My House, My Car, My Family

It is educational to listen carefully to the way people talk about “having” a family. Because in the ordinary sense of the verb “to have”, the object that you have is not part of you. If you have a house, a car, a boat, a dog and a family, these are separate from you, and so the family takes its place in the ranks of the things outside yourself that you own.

It is true that we also say that we “have” two ears and a nose, which appendages are also a part of us; but this raises the question of who is this “we” who has a body and parts thereof. This is a very difficult question for another day. Moreover, our ears and nose may not be offended by the way we speak of them, but people, if they stopped to think about it, might prefer not to be “had”. Moreover again, we say that our ears and nose are part of us, but not that we are part of our ears and nose, which would be absurd; whereas we ought perhaps to say that we are part of our family, which would not be absurd. It is telling that we do not actually do this.

When people say that they “have” a family, they mean that they own or are part of one already, but when they say that they are thinking of “having” a family, they mean they are planning to engender or adopt one or more children. This is another odd usage, because the sense in which they already have a family, namely their own parents, siblings and whatnot, now disappears. This way of speaking emphasises the degree to which children are conceptualised, not in terms of a continuation or extension but as new acquisitions – rather like that new house, car, boat and dog.

Different language is possible, for example we might talk about making children rather than having them. Some Christians talk about receiving them as a gift from God, which is actually rather ambiguous, as a gift is property too. Not least because it has been claimed that the British used to be the most child-unfriendly people on the planet (No Dogs or Children Admitted), it would be interesting to survey other linguistic cultures to see how they express family relationships on a spectrum that runs from reciprocal belonging to ownership.

Whether we say that we have a family or ourselves constitute a part of one is by no means immaterial when the time comes to decide what are the interests of the family. If we are a part of the family, then the interests of the family must be determined in plenary discussion, where we get one vote. If a family is something we have, however, then it goes without saying that we ourselves must say what is in its interests; and how can our possession have interests different from our own? If we do not have a family already, we should see to acquiring one, because then we can disguise our socially unacceptable selfishness by justifying our wishes in terms of unselfish action in the interests of our family. Unselfishness can be made to mean, not the not having of egotistic wishes, but their promotion via third parties.

When a man complains that his child has dishonoured his family, who exactly has been dishonoured? He might be able to cite two dozen people as victims of the dishonour, in which case the complaint may make some sense; but when the family consists only of himself and the errant child, he will surely employ precisely the same expression. In this situation, “the family” simply means his own precious self.

7 Responses

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  1. Written by Cranky Ashley
    on May 22, 2009 at 16:31
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    This probably comes from the days when men did own their families…

  2. Written by Urban Djin
    on May 22, 2009 at 16:56
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    The usage “I have a family” may be closer to “I have a problem” or “I have a headache”, expressing encumbrance not ownership.

  3. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on May 22, 2009 at 19:45
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    Ashley, I think women speak of ‘having’ a family and ‘having’ children as well. Urban: LOL. Cf also ‘insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids’.

  4. Written by Urban Djin
    on May 23, 2009 at 00:27
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    The great lie of the nuclear family is that parents’ love for their children is unconditional. I don’t doubt that it sometimes is, and I do see occasional evidence of that, but I can’t imagine that it’s common.

    What I see all the time is: “I love you because you reflect well on me”, and “How could you do this to me? How could you turn out to be you instead of something I could brag about at the bridge club?” Usually the difference is whether or not the sprogs make a lot of money. Parents will doubtless protest that they want their children to prosper for their own sake, but that doesn’t explain the shame parents feel when their children fail. Disappointment? Sure. But shame?

    This sense of the begotten being extensions of selves rather than independent beings is easier to understand and possibly more common among mothers. After all, this other was once her, quite viscerally. It can’t be easy to shift gears like that. One minute this thing growing inside is “self” and in the next it is “other”. That many women can’t make that leap is predictable. That’s not to excuse the abuses that this cognitive failure commonly engenders, rather to try to understand it.

  5. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on May 23, 2009 at 09:41
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    Urban, there is a lot of stuff to come along the lines of your second para, watch this space. Your third para, I’m not so sure. I think it’s maybe fathers who are worse for the conditional, status-technology thing. For mothers have the status from having produced, in any case; fathers need it from what the sprog does. But your point about how natural it is among mothers is brilliant.

  6. Written by Urban Djin
    on May 23, 2009 at 17:12
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    “I think it’s maybe fathers who are worse for the conditional, status-technology thing.”

    That’s why I qualified my statement with “possibly”. Biology probably can explain the differences between the stakes that mothers and fathers have in their children’s lives, but I’m skeptical that it is mothers whose yearnings are satisfied by the act of replication itself. There are so many uninvolved fathers who seem to feel that their role in parenting ended with a sperm donation. This would include alpha males whose offspring are raised by other men as well as those who take little responsibility outside of paying child support, if indeed they do that. Women don’t have that option. They are stuck holding the bag and thus have a lot more invested in a child by the time it achieves independence.

    War, that great diversifier of gene pools, would be a strong example of my point. How many conquering warriors, once they are through raping and pillaging, give any thought to the well being or future success of potential offspring? I’d bet that not many worry much about whether any children so conceived become doctors. They have passed on their genes. End of story.

    It is hard to generalize about gender differences because there are so many exceptions to just about any rule. There may be some statistical support for stereotypes such as “men, paralyzed without their gadgets”, but my own experience as a man who has little use for such crap suggest that many women would be lost without their cell phones and TV remotes, endlessly yapping about trivialities or flipping channels, stopping nowhere long enough to have any idea whether that particular channel has programming worth watching or not, and yet loathe to just turn it off. I’m not claiming that men don’t often exhibit the same tendencies, simply that I don’t and can’t consider myself less of a man for it.

  7. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on May 23, 2009 at 21:22
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    I’m not disputing the greater female investment in offspring, that would be silly, but greater investment doesn’t logically translate to treating said offspring as a means to non-reproductive goals, i.e., bragging rights.

    Let’s get back to this when I’m into my next section in the PST chapter, that is all about bad reasons for having children.

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