Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day

Today in Nicaragua, as in so many places around the world, we take time to celebrate fathers. At church, we sang a rousing chorus of "Father Abraham," and gave out gifts to fathers in the church. My invitation to preach was happily preempted by little children singing "Daddy loves me, this I know," and "Happy Father's Day to You," with a few going up one by one to proclaim their love for their fathers. We ended the service with my very first Moravian love-feast, consisting of muffins and soda.

After church, I went to the house of our friend Susannah for lunch. As we were eating, she pointed to a man who passed by on a bike, talked with her brother-in-law for a moment, then continued on. "That man is my father," she said. "My biological father, anyway. He had no part in raising us." The national newspaper La Prensa published an article today that said 31% of Nicaraguan families are headed by a single mother. I don't believe this statistic, at least not here in Puerto. As Susannah, herself a single mother, said: "I think it's the other way around. Sixty-nine percent of families are run by single mothers, and thirty-one percent are two-parent." And I imagine there are a handful of single-father households, as well. Susannah calls her mother to congratulate her on both Mother's Day and Father's Day, since her mother fulfilled both roles.

Father's Day is a decidedly staid and anticlimatic observance after Mother's Day celebrations, with their cakes, adornments, and a day off school for a pageant featuring song, dance, and various odes extolling maternal virtues. The third-grade teacher asked her class if they wanted to celebrate Father's Day. Their reaction was a bit ambivalent: "Let's do something, but just among ourselves." (To which she responded, "I don't think any of you are fathers.") At a parents' meeting on Friday, a couple male teachers complained about this. I wanted to respond, "Do you live with your children? Do you even see them every week?" Not because I was judging them based on statistics, but because I know for a fact that they don't.

The overwhelming absence of fathers in the lives of children is apparent in a variety of ways. No one ever asks me how is my father, is he coming to visit, does he miss me, etc. They are always inquiring after my mother. One of my tutees, Diedrich, drew a picture of his family for me, a neat row of stick figures. His mother was first, followed by about ten siblings, aunts, grandmother, cousins. His father was second to last in the row.

La Prensa attributes high rates of absentee fathers to machismo, that men are taught that it's manly to have babies by a variety of women. There is some truth to that. Taking the way one of the teachers at Maureen Courtney in particular is viewed, fathering children by various women is looked upon with a weird combination of reproval and respect. My Spanish teacher in Granada, Sergio, said the absence of fathers is because women don't know how to live with men. I have certainly found it to be true that many young women here are quite cynical about men and reticent to pledge their lives to a man that may turn out to not be what they expected after marriage. They are less reluctant about having babies. And it is true that for whatever reason women do sometimes discourage the participation of the fathers in the lives of their children. My friend Simon has trouble visiting his son, because the child's mother doesn't want to have anything to do with Simon. Maybe absentee fatherism has become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy both for women and for men.

The church, I'm afraid, is so focused on extolling its ideal of marriage before babies that it's actually rather unhelpful. I came to the convent one day to find Sister Zorelia, bless her heart, railing against patriarchy in general and in particular against one local priest. When a single mother came to him asking him to urge her child's father to pay child support. The priest simply admonished her for not being married, and pointing to her situation as the logical consequence. As with so many of its virtues, it has succeeded in constructing the moral framework of the people here. Maybe that's why no one wants to get married; it's so idealized that they think they can never do it right. That's certainly why many people choose not to become Christian.

We had a discussion about this in the Creole Moravian young adult group, the majority of whom are unmarried with children. This is a large part of the reason they're not members of the church. To become members, they can't be unwed mothers. The one man I know in the group might be able to get away with it. His son lives in another city, so his unwed parenthood isn't as glaringly obvious. Two women were going back and forth; one of them really wanted to get married someday, the other didn't. Either way, neither felt ready to be married just yet. The members of the young adult group are there because they find spiritual nourishment in faith and in religion. The moral strictures of the church, however, prevent them from fully integrating into the community.

Marriage is one of the topics that comes up in my religion textbook, and I was thinking of teaching it next week. In a place where marriage is so rare, how do I make the subject accessible, and not just the unreachable ideal it seems to be?


  1. I had one odd reaction that only a writer or writing teacher would have. In writing, I always teach my students that "Perfection is the enemy of excellence." If writers become eager to be perfect, they can't write--the fear of making mistakes gives them writer's block. In fact, I think writer's block is a logical response to perfectionism, as well as an emotional one. Why try something when you know you will fail? But here I see that principle applying to much larger issues: marriage and life. Setting attainable goals for life is hard, though. Instead I guess we humans have to try without expecting perfection. Maybe it's more like baseball--you just try to get your batting average up.

  2. One thought about teaching marriage could be to approach it in a discussion more of family: a marriage is choosing a family, and working together with that family. Which means making mistakes and being stupid and loving each other anyway, just like you do with your mom or your siblings or your grandmother. You just don't get to choose those people because you're born into that family. So instead of it being a perfect thing that requires abstinence previously it's a working relationship more like ones they already have.