Natalia Waloch: It seems there is nothing more communal than a family. A family is a “we”, but you say that “we” is a deceitful thing and an excellent tool for exclusion.
Michał Rusinek*: Of course. Let’s look at a family with a child under a microscope. “We” can mean father and son against mum or mum and daughter against dad. The least harmful arrangement is when children are allied together against their parents.
It’s worse when it’s the other way around: the parents together against the child.
The parents’ front against the child is terrible. I want to stress from the very beginning that I don’t want to get into psychology. I’m looking at it through the prism of language. Pronouns have a so-called deictic function, which means that they anchor our language in reality and at the same time they somehow mark it linguistically, set boundaries or build bridges.
Let’s look at the following sentence: “We’re waiting here with dinner, hungry, and you’re late”. Someone here is placing themselves in the position of the victim. What’s more, it transfers responsibility to someone else. Let us leave the reasons for such behaviour to the psychologists, but let’s also note that there are people around us, both genders, who are not able to say: “Damn it, I got distracted and burnt the rice,” but instead they say: “See, it’s all your fault! You were talking to me and the rice burnt,” or: “You didn’t remind me and it burnt”. What actually prevented me from saying straight up: “I can’t talk to you now or I’ll burn the dinner”?
Here’s another one: “Everything is overcooked because you’re late for dinner”. Well, you could’ve drained the food earlier! What hides behind it is the fear of being criticised for having overcooked the potatoes, so the person justifies themselves by blaming others, as if anticipating an attack which is often imaginary.
My fault, your fault. Are we getting close to possessive pronouns?
Possession is always an element in a possessive pronoun. If I say “my hand, my leg”, that’s quite an obvious statement. My body, my choice.
There are even such slogans as “my pussy, my business”. But listen to this: “Look at what your child has done!” and on the other hand: “My child got an A+ in math”. It’s still the same child.
On one occasion we take possession of the child and on another we toss the child to our partner like a hot potato.
An exceptionally possessive message is: “Moja krew!” (the Polish equivalent of “that’s my boy/girl”, literally “that’s my own (flesh and) blood”. It is laced with pride, of course, but pride is one of the most deceptive feelings.
A more scary phrase is “You’re just like your father”. Which doesn’t usually mean you’re as brilliant and responsible as your dad.
But it means you, just like him, have negative qualities that have just become visible.
And the worst thing, at least for women, is: “You’re just like your mother”. Wouldn’t you just want to kill for that?
If I were the judge, I’d acquit the murderer. After all, we don’t say: “You’re just like my mother”. When we say “You’re just like your mother” we are attacking both our partner’s mother and our partner themself.
Possession is dangerous because there are different ways in which the parent marks the child with it. Let’s notice that siblings don’t really say things to each other like: “Your mummy, my daddy”. Parents are common and children don’t manipulate possessive pronouns to wage some type of linguistic warfare. At least until they’ve learned how to do this by listening to adults.
Parents are “ours”, but a wife or a husband can only be “mine”. Unless it’s like in the Wisława Szymborska’s anecdote. Every year, until the end of her life, she would meet her high school classmates. There were fewer and fewer friends each year. At the last meeting, one of them started to complain terribly about her husband, saying that he was old, senile and didn’t remember anything. Then another one interrupted her, saying: “Don’t say that! After all, he is our last husband!”.
It’s a matter of mutual understanding, acceptance of the weaknesses of others and one’s own weaknesses. The self-ironic distance that we often miss. Irony towards others must be balanced by self-irony, and often it is not. I know that from looking at myself. I can’t swim, for example. I drown as soon as I hit the water, I’m scared of swimming pools and I could probably drown in a puddle. I’d be happy to take baths wearing armbands. So, I developed a kind of contempt for people who can swim. A contempt that I am ashamed of. I need to strengthen myself somehow by debasing swimmers. I invented a saying that I repeat to myself: life emerged from water and there is no reason for it to go back. I repeat it too often because my children have had enough of it.
There is a “we” that annoys me, even though I used it myself for a short time. Mothers of young children talk about them in the first person plural. “We were so brave eating that carrot today” is acceptable though with difficulty, but I wonder how a little man feels when he hears: “We did a poo in the potty today!”.
My intuition tells me that if we had followed the path of psychoanalysis, we would reach the conclusion that the umbilical cord has not been cut. Another phenomenon is talking to children in the third person: “Oh, Peter, went pee pee”. And Peter talks about himself in this way until he goes to primary school.
Let’s move on to partnership. First, let’s talk about the terrible idea of partners communicating through the child.
“Ask your father if he’s finally coming to dinner.” I suspect it must be devastating for the child, because not only do they see that there is no communication between the parents, but it is also the responsibility of the child to ensure communication between them and then for whether the relationship will survive. So, if the parents continue to argue, the child thinks it must have failed as a messenger.
Let’s say our family lives in a house. We have supposedly equal terms for the master of the house and the lady of the house – the housewife, but they don’t exactly define a man and a woman the same way.
The “master of the house” is someone who reigns and demands to be served. If there is a master, there must also be servants. Besides, he has some responsibility, he should certainly defend this house if necessary. In such a house, the focal point is the father’s armchair. It stands there like a throne.
“Lady of the house” sounds pretty good, too. It could be associated with a lady in a castle, a female ruler.
But if we take a closer look at the term “housewife”, which the Polish phrase “pani domu” also means, it appears that what she mainly has is a set of duties. I’m the “housewife”, so I have to take care of this and that.
More of a cleaning lady than a queen?
A cleaning lady, a cook and a nanny. A multi-tasking wife from Stepford. Note that there is no sex appeal in the term “housewife”. There’s a macho element in the term “master of the house” that may seem attractive but is missing in the word “housewife”.
There are even scientific studies pointing out that a family picture on the desk of a high-ranking man adds to his prestige as a man who is successful not only professionally but also in his private life. A photograph on the desk of a high-ranking woman has a negative effect because it proves that she cannot separate work from home. The connotations behind the “master of the house” and the “lady of the house” or “housewife” are just like with a male secretary and a female secretary. It appears to be the same thing, and yet it’s not.
Except that in the case of a male secretary and a female secretary, the sexual stereotype is on the side of the female secretary.
You come home and ask, “Why is there such a mess in this house?”.
Oh, here we have the demonstrative pronoun “this”. It sort of contains an underlying message that “that” house was tidy. I would understand it as a reference to the fact that it was always nice and tidy in the family home where he grew up.
Referring to our family home is strongly rooted in us. I do it myself when I say: “This is how we did it in our house” – I’m often thinking of my parents’ house, but very often also of my grandparents’ house.
And now immediately it comes to my mind that when we visit our grandparents in Poland, we go to the equivalent of our “grandfathers’”, never to “grandmothers’”. We also visit Michał’s family or Adam’s family. It’s always created from the male name.
This is probably a legacy of the times when only men had money, and therefore, houses. It was also the times when they were the only breadwinners. I have a bad association with the word “host” denoting the breadwinner in Polish, because I think that our biology teacher used that word in the context of parasites.
Yeah, that’s definitely not a good word.
That would mean that the children and the wife are like parasites?
A little bit, yeah.
On the other hand, there is the English acronym DINK, meaning double income, no kids, i.e. they both work and split the costs in half. But there are men who say, especially in the early stages of a relationship when we go on dates: “As long as I’m the man, I’ll be paying” for example for coffee or dinner at the restaurant, as if one had anything to do with the other.
So how do we solve this linguistically awkward moment on the first date when we don’t know who should pay?
I would ask: “Do you mind if I pay? I’d love to do so”. This is how we show that we are aware of the social convention and the game that goes on between us, but we can establish its rules together. In the past, only men had money, so it was natural for him to pay. It was also to make the woman feel obliged to do something. We also know that money is power.
And since we’re using financial terminology, there are people who say that children are an investment.
This contains the conviction that there will be someone to take care of us when we are old, someone who will pass us a glass of water. Or who i going to pay for my carer.
I don’t think that as a child I’d like to hear that I’m an investment.
First of all, I think it’s not a good idea to show a child such a vision of an ailing parent being in their future. Children deserve to be careless. Here I remember my uncle, who, as a child, started checking the age of the household members and it turned out that everyone, that is, his parents and his brother, that is my father, are older, so he concluded: “You’re all going to die, and then I’ll trala la la!”.
I respect his bravado. Meanwhile, our master of the house comes back from work and asks why the house is untidy even though his wife was home all day.
I think we’ve all got to know now what it’s like being home all day. Everyone who’s looked after the house knows that staying home has little to do with sitting. Apart from that, working hours at home are irregular. I had friends who thought that since I was at home writing my doctorate, they could always visit or call me, because, after all, I’m sitting at home, which means I’m doing nothing. What we do at home is considered to not be serious.
Maternity leave isn’t considered serious either, because any leave is almost like a holiday leave.
This is a very bad term, because staying at home with your child is not leave, but a change in your usual activities, often meaning more duties than the ones you had at a regular job. It’s often even more difficult, too.
When working on anything from home, you have to impose discipline on yourself. You shave or put on your make up or dress up when preparing for work in the office. You can give it up at home but sometimes this kills motivation. Working from home is more difficult. That’s why I always make the bed, shave and dress up. Since I was a child, I’ve hated walking around the house in my pyjamas during the day. I was sickly as a child and as soon as I got a little better, I would immediately dress in normal clothes so that the illness would know that it was losing its power over me.
Do you think that the current situation, where we’re at home together, may somehow change the way the family is organised?
Certainly the phrase “to stay at home” might start evoking new connotations for many men. The current situation may also force us to revisit our atavistic approach to the family, i.e. the vision in which a man returns from a hunting trip to a cave that a woman is taking care of. Because of the quarantine, these metaphorical hunting trips are forbidden, so the man can better see what the woman is really doing, so he has to get involved.
I wonder how we should start talking about certain things, e.g. about household duties and the responsibility for the house, so that things will change. Let’s start with the word “help”, which women hate.
It annoys men, too! When I was little, my grandmother’s second husband let me work in his basement, where he made candlesticks for churches. When my dad came down to us and asked what I was doing, he said I was helping him. I was upset with him because I saw it as a partnership between two workers.
The helper may be helping the foreman, but the workshop is not his, after all.
Yes, the helper asks: “Is this it? Are we finished? Can I go?”.
Women get angry about helping, because helping is what you do when you carry heavy shopping bags for your neighbour. But the house belongs to all of us so why should I do most of the work and you just help?
And I understand that. We are talking here about responsibility. When you’re just helping, the responsibility is smaller than when you do things on your own. Apart from that, there is an economic element to helping. We expect gratitude for helping. It may not be money, but we expect at least a “thank you”. What’s more, it’s not appropriate to criticise a helper if they are doing something the wrong way. A neighbour for whom we carry the shopping bags is not likely to complain that we put them in the wrong place, right? But it’s hard to function like this at home.
When a woman complains that her partner doesn’t do enough housework, he says: “If you tell me what to do, I will do it”.
Again, it’s a question of feeling responsible.
“But I don’t want to be telling you what to do. I want you to know that you should throw away yoghurt that’s gone off.”
I know it from my relationship with my children. They also don’t notice that something needs to be cleaned up. Recently, I was shocked because my son cleaned up the stove where something had spilled. I asked him twice if it really was him who cleaned it up. He assured me that he did.
The investment started bringing profit.
Apparently. It is interesting that my daughter notices by herself that she feels responsible for the house when she stays alone with her younger brother for a longer time, e.g. for a week. And this proves that responsibility appears when the real “we” and “our home” appear. Because when you, the parents, are at home, then these are your duties, and “we,” the children, are just here to eat and sleep, and from time to time we do what we are asked to do.
Talking about household chores, I’m reluctant to talk about children as a household chore. I think that if I was little, I wouldn’t want to hear my parents talking about taking me to the kindergarten like an element of the schedule somewhere between scrubbing the toilet and unloading the dishwasher.
This is quite correct, since this objectifies the child. I’m wondering what to do about it, because you can’t deny that children mean a lot of responsibilities. I think it’s great when kids just see us doing something for each other. If dad is busy doing something, mum does something for him and vice versa: if mum has to take care of something or goes to work early the next day, dad makes her sandwiches. He drives her there and back and doesn’t say: “I have to take you to work tomorrow so you can be there at 6:00 a.m. again, it’s driving me crazy!”. This shows the children that being with someone is an act of altruism, that you do things for the people in the family, but also that this can give you joy.
What about the metaphors we use to talk about family?
In my opinion, we most often talk about it in Aristotle’s categories, that is, like an organism: here is the head, the neck, the neck moves the head, etc. All in all, however, this organism ends at the point of the neck.
An extremely nasty expression.
Offensive both to women and to men. It contains the patriarchal conviction that the “master of the house” is the only person in the family who makes decisions. And a praise of manipulation. As in the anecdote about a certain director who comes to the minister of culture and says as he enters the door: “Minister, I have a great idea of yours for you”.
We also have the protector of the family hearth. I think that sounds ennobling.
But on the other hand, she has to sit on her arse next to this hearth, the centre of the house, otherwise the fire in the hearth will die out.
You know Nigella Lawson?
Of course, I know her, I love her.
Everyone loves her: women, men, birds and animals, but unfortunately she has coined the concept of a domestic goddess and for me this is something terrible.
Cause she’s still that protector of the family hearth. A goddess, as long as she doesn’t leave the house.
The protector is not that bad, sitting at home, but that Lawson goddess is in the kitchen. With a three grand mixer that the breadwinner-host bought her.
With a Thermomix. What is that word anyway?! It’s a modern version of a family hearth with a stirrer. But never mind that.
This home goddess is even more deceptive because when you look like Lawson, you may be able to play this role, but that’s maybe what a fraction of a percent of humanity looks like. If I tried to play Nigella...
If I tried to imitate Michele Morrone, it wouldn’t work out well, either. But you know, in my class on rhetoric I showed the students how strongly metaphors are part of language and how many musical metaphors are connected with the family. There is always someone who plays first fiddle, conducts, someone beats out the rhythm, etc.
Would it be good to talk about family using sports metaphors? Where there are such words as a team, common goal, common victory.
I am not convinced by that, because sport is, after all, the transfer of military relations. The idea is basically to beat the people wearing shirts of a different colour. I would take a positivist stance here and propose a metaphor connected with the division of duties. But not a job at a corporation, where there is hierarchy and competition. Let it be a job where everyone has their own little plot, is responsible for something. Not only for the various things to do, but also for relationships with others.
Maybe a good metaphor would be the modernist one, saying that a family is a kind of machine? But let’s beware not to end up with a Soviet-style vision of machines and the conviction that we are only cogs. We don’t want that.
Our campaign is called “tenderness and freedom”. Are these terms somehow connected in linguistic terms?
Partnership is implied in both. We need to be tender towards another person to see what they need. And freedom implies it would be good to create a voluntary community in which one chooses to be together and not alone. It would be nice to make friends in our own families. And friendship implies freedom too. A sensitive, voluntary community is probably an ideal family.
“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.
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