Monday, April 6, 2009

Family matters

I was offered a chance to go to the Danish dig in Jarash again this year. After some consideration I regretfully declined the offer. The foremost reasons were financial, but there were also family matters to be considered. I was away from home a lot last summer, and I had sort of promised my son already that this summer would be different. I could not break that promise.

Last summer while in Jarash I was reading the biography of Gertrude Bell. She was a well-off and educated British lady who traveled widely in the Near East, especially Levant, in the late 19th and early 20th century. She documented archaeological sites - she also visited Petra - and did services to the British Army during the First World War. In her time, when most women devoted their lives to raising a family, she was most exceptional - and I dare say she would still be. Her life is fascinating. What began to annoy me when reading the biography, however, was the way how the biographer, Georgina Howell, seemed to think that all of Gertrude's achievements were just compensation for the lack of husband and children. That, in fact, the true vocation of every woman ever born is to raise a family, and Gertrude threw herself into her work just to sublimate that need. It made my hackles rise. Surely Bell could have married if she really was desperate to have children - I understand she did not lack charm or suitors. What if she chose otherwise - in those days combining family and her way of life would have been outright impossible.

Trying to have it all is still not without its complications, at least for a woman. The idea of the mother as the primary caretaker sticks fast. When I do go abroad I often face questions about who will look after my son. I remind those who ask that the child has a father, too, and one who is perfectly capable of taking care of him, and try not to feel too bad about people who sagely say that a child should not be separated from his mother for more days than he has years of age. But sometimes I can't help wondering whether I am doing my son some irreparable wrong.

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