I’m back at work today after the Easter weekend, when I had a couple of days off. It meant extra family time at a time when family time seems to be all I get.
But since reading developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, an inspiring thinker when it comes to understanding children, I’ve been thinking differently about love and care within the family setting. “We don’t care for children because we love them; we love them because we care for them,” she writes in The Gardener and The Carpenter.
From an evolutionary perspective, motherly love may be understood as a deep, exclusive kind of love that, through deep hormonal connections, develops from the uterus. But it’s not only biological mothers who feel love for a baby. Adoptive parents do too, and so do fathers, grandparents and other carers. From a biological perspective, caring for a baby increases our levels of oxytocin, the love hormone, for everyone. That may even explain why we manage to survive as a species, despite being helpless babies for a long time.
So, does caring for other humans make us love them more - even if they’re not babies? Gopnik discusses that question in this great podcast with Ezra Klein.
I toyed with that idea myself over the Easter weekend. If I focus on caring for the people around me, will I also encourage more love to flow?
I don’t know where you are at the moment, but I’m at my parents’ place because a lockdown was imposed overnight during a brief visit.
Staying with my parents comes with mixed feelings. It’s great to see them become closer to Lorenzo, my 14-month-old son. Plus my mum cooks lovely food. But my parents are also my parents, and they can be annoying when they think that I’m still their baby daughter - some 20 years after I left their home.
In fact, I can’t stop watching this video by Venezuelan comedian Joanna Hausmann, with her mum constantly asking her what she’s doing. Even though my mum doesn’t do that, the feeling of annoyance that comes through in the video seems very real to me.
So over the weekend, I tried to practice the idea of care I got from Gopnik. One day I shaved my dad’s hair, and it was nice and cozy. And, more importantly, I baked a pastiera.
A pastiera is a sweet Neapolitan tart made with cooked wheat, eggs, ricotta cheese, and excessive amounts of sugar. It’s flavoured with orange flower water and it’s one of our Easter specialties. I’d never baked it before, and I felt the pressure of tradition as I was preparing it.
But I was proud of the result. Preparing food is one form of caring, right?
On the lack of love and care
So, what happens if you crave a family and don’t have one, or you have one that puts you in danger? What if you don’t feel cared for or heard?
Kenyan LGBTQ+ rights activist Marylize Biubwa, who fights to see homosexuality decriminalised in Kenya, wrote this: "Many LGBTIQ persons are struggling because coronavirus has come with this sense of family and people travelling to go and be around the people they care about the most: family and everything. But from my experience, and the experience of many LGBTIQ people, family is not something we have in this time and so that is something that is also affecting our mental health and generally just how we function and operate during these times."
We don’t pick the family we’re born into, but we can try and carve out some freedom for ourselves by finding the people we talk to and spend time with – even if it’s virtually. As poet Aja Monet said in a digital reading she organised, we can “create a practice of daily freedom as we struggle”.
Current policies surrounding the coronavirus consider family structure a mere detail that’s part of a wider bureaucratic idea. Your home is where your residence is. You’re not supposed to leave your home unless you stay around where you reside, together with the people you are supposed to be with.
But should we be looking at family in a different way? What if my address is just an address I had to give to the authorities, rather than where I consider my home to be?
This is what Rochelle Burgess, a lecturer in global health at the Institute for Global Health at UCL who works on community participation, had to say about this below an article written by my colleague Tanmoy.
“Families can be sites of trauma for so many people... But I then think of family as another dimension of community - meaning that people can create the idea of who is in and out of a family, that move beyond blood lines - which I imagine is of huge importance to LGBTIQ communities.
In Jamaican Culture (my primary cultural background) the notion of family is incredibly widespread - aunties and uncles are labels given to people who I share no blood relation with. In many collectivist cultures, similar narratives apply. I have many sisters, who are not my sister. I guess we need policies to acknowledge this diversity, in order to protect the mental health of many groups. Policies that fit the many ways people draw boundaries for themselves, in defining who their family is.”
Who would you define as your family?
Blue skies above us
While you think about family, make sure to get a glimpse of the outside world, and look up at the sky. I did this after reading my colleague Eric Holthaus, who’s a meteorologist and knows a lot about skies.
Looking up is a good reminder that we are alive and that a better world is possible, as Eric says.
The other night, here in Naples, this is what I saw.
Until next week,