Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sins of the father

When Ben was 4, we had a conversation about the differential workload between mothers and fathers, and how the situation was improving, but not yet equal. I explained that Ben's dad was a much better dad than his father was to him. He vowed then to be a better father again. As a mother trying to raise sons to challenge the patriarchy, there's not much more I could have asked for.

Ben's grandfather's name was Ross. He was an alcoholic who was frequently violent, especially when his family was young. And yet, he wanted to be a better father than his father had been. Ross told the story of seriously considering killing his father when he was 8 or 10 years old because of the violence in their house. He knew it was wrong. Nevertheless, he grew up to repeat it, if not quite as viciously as his father.

Crash, by contrast, has broken the cycle far more effectively. He isn't violent, but his language still includes violent rhetoric. The ghosts of fathers past still linger in his first reactions, despite his own force of will stopping him from acting on those impulses. Feminism gets some of the credit for this too. Ross knew the violence was wrong, but society as a whole didn't really back that up. He was brought up in Broken Hill, where women were decorations, not people. His conditioned responses had only his will standing against them, while Crash's have his will and that of a society that is finally beginning to condemn violence as a response to anger and frustration.

I feel a deep sadness for Ross. I don't know the history that precedes his father, or how many generations this legacy has affected. However, I have hope for the future. The sins of the father need not continue to be visited upon the sons. Understanding and compassion hold the key. Anger is necessary to recognise the problem, but it isn't enough to stop it repeating. Ross had every reason to be angry with his father, but without trying to understand him and identify why he did the things he did, Ross ended up repeating it. Crash still has habits of thinking that were influenced by the way he was raised. However, each time he gains more insight into his father, each little bit more he understands, he gains more power. Understanding doesn't excuse, but it's a hell of a lot easier to break habits whose origins make sense.

My kids have a massive advantage over the generations who preceded them. They are being raised by people who understand how our patriarchal society fucks with men, as well as women. I want them to be angry about what has gone before them, but I want them to direct the anger to the world that allowed and encouraged it. Another man in Ross's position might not have repeated his father's behaviour, but Ross in another time and place might not have either. We are social creatures, and our job is to create a society that makes it easy to break the cycle. We can never be responsible for another person's actions, but no person's actions take place in a vacuum. If we are to be an inclusive society, we have to be able to support the Rosses of this world, as well as those people who have been able to break the cycle on their own.

There is no argument I hate more than "I went through that, and I survived without ever doing X". As much as I admire the folks who can say that, it is completely unfair to those who a hellish childhood has broken. The problem is not that the kid failed to rise above the turmoil in their lives, the problem is that we failed to help them do so. As a society, we are damn lucky that many kids manage to do it themselves, but it doesn't excuse us for failing those who can't find the strength or the way.

The way forward is not through blame, but through understanding what went wrong. The only way to stop something happening again, is to understand why it happened the first time and what needs to be done differently to stop it happening again. You can tell a person not to lash out violently until you're blue in the face, but it you don't tell them what else to do, and how to control the emotions that drive it, no punishment or consequences will ever stop them.

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