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no parentheses – post 3

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Just before bed, my youngest daughter queried my wife about what the prefix “step-“ means. What a stepmother is, a stepdaughter, a step-sibling, and the like. It’s really no wonder: in the past year or so she and my older daughter have gained a stepmother, a stepfather, a stepsister, a stepbrother, and now an as yet unborn half-sister, which they only learned about last week.

She seemed especially baffled, as the conversation went on, about how it was possible that I could be the new baby’s father, given that I am her father but my wife is not her mother. That is to say, her mother is no longer my wife.

Of course, in part, this is the natural impulse of the newly re-sistered to protect her turf, to stake out her claim of specialness and special parental attention. But it also seemed to me like genuine bafflement – a sort of child’s version or inversion of the Freudian axiom about the essential unknowability of paternity.

I remember being confused about such things too when I was her age. I had no pressing reason to wonder about it, but these things edge into the quasi-metaphysical when considered by the six-year-old brain. How can my father father a child who is not my full-sister? What does it mean to be “related” to someone if they are neither my mother nor my father nor my sister nor my brother nor my cousin etc.

For better or worse, I had a less complex childhood than my daughters had, so mostly my own perplexity had to do with the difference between “real” cousins or uncles or aunts and those people who were simply called cousins or uncles or aunts. Living without siblings, and being born to a mother without siblings and a father who clearly would rather have been such, brings these questions to the fore. Do I have any real family at all, save for you two?  I also remember being utterly stumped by the branching and self-entangling family tree of the British royal family.

In the end, she had to be put to bed as we have to get up early tomorrow, but I am not sure that she ever fully grasped the whole step- and half- and full- situation. There is a monumentality to parenthood, in the eyes of a six-year old. It’s like the familial version of the mathematical principle of identity: “each thing is the same with itself and different from another” just as “my dad is my dad and is no one else’s dad… save of course for my older sister, who was here even before me.”

But there is a principle of identity at play for my wife, their step-mother too. At some point in the conversation, my youngest offered the following equation, in conversation, to her.

“You are not my mummy.”

“That is true. I am not your mummy.”

“Actually, you’re just my Rosie. You’re my Rosie.”

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 25, 2015 at 11:20 pm

Posted in withoutparentheses

2 Responses

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  1. I feel I may well be blundering into Sapir-Whorfism, but I wonder whether the terms a language offers might make a difference. A few months ago I was going through a bad time, and ended up turning to distractions, among these a language-learning site called Duolingo. As I remind myself on a more or less daily basis, I DO NOT NEED to learn Danish. OR Swedish. OR Norwegian. But it was better than, say, firing off vicious emails to people who were driving me berserk.

    I then discovered that Swedish has a much more rational system for naming parents and siblings of parents. Mother = Mor. Father = Far. Mother’s mother = Mormor. Father’s mother = farmor. Mother’s father = Morfar. Father’s father = Farfar. (I think I am right in saying that, in case of need, this can go back a generation – so your mother’s mother’s mother, say, would be Mormormor.) In my experience, at least, English speakers tend to improvise to distinguish grandparents (my mother’s parents were Grandmother and Grandaddy, my father’s parents were Grandma and Grandpa). But in Swedish it’s – maybe the word I’m looking for is algorithmic. You might well never want to refer to a father’s father’s father etc. going back 7 generations, or a mother’s mother’s mother for 9, but you would know how to construct the term. Something similar applies to uncles and aunts: a sister is a syster, a father’s sister is a faster, a mother’s sister is a moster (Norwegian: farster, morster, and I could, obviously, go on and on).

    The thing that struck me about all this was how little had to be unpacked. In English we have terms like stepmother and mother-in-law and first cousin once removed. So if I want to refer, God help me, to the granddaughter of my mother’s second husband, I believe this makes her father my stepbrother, so she is my step-niece, but I have no real confidence that anyone will understand this unless I add an explanation. And her husband is, what, my step-nephew-in-law?

    It turns out to have some political implications, because, for example, members of one’s immediate family (I know “immediate” begs a question but let’s soldier on) convert to other religions to accommodate a spouse from an unaccommodating religion. So I have – let’s try “familial connections” as a catch-all – who are fundamentalist Catholics, Jews, Muslims. Having frittered away countless hours on Swedish (and so on), I feel that a more transparent set of kinship nouns would have been helpful. (I don’t know whether Swedish is equally transparent for all possible permutations, but I do think that Mormor, Morfar, Farmor and Farfar are not merely intelligible to a 6-year-old, but are capable of being reported to other 6-year-olds without translation. As, for example, Grandmother and Grandma are not.)

    OK, this is the point where I look at a comment on a blog, realize it is all rubbish, and exit the page, abandoning the comment. But– I can’t help thinking a functional kinship naming system beats Ikea hands down, and it has, obviously, no marketing department, so I post malgré moi.


    July 26, 2015 at 1:46 pm

  2. You and I do these sorts of things, paperpools. I was reading stuff for “work” this morning before the kids got up and shifted to Duolingo out of, what, some sort of self-indulgent “obligation.” I have Esperanto among 4 other things on the go on there, which is about as silly as can be. One says to one’s self “But it’s the discipline that matters.”

    BTW, I assigned your recent novel to UCL MA students to their great delight on an option on “21st Century Fiction” last academic year. Wonderful discussion ensued, just FYI. Write us another one…


    July 31, 2015 at 12:51 am

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