A biographer discovers that embedded in most lives, especially literary ones,
there is a dialectical principle—two poles with an opposite charge that behave
like force field, shaping a subject’s sense of self and view of the world.
In the case of Isak Dinesen, these poles were Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the
aesthetic and moral imperatives [stay with me here]. In the case of
Colette, they were the Pure and the Impure—categories that helped her understand
her culture’s too strictly assigned notions of gender; the ambiguities of
self-exposure and concealment in her writing; and the condition of an
inveterately needy woman who, just as inveterately, yearned for autonomy.
In my own case, and perhaps for many only children, those antipodes are
“normality” and “uniqueness,” the former an unfamiliar state that one idealizes,
yet also obscurely mistrusts and disdains; the latter a neat description of the
predicament and privilege of being the lone egg in the basket. (Judith Thurman,
“Minority Report,” in Only Child)
I look up from this passage and stare blankly for a moment, processing these words and wondering about the polarities that have shaped my self and view of the world. A synapse embraces the charge of its neighbor and the thought is there: secrecy and candor.
Silently, I assess all the ways in which these two opposing forces have played a significant role in my life. As I do, I suddenly feel the compulsion to share the truth; to enumerate all of my family’s dirty little secrets both to illustrate my point and (not without malice) to expose, expose, expose. Lay bare my thoughts, as I do when I write, butting against the code of silence in which I am complicit. But I cannot betray my parents, my sister, and all those I love. So they stay locked inside and I feel resentful, torn between my will to truth and my respect for the privacy of others. This dichotomy has turned me into a blurter. One who speaks her mind and immediately feels shame and regret glowing in her cheeks. It has created a need to hoard secrets of my own, keeping a part of me forever inaccessible to everyone I love. It has made me a writer, both brazen and careful as I select words to combine into thoughts and stories. As a parent, it has made me cognizant of the line I walk between telling too much and telling too little.
I turn my thoughts to Sophia’s struggles:
Again, at Hanukkah as she did after Thanksgiving, she asserted her innate social propensities, “I like EVERYBODY,” she told me, gazing down the table flanked with fourteen adults and one baby. She meant this, not as a general acceptance of the varied personalities present, but more broadly to mean, “I like having lots and lots of people around me. All the time.” Or, more simply, “I like HAVING everybody here. With me.” However, Sophia rejects the anonymity that comes with being part of a crowd. She does not want to be lost among others. She dances through parties, commanding focus. She greets guests a he door, not with “hello” but with the words, “I’m SOOO pretty.” She throws books down in the lap of anyone with a pulse demanding, “READ a book-y.” Nor does she want to share the spotlight with others. When her grandmother held and cooed over another baby, she pulled at her velour pantsuit and whined, “Grandma, play with me.” I am having a hard time finding language to describe these poles—with and apart, perhaps? She wants to be surrounded by people, but they may do nothing but adore her. But perhaps this is every two-year-old’s great wish, not just that of an only child or of Sophia.
I am aware of the reductionist dangers of attributing too much of who Sophia is or who I am to a “dialectical principle.” And yet, I’m tempted to explore my antipodes and the role they play in my parenthood…and to apply Thurman’s theory to my daughter, taking a glance at how Thurman’s two articulated poles might apply to Sophia’s solitary condition.
In moments, I fear Sophia. She has the clearness of sight and the cleverness of mind to expose me (as I am tempted, at times, to expose my parents). She is always listening—whether I’m chatting on the phone with a friend, muttering under my breath in anger, or telling her something she doesn’t want to hear. She drinks it in and later repeats it with surprising accuracy (to her father, to her toys…and sometimes, to me). This has made me cautious…speaking in code, spelling things out, or simply not saying it at all. Of course, not all things are fit for little ears. But when does secrecy become dangerous? How do I make the distinction between what gets buried and what gets discussed? When is the truth more toxic than an omission of the truth? As for candor, I know a parent can also make the mistake of saying too much (or at least too much too soon). Every act of sharing must take a number of factors into account—is this something she needs to know? Is she developmentally ready to hear it? What are the consequences of hearing this? What are the consequences of not hearing this?
But isn’t this something, as parents, we all wrestle with?
As for Sophia, I’m not sure that she, as an only child, has a lock-down on the struggle between normalcy and uniqueness. I mean, isn’t this too, a more universal struggle? Don’t we all think that the family on the other side of the fence (with four kids or no kids or one kid) is more normal than our own? And don’t we all have the experience of (and ambivalence about) our uniqueness? Feeling that nobody is loved the way we are loved (either poorly or wholly by our families).
These dichotomies are fun, but I think they are only useful to a point. It seems that the moment we say I am “this” or my child is “that”—the case can be made that everyone is “this” or every child is “that” We are not so very different from each other, by virtue of our family constellation or any similar construct, as we appear to be.