In a few days, a dozen or so men are gathering at our farm around a man about to become a father.
So I’ve spent some time pondering what this moment asks of us, now that his life seems to be taking him away from a certain singularity awash in endless possibilities, towards an obligation to be tethered to the bundle of ties that is family.
Now there’s a word, family, pregnant with hidden meaning, fully birthed only by a willingness to wonder some about its ancestry.
Family, from the latin famulus, is originally an adjective meaning servile, or a noun signifying a servant or slave. We may receive this as a negative, this posture of submission, but I suspect that there’s more to it then what the knee’s jerk suggests. As the verb famulur, it indicates someone who ministers, tends to or waits upon someone or something.
And so there is an action concealed within the pale lifelessness of the noun, something being done that is of consequence to the one being acted upon.
The servant here is not a single person submitting to the will and command of others of higher standing. Nor does it ask of us that we resign ourselves to tending to the whole without recompense, agreeing to become gradually impoverished by our ministrations, forever bound to an insatiable hunger.
When we first tread across the threshold of parenthood, we’re not entering the vaguely heroic realm of sacrifice, rising every day to lay our gifts down at the altar of the child. Not as I understand it. It’s more relational than that, less ridden with resignation.
It seems that as you become a parent, you take on a relational obligation and mutual agreement to serve whatever and whoever needs sustenance. Not sacrifice. Surrender.
For this man coming to our farm, his heart expectant, this may be his pregnant partner. It most certainly will be their newborn child. At times a grandmother or uncle and others of the fold. The family requires the attention of all members onto all members. It ceases to be without this collective willingness to serve.
And in entering this web of relations with the stance of a servant, we soon discover that it extends far beyond our child, our partner, ourselves. For what sustains us, is serving us, is family.
So I wonder if family is only born from our willingness to bow our backs and kneel together in servitude to all that calls on us for nurturance. As a man then, we marry into family by a pledging our allegiance to matrimony, the condition of the mother. This is the honor bestowed on the one entering wedlock, to become a servant, not master, in the household of life, human or otherwise.
Our children are not exempt from this daily practice of family-making. They too are asked to learn this willingness generously to serve, so that they may one day come of age, knowing that beyond the immediate family, there’s a larger community fed by their willingness to give what they are able to part with, and some of what they relucantly know they must give up for life to continue.