Love and familiarity

Grandparents commonly experience the humbling disappointment of being rejected by their children’s children. It is not because of any lack of love on the child’s part, but when a baby is handed to Grandma or Grandpa, he sizes up the situation and insists, in the form of shrieks and squawks, on being returned to his mother or father. 

Conventional love is not enough. The child wants something more — familiarity. And where does a tot experience familiarity better than in a family?

The infant soaks up love like a sponge. He does this from his irreducible wholeness. It is a process that is simultaneously natural and spontaneous. Thus, the infant comes to recognize love in relation to Mom and Dad, who take the time to saturate him with their patient, protracted, parental affection. 

For the infant, love is foundational, administered slowly and lovingly to his whole being. He responds happily to those familiar and personal sources that filled him with their love.  

The word “family” has been very much abused in recent decades. It has been stretched so far out of shape and applied to so many kinds of loose relationships that its primary significance has been nearly forgotten. Jean Bethke Elshtain made the following comment in her excellent study of political and family life, “Public Man, Private Woman” (Princeton University, $37.50): 

“To call some abstract structure, or a loose collection of like-minded, unrelated peers “families” is to treat our most basic human relationships frivolously, as mere historic accidents, or as the excreta of oppressive relations having no deep inner logic, or purpose of their own.” 

Elshtain dedicates her book to her four children, and appends the following words: “out of the mouths of babes comes noise — and sometimes wisdom — they gave me a generous share of both.” 

It is the “noise” and all that the word symbolizes that has aggrieved radical feminists. But it seems to be an axiom of nature that wisdom cannot be gained apart from accepting the noise. Wisdom, in its natural form, is an alloy. In Selma Fraiberg’s “Every Child’s Birthright: In Defense of Mothering” (Bantam, out of print), she states:  

“The minimum guarantee for the evolution of the human bond is prolonged intimacy with a nurturing person.” 

Fraiberg provides clinical evidence supporting the notion that the diseases of non-attachment in an adult stem from his lack of bonding as a child. Her remedy is the obvious one: 

“To a very large extent, the diseases of non-attachment can be eradicated at the source by ensuring stable human partnerships for every baby. If we take the evidence seriously we must look upon a baby deprived of human partners as a baby in deadly peril. This is a baby who is being robbed of his humanity,” she said. 

Love, the willingness to bond with another, emerges from its more primordial form — the love which the child receives from his loving parents, one that may be expressed as familiarity. Institutionalized structures cannot adequately replace the family.  

The family continues to be under attack. Many of its critics refer to it as a systematic form of oppression that smothers individuality. These critics should take note of the fact the loving family, in which parents take the time to nurture their young properly, remains the context par excellent from which we can expect healthy people to evolve who possess the freedom to be themselves as persons, to take their places in the world as responsible citizens and to love others in ways that are truly beneficial to them. 

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of HLI America, an initiative of Human Life International.