Relationship Reflections

Long ago in a university psychology class I was surprised to hear the lecturer speak of the first three years of life as the most formative period for the establishment of relationship skills. She even said that, for better or for worse, by the time we turn four, the way in which we relate to others right through our lives is more or less determined.

Early development

These views are widely held by people who teach early childhood development studies, and probably by the majority of observant parents. Over the last two decades this has given rise to a fresh emphasis on the importance of truly interactive parenting as well as the early encouragement of a matrix of supportive friendships that will provide children with the variety of stimulation and care once derived from large and extended families.

At the same time, however, radical feminism has impacted severely on government social policy, which in turn has given far more encouragement for women to remain in the work force than to stay at home as full-time mothers. On top of that, those who have voluntarily and sacrificially chosen to stay at home have been treated with contempt by the sisterhood. And for many it is a huge, truly heroic sacrifice in material terms, for the emergence of the double income household as the norm from the mid 1970s and the consequent adaptation of the economy to the level of disposable income that such households generate, (especially in the cost of housing, food and clothing) means that families with children and only one income are doomed to a greatly diminished standard of living.

Mothering full-time

During the last few weeks the national media have reported a lively debate centred on a cluster of early childhood development studies which claim to demonstrate what we have always known: that the social and learning skills of infants and young children are greatly enhanced by the constant presence of the mother during the first twelve months of life. For obvious reasons some older feminists have attacked these studies with characteristic vigour. It is even coming to light that such studies have been passed over by policy makers, presumably because the results call into question the mainstream assumptions of the radical feminist agenda.

Nobody would suggest that it is wrong for women (or men, for that matter!) to combine parenting with a career. But what many, including some of our younger feminists, are now saying quite openly is that full-time motherhood ought to be an option for all mothers, because that option would, in fact, be chosen by vast numbers of them – at least for the time before children start school – if they were not economically trapped into having to work. This option could be provided quite simply through a combination of tax breaks and greatly increased family allowance payments, so that the full-time mother’s reward for her contribution to the future stability of the community is at the same level as an average income. It sounds expensive, but at least one political leader has opined that the amount spent at the other end dealing with the social problems caused by our present approach would undoubtedly be lessened. Also, the real worth of nurturing mothers would be visibly affirmed.

Post-modern hedonism

From a Christian point of view, it is gratifying to hear younger couples speak about putting children first and making sacrifices in order to ensure their well-being. It may be the beginning of a reaction against the post-modern hedonistic individualism that has characterized our society since the early 1960s when we began to think of true freedom as the ability to do anything we like, when we like, and how we like – regardless of the consequences.

It is difficult not to place the other dominant concern of the Australian media – the extraordinary revelations of widespread paedophilia and other sexual abuse perpetuated by clergy that seem to confront us each time we open a newspaper or turn on the television – in the context of the ‘liberated’ view of sexuality that has formed our society over the last forty years. With monotonous regularity, so-called ‘experts’ have told us that unless we are sexually active we can never be truly happy, fulfilled and mature. Those who are not in a sexual relationship, especially if they are Christian religious or priests, and have chosen their celibacy in response to what they believe is God’s call, can never become fully integrated human personalities.

Furthermore, the repression of their sexuality causes them to break out in bouts of uncontrolled promiscuity in the context of uneven power relationships, especially with children.

A paradigm with problems

There are flaws in these popularly held ideas. First, the average paedophile is not someone struggling to be celibate, but a married man, most likely with children of his own, who is related to his victim(s).

Second, human beings have always accepted that it is not possible for every person to be ‘satisfied’ in every area of life in which satisfaction is to be had. We make career, lifestyle or vocational choices all the time which preclude other avenues of activity and other areas of ‘fulfilment’ or ‘satisfaction’.

Third, the ability to live the celibate life, while requiring discipline, is a gift from God, and marriage is ordained by God. There are joys and difficulties in each state as St Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 7. Celibacy is sometimes hard; marriage is sometimes hard.

It is beginning to be recognized that the general assumption in our society that only the sexually active could really be fulfilled and mature human beings has created a cultural context in which celibates (be they priests, religious, or teenagers trying to live the way God wants them to live!) face heightened difficulties and temptations. It is not surprising that paedophiles, often themselves victims of abuse when they were young, have particular problems.

It is right and proper that justice be done when abuse is reported. And, certainly in the case of clergy who have sexually abused children, a policy of ‘one strike and you’re out’ is the only way to restore confidence in the integrity of the priesthood. But how ironical it is that we have stumbled upon a class of people of whom we expect successful self mastery and celibacy for the sake of our society’s well-being. We obviously believe such a thing is possible by the grace of God, otherwise we could not require it. We find ourselves almost inadvertently admitting principles many had tried to forget since the 1960’s … that there are God-given boundaries to sexual activity, that marriage is to be kept holy as a sign of the covenant between Christ and his bride, and that celibacy, for those of whom God requires it, is possible, grace-filled, heroic and the pathway to personal maturity in Christ.