by J J Cohen
Eileen posted on Sara Ahmed's new work, describing how Ahmed examines (among other things) the potentially coercive orientation of family towards a circumscribed, impoverished notion of happiness.
While I don't think many readers of ITM will find themselves disagreeing with Ahmed's thesis, at least as Eileen has articulated it (who wants their happiness to function as a normalization mechanism? who wants to submit to the demand to live for the happiness of another, especially when that demand is really just another way of holding you in a place in which you do not actually wish to reside?), Eileen and Ahmed collaboratively offer much to chew over in thinking about living one's life, and especially in orienting the lives of others.
Allow me a personal admission: that post got to me. It made me think, in a rather troubled way, about the potential coerciveness of the family structure in which my son Alexander and daughter Katherine dwell.
It's not the first glimmer of self-awareness in childrearing to come my way, of course. Remember that Eve Sedgwick classic, How to Bring Up Your Kids Gay? I read that in graduate school, a few years after I got married as I recall, and it made me think If Wendy and I ever have kids we will raise them in a utopia-like übertolerant familial structure! Well, it seemed a practicable idea at the time, since I was pretty much a kid myself, and had no idea of the sheer labor of maintaining a household. Somehow I assumed it would merely extend my life as currently configured. My best friend and teaching partner was [is] gay. It was the heyday of queer theory, we were living in the People's Republic of Cambridge, many of our friends were [are] queer, anything seemed possible.
Then life intervened, in the form of a move to a new city and the superprofessionalization that comes with having jobs and proliferating responsibilities. From the start, and again before we had kids, Wendy and I found ourselves happy (if oddball) members of queer communities: we lived in Dupont Circle, we became [and remain] good friends with our landlord, above whom we lived. Uncle Jim (as our kids call him) lives now in Maine, and we see him and his partner Uncle Joe a few times a year. We've also maintained many of our Massachusetts friendships: Alex is especially attached to Uncle Richard, whom he got to know from frequent visits to DC (Alex wasn't born until we'd been living in DC for quite some time). Like all of us, Alex was dumbstruck with grief with Richard's partner died of pneumonia in 2004. We've also remained close to four Boston friends who live as a polyamorous quad (and to them I say hello! I rely on two of them to read the blog for its funnier bits and to steer odd bits of information my way). Robert McRuer, one of my favorite GW colleagues and a queer theorist extraordinaire, gave Alexander his favorite childhood counting tome, a Keith Haring board book written in English, French and German.
But the fact is we do not live in Dupont Circle anymore. We moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, in 1996, at a time when democracy had been suspended in the District and a control board placed in charge of city government. Combined with the lack of congressional representation, and triggered as well by some less grand and a bit more personal events, we decided that when it was time to invest every penny we had in a house it would not be in DC. We love where we live: a small enclave of small houses just a teeny bit over the DC border, with an amazingly good public school a five minute walk away (living in DC also typically means relying on a private education system), the subway is nearby, we can walk to almost anything we need. MoCo is also politically quite liberal: nothing like Cambridge, but far to the left of most areas in the USA. A plurality county, no single population group holds a majority. But it is also quite affluent and privileged, and we do feel the lingering guilt of having abandoned the city (even if we did so by moving less than five miles: DC is tiny).
So our children enjoy fencing lessons and ballet. They have good lives, but I worry sometimes that we've oriented them towards that suburban notion of happiness that Ahmed labeled coercive. Sure, we can encourage them to be as odd as they want to be, and to have the confidence to be secure in that choice. I think this blog has offered ample evidence of their more eccentric proclivities (Katherine's latest ambition: to be a ballerina-policeman who can fly). We've also tried to leave enough space in their lives that they can fill it with interests that (we hope) do not come from parental coerciveness: Alexander's desire to play piano is a case in point, since neither Wendy nor I has musical bone in our bodies. Fortunately, we have the resources to refurbish an old piano a neighbor gave us and to hire a piano teacher so that he can pound the keys to his heart's content.
But it also strikes me that what have striven to do is to orient our children nonetheless towards a certain kind of happiness. I recognize the coerciveness that comes with that orientation, the domestication that we've worked on them, the ways in which their lives have been circumscribed and shaped. How do I know, I wonder, that we've oriented them rightly? Ethically? Happily?