthworm model by doing as much of the "emotional work" as women, by which they mean the kind of homemaking work described in Rachel Bock's tweet.

The danger is that this model will undermine the duality between men and women. If we become self-sufficient, we have less need to be in a relationship with the other sex. We won't have the same compelling need to fulfil ourselves in a significant way in a relationship with the opposite sex. We will then become fussier, more demanding, less grateful and less willing to compromise in relationships.

As it happens, Rachel Cusk's vision of marriage crumbled. She ended it and then sought desperately to regain some of the maternal role she had relinquished, even to the point of insisting that the children belonged to her, by right, as the mother. She began as well to accept aspects of her feminine psyche:
...when my children cry a sword is run through my heart. Yet it is I who am also the cause of their crying. And for a while I am undone by this contradiction, by the difficulty of connecting the person who acted out of self-interest with the heartbroken mother who has succeeded her. It seems to be the fatal and final evolution of the compartmentalized woman

Traditionalists do not put individual autonomy at the front rank of human values. And so we are more likely to accept the interdependent model of relationships, one which upholds the duality between men and women.

The traditional model does, however, have drawbacks which have to be considered. First, it does leave the husband and wife more dependent on each other, both emotionally and materially, and so it is a difficult model to work with in a liberal society which encourages people to act out of self-interest and which tells people that there should be no limitations on their choices.

If we want an interdependent model to prosper, then we have to make wider changes, both to culture and the law. At the moment, for instance, men are asked to take considerable risks in supporting a wife financially. She can leave for any reason and he can then be forced to continue to support her financially, even as an ex-husband. It is understandable that many men see this as an unacceptable condition of marriage.

Also, the traditional model requires a husband and wife to pair bond deeply enough to survive the more difficult times in a lifelong relationship. It isn't likely to succeed in a culture in which men and women are damaged or jaded even before they marry. The drawn out culture of casual relationships doesn't fit well with the traditional model.

Finally, traditionalists should be sensitive to those women who want to pursue interests outside of the motherhood role. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Perhaps some women could devote their younger, fertile years to motherhood and then pursue a career option (including part-time) afterwards (most people feel like they've proven everything they need to after spending 15-20 years in a career, it doesn't have to go on for the standard 40 years). Perhaps there is work that women could do in the community, alongside their maternal role. Perhaps there is creative work that women could do at home whilst also fulfilling their nurturing role. There are options.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

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