This editorial is inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s poem On Children. For me, Christmas is really about children. Without them around my Christmas tree and all the goodies piled under, the Christmas feeling is just not there. Yet even as I think of a great family Christmas this year, I am also reminded of the thousands of children all over the world who are refugees and victims of natural disasters and wars. This Christmas I want to share with you, parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles about the gift of our children. Let me quote the whole poem from The Prophet,
Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, ?which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, ?but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children?as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, ?and He bends you with His might ?that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Children are on loan to us; a gift, an investment. There are many metaphors for children. For my very Chinese father, we were investments. When my father constantly talked about his five investments that made him millions of dollars, bystanders and eavesdroppers overhearing this, thought that he was worth kidnapping for ransom. In 1978 he was kidnapped at the Thai and Malaysian border and a ransom of $250,000 Malaysian ringgits was demanded. At that time the Aussie dollar could be exchanged for $3 ringgits plus.
For me 1978 was the year I went through an agonizing decision whether to have or not to have children. It was no easy matter but I chose to be childfree. The reasons were many but they do not matter now. What mattered more were the consequences of that choice. My very Chinese mother who had always respected my choice said sadly: “That means there is no one to carry on the Storz family name.” A single sentence conveying so many Chinese customs and traditions to do with Chinese culture. How do I even begin in my sociologist mind to dissect that one liner from my mother who was never lost for words?
The Chinese tradition of having children is linked with the Confucianist precept placed on filial piety and interlaced with the Taoist dictum of ancestor worship. When there is no first-born son, there is no one to carry the family name banner during the funeral thus depriving the departed ancestor, my father in this case, of pride and honour to have a male descendant to carry on his name. The first-born son has the lifelong duty of caring for his widowed mother and all younger siblings. So not to have a son is bad enough but not to have children is worst. But definitely in my case, choosing of my own freewill not to have children is definitely not “normal” for a Chinese!
Last month on my flight from Malaysia to Melbourne, a Chinese-Indonesian woman sitting next to me, asked the usual questions, ending with “You have children?”
“I am sorry,” she said. My immediate reaction was annoyance. How dare she assumed that I had no choice in the matter. But I said nothing. I understood her deeply ingrained Chinese cultural value placed on having children. Sometimes in my life, my knowledge of Chinese culture earns me friends rather than enemies. In my silence, although her sympathy was misplaced, I congratulated myself for my restraint in wanting to give her a lecture about women’s right to choose. So by making a free choice of not having children, to this day, I still “suffer” the consequence of that decision among Chinese people (and other Asians).
My father, throughout his life maintained his silence about my choice probably because I am a daughter and not a son. He, therefore, saw it as my mother’s duty and not his, to reprimand me and/or teach me about the consequences of childlessness.
The Chinese way of children begins with the notion that one must have children. This is the Great Tao. Having children, then as parents, it is our duty to transform this biological entity into a civilized social being, a perfect member of society. What this entails is another story.
However, as a Christmas message, I will end with this: the best gift we can give each other this Christmas is an awareness and acceptance that our children are not ours to command or to fulfill our expectations but they are ours on borrowed time. Our greatest gift to them and to ourselves is to love them unconditionally just as our Lord Jesus Christ loves his disciples even when betrayed by them. “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. Let this love that Jesus taught be spread to include everyone this Christmas; the poor, the rich, the suffering, the marginalized, all who are different from us, and the animals that Noah took into his ark.