When Patrick was around five, he got very curious about family history. I told him a bit, and next thing I knew we were making a book on the subject (we tend to do that a lot at our house). He drew the first few pictures, then handed over the pencil and opted to art direct, instead. “Draw a picture of Grandma,” he said. “Draw a picture of Grandma-Great…Draw a picture of her Mommy…Draw a picture of her Mommy…Where did they live? What did they wear?” and so forth.
Call me a particularly slow mother, but it took me days after the book’s completion, binding, and nightly reading to realize that there were no men in my son’s family. He saw–and still sees–his family as a matriarchy.
That’s because it is. I am a single mom. Virtually the only relatives we see are my mom and two of my sisters. My dad died when Patrick was three. His paternal grandfather lives in New York. Though there was a visit, I’m not sure if they ever spoke. My grandfather died long before Patrick was born. Though his world has come to include sports coaches and the House Leroy, he did–and does–live in a world of mothers.
But Patrick is not the first child in our family to live in world of mothers. When my great-grandparents emigrated from Posen back in 1906, they established a farm in Wisconsin–and then set about bringing Great-Grandma’s family over. They created a world centered on my great-grandparents’ farm, a world where Sunday dinners and holidays were enough reason for Great-Grandma’s family to gather and share chicken dinners, barbecues, and baseball games.
When my grandparents married it was the Depression, and Grandpa took what work he could find–work that often took him far from home. And then he got hurt, and was hospitalized for months. To keep the family together, Grandma sent her children to the farm while she stayed with Grandpa in the hospital. When they came home she got a job in a furniture factory to support them while Grandpa healed. Whatever the balance of power might have been in their home in the beginning, by the time Grandpa healed enough to come home and go back to work Grandma had become who she needed to be to support and raise five children on her own. There was just enough room for Grandpa to sit on the couch and read his book. If he wanted space he went outside to his garden.
The pattern held true in my family; my father took jobs that kept him away from home all week, only returning on weekends. Like my grandmother, my mom was shaped by years of single parenting. Unlike Grandpa, who was comfortable in a culture shaped by women, Dad had a strong family culture of his own–and when we eventually did all spend our weeks in the same house the question of who would determine our family culture became both urgent and painful.
It is perhaps not strange that though my mother bore four daughters, only one of us has a traditional family with mother, father, and children. Though my sisters all married, two have divorced. Like Patrick, my nephews have grown up in a world in which fathers may come and fathers may go, but mothers shape the world.
All this makes me wonder about how Patrick will choose his partners when he gets around to that. Will he seek someone strong and independent? And what about his parenting? Will he understand that it is possible for fathers to be active, loving, regular presences in their children’s lives, or will he be content to live in a world shaped by his wife, or significant other, a virtual guest in his own home?
What does it mean for a boy growing into manhood to live in a world of mothers? Will my son learn to look beyond gender and understand the vital role an engaged, loving husband and father can play, or will he look at his own life, and assume that supporting and nurturing children is women’s work? I don’t know–and I probably won’t until he has had a chance to move out of my world, and into his own.