Thinking recently about the exchanges people make, in their minds or in some kind of actuality, to make sense or order out of grievances or gratitudes. If we perceive debt as a kind of recognition of some sort of exchange, often between unequal partners, this makes sense of the conservative view of worth. Some children are hungry because their parents are feckless, not because of a range of vicious inequalities over which they have no or little control.
David Graeber, referring to the debt between child and parent says ‘the fact that mothers transform their very flesh and blood flow into milk; they feed their children with their own bodies. In doing so, however, they allow unlimited love to be precisely quantified…The figure soon became canonical. To repay this milk debt, or indeed one’s debt to one’s parents more generally, was simply impossible.’
The choice inherent in this kind of parental ‘love’ is negligible: it is something most people feel instinctively. To expect to have it repaid in some way may feel like justice, but is this really fair or just? No one, after all, asked to be born. Parenting is (at its best) ‘if you fall, I will catch you’. It is an abstract trust that increasingly over time gets tested. Families, in theory, provide a regularised and predictable structure in the early years before a gradual pulling away loosens, stretches and distorts bonds.
In the film Fish Tank, the hero character – the petulant, angry and slightly wonderful Mia – is alone in the truest sense. She alienates or is alienated by a series of people: friends, education, mother. The director uses breath, silence and submerged sound to create a sense of being ‘under’: out of control, out of her depth, underwater. The mother is hostile and emotionally absent.
For Mia, the trust in people and things to back her up has long dissolved into nothing. Her ties to social and institutional relationships are tenuous and fractured.
Most of my buildings either vacant or drug spots
You dream to make it out but then you wake up to gunshots
I know you consider me your home, your family for life
But I betrayed you, left you scarred and damaged for life
I took a childhood from you and murdered your friends
If blood thicker than water, you better learn how to swim
Urban centres (or more correctly, neo-liberal governments) in the Global North have decided to leave families to it. Sink or swim. If you sink, it’s your fault. If you need services, you can expect to be treated abysmally, or, you can throw yourself at the mercy of charities. The predictability of ‘I will catch you, if you fall’, the unspoken contract of mutual care whether inside or outside the family unit, is present for some (and we tend to call these the privileged) and absent for others.
In Buchi Emecheta‘s The Joys of Motherhood, a searing indictment of abandonment and inequality, we see both the frailty and fierceness of families. There is nothing weak about Emecheta’s women, but neither are they the selfless martyr that we often have forced on us in Western mythology. The concept of the selfless martyr enables the concept of a debt to parents that must be repaid.
For most of us, families are messy and unconventional. Sometimes we are caught, sometimes we are left to fall on our own. The best and the least that we can do, as my dear friend Lee-Anne used to say, is give them something to tell Oprah about.