Lea Wait, here. Last week Mitt Romney’s comment about being given “binders of women” to help fill jobs in his Massachusetts administration had me shaking my head. And people throughout the country coming up with quips. But this isn’t a political blog, so I’m going to forge ahead.
You see, in my family, you might have needed a binder just to keep all the women — strong, independent, diverse, women, all — straight. Because there just weren’t many men around.
True, I had a dad. He was even officially in residence. But he spent most of his days at his office and his evenings and weekends in his room with the door closed, pouring over his paper money (he was a nationally known numismatist), only emerging for meals. He left child-rearing tasks to my mother and grandmother.
I was the oldest of three girls. When we grew up we, in turn, became the mothers of seven daughters. No sons. When the adoption agency I worked with asked me whether I wanted to adopt a boy or girl, I didn’t hesitate. I had no clue how to raise a boy, and no father or brother to act as a consultant or role model.
At one point when the man I’m now married to and I were dating, my daughters were teenagers, and I was also caring for my mother, who lived with us for most of the year, he famously said,”I love you, but I can’t cope with the amount of estrogen in this family!” He took a job in California, and we didn’t see him for ten years.
In groups, we could be a bit intimidating.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There were men in the family. But, interestingly, they tended to fade into the distance when we were all together. When my daughter Caroline, the oldest of the seven cousins, got married, the wedding photographer took the picture below of our family. Somehow there are no men are in it, although both my sisters’ husbands were present at the occasion. And the groom? Yup. He was there too. But somehow, not in this picture.
My mother used to say, “Men don’t last long in this family.” Not really true. A small number have been around for quite some time. But when it came time to take a “Wait Family Picture”? I won’t venture a guess as to why they stayed in another room.
(back row: Laura and Heather and their mother, my sister Nancy. Caroline, the bride. My sister Doris. My daughters Ali and Becky. First row: Katie, Doris’ daughter. My mother, me, holding my oldest granddaughter, Tori, and my daughter Elizabeth.)
That picture was taken a little over fifteen years ago. The cast of a similar picture taken today would look very different. Now six of those seven young women are married; the seventh is engaged. Together, they have ten children of their own. At first it looked as though the family tradition was continuing: the first four of their children were girls. But then the pattern was broken. The next generation of the family stands at six girls, four boys. Women are still in the majority. But it’s nice to know, a couple of generations down the line, the score is finally evening out.
When I’m writing, I’m very conscious of my lack of first-hand knowledge of close relationships with fathers, brothers, and sons. My husband (the oldest in a family of four boys) is now my go-to expert on such characters, and that’s been a big help.
One of my daughters was once asked in an interview on single parent adoption whether she missed having a father. She shrugged and said, “My mom is like a mom and a dad to me.” And I probably was. Many women fill the role of sole parent; as do some men.
But, yes. I’m a grandmother today and there are moments I still miss not having had a close, positive relationship with my father, and I’m sorry my daughters never had one either. I’m sorry, too, that my husband never had the joys and woes of being teased by a sister when he was growing up.
But we can’t remake our pasts, or the shapes of our families. We can only hope that in the future our sons and daughters will grow up knowing each other well enough under enough circumstances, so they are comfortable with each other, and won’t think of the other sex either as objects, trophies, or targets to be met in a diversity game.
We’ve come a long way. But — binders? We still have a long way to go.
Your matriarchal family dynamics are fascinating, Lea! Similar to my mother’s family where her mother and aunt pretty much ruled the roost. I can tell you, having been raised with only one sibling (a brother,) marrying a man with no sisters, and then giving brith to two sons — it is SOOOOO different to have had our daughter (she arrived when the younger boy was in kindergarten) as an “only” child for the past 5 years while her brothers were off at college, etc. Such differerent energy, and such a wonderful mellowing effect on her dad…
I loved seeing your family photo…. and you with curly locks!
So true! Dee
What a lovely piece, Lea. I can identity with much of what you’ve said. Beautiful family photo!
Such a lovely essay. My best friend’s only child is a daughter and I have only sons, so Anna grew to be like their sister and she views them as her brothers. The three are still close in their twenties. I must say there were days when I was still married to my sons’ father when the three males would be in the TV room whooping it up about some sports show and I felt like the alien in the house as I sat in the living room reading! Even our cat was a boy…
Thank you all for your comments! I find family dynamics fascinating — and families that “specialize” in either boys or girls particularly so. Despite all that many of us in business or education have done to try to “level the playing field” — there are differences between the sexes, and those differences create different dynamics in families, and in individuals growing up in (mostly) single sex households.
I grew up in a four person family–mother-father-me-and-brother, and then created one–me, husband, son, daughter. My brother had the exact same family constellation.
I never consciously longed for a sister, but I notice all my female protagonists have one, so it must be lurking there somewhere!
Barb, I always wanted a brother – but it didn’t happen. My daughters wanted a brother, too — but after two girls, I decided I just didn’t have the time (or space, or money) to cope with both Boy Scourts and Girl Scouts, clothes that couldn’t be passed down or shared, and bedrooms/bathrooms that were basically communal. It just seemed easier to stick with girls. Maybe it wasn’t the right decision. (Easy to say, twenty years later!) But that’s what happened. I’m glad that of my three daughters who have children now, one has two boys and a girl and one has two girls and a boy. Caroline, the daughter whose wedding we were celebrating in that picture, has two daughters, and that’s fine, too. They have a wonderful, involved, father — and that can make all the difference. And – by the way – congratulations on YOUR coming grandparenthood!