A little girl dashes into the fog. She’s barely two. It’s our local park; she knows the playground, and I’m following along; but it feels taboo, letting her so far ahead. The image of such a dearly loved figure, so small and alone in the white, framed by the bare blank trees – it strikes the eye like neglect, like I should be hovering at her shoulder, just in case. But there’s no one about to upbraid me. As I watch her joy the guilt fades, and a new dread settles instead.
Nothing reframes your conception of family like your first child. You’re saddled with a whole new package of “grown up” and it all has to fit immediately. With it comes a new appreciation for your own parents, and all parents. Whatever your feelings about kinship – those push-me/pull-you ties that tangle and constrain, that can tighten like parachutes or winch you to unearned heights – having a child cuts through that gnarly wadding, makes an incurable wound. News items you once skimmed past disinterestedly now touch with a visceral chill: the baby who died in her bed from overheating; or the one that survived, cushioned in the backpack, when her parents fell from a gondola. And the irrational fears, seeded in our congealed criminal folklore: yes, my daughter is special, why wouldn’t someone want to snatch her, look at Madeleine McCann – presumably this nightmare is looped in some collective parental consciousness.
Who we claim as family is significant. The world demands we make these divisions and we are herd creatures at heart. We impart trust on the ties of blood embellished with ideas of self-interest and shut out the rest, resulting in genocide, wars and sectarian violence at one end of the scale, to remarriage after a divorce, leaving one family for another, at the other. In the Royals we have a family that has succeeded in setting itself above all others, yet is embraced in the imagination of millions as if they also belong. It is a fundamental human inequality. We are forever making the statement: you are with me – and you are not.
This creates rules around family, divisions as real as whanau, hapu, iwi, maori, tauiwi, but they are not hard walls. The boundaries shift when we talk of the kinship of community, of a crowd united at an All Blacks game, where provincial foes become hometown heroes; or of a city humbled by disaster, its collective struggles almost incommunicable as the rest of the country ticks on. Even the act of asking for and sharing a smoke on the street expresses a familial bond.
Here is where family transcends the contest for power and resources. Where the stakes are low, family becomes just a feeling that might be extended to anyone, even everyone. I was perhaps nine when I realised something like this, on a sunny day walking home from school. It was just luck that made me white, middle-class, male; I could have been born into any body in any family, any place in the world. The thought was not paired with any religious belief, but the consequence, that I could have been born as anyone: I realised I was everyone. Or, at least, I should act as if everyone was part of me.
Naturally, this epiphany lasted five minutes on the rough-and-tumble reality of playground politics, but the inclination to embrace commonalities endures; and we have nothing less in common than all being only human. This does not necessarily suit a world weighted towards the fear of difference, to turned backs, to protecting one’s tribe. Our hearts reach out to Australians caught in flash-fires, but we say nothing of the fire that pours even more senselessly on Gaza. We have received the non-message, those people are not, could not, be ours; which is hard to take when I consider recent revelations from Iraq, more graphic photos swapped between US troops like baseball cards. Because when I see a young woman, surrounded, with blurred spots covering her mouth, I see with the eyes of a father. I know that she and all her family are now dead, and it’s left to me to demand that no family suffer such circumstances ever again.
It’s an old game. The Great Game. The dividing lines are imagined, but when acted upon become real, with real gains for a few and real tragedies for the rest. We see the fruits in the feudalism that emerges under every system of government: royal families, corporate dynasties, political parties and the frameworks that fund them. While real families, for so long the heart of the human economy, become “nice-to-haves”, a flag of political rhetoric, and an externality that is left to look after itself – debased by systems that promote individual self-interest above all else.
And that’s what I saw as my little girl ran into the mist: a desolate place where people stood around like black trees, silent, not seeing her or each other, only the heights to which they might grow, heedless of the collective cost. A vision of the future. And it seems like the only power I have to stop it is to have another child, just so my daughter won’t have to endure it alone.
This essay was written as an entry to the Sunday Star Times essay competition on “Family”, 2013.