that what mattered was hewing to codes of behavior and belief for appearances’ sake, a profound dishonesty that undercut any moral virtue
those codes were meant to convey. Morality—doing what one believed
to be right—was less important than perpetuating tradition for the sake
of order. What I did not know when I became a parent was that although
I disagreed with, resented, and suffered from that kind of child-rearing,
I would find it difficult to do anything else.
As a young mother, I felt my own fraudulence and inauthenticity.
As the female half of a failing marriage, I was somewhat frantic in my
efforts to cook meals, raise children, and maintain my physical appearance, as if these were the things that bound people to each other. Only
now can I see that I applied the same standards to my marriage that I
had applied to my role as daughter: be a good girl in hopes of gaining
love. Instead of the freewheeling household I’d envisioned, I maintained
a highly structured environment. Sit here; eat this. Nap now. Bath and
teeth now. Two stories, then bedtime. No pajamas in the grocery store. No
sitting at the table in just a diaper. There is nothing inherently wrong
with those strictures, yet I don’t recall much in the way of whimsical
departure from them: they reflected a lack of imagination on my part, a
failure of spontaneity in service of some larger correctness.
Let me be clearer: What I mean is that I recall episodes, perhaps three
per child, when my children were young and I stood over them, adult,
helpless, uncertain of how to proceed, and spanked them. The spankings were not hard or harsh; the children were not physically hurt, nor
would my actions have met any legal standard for abuse. Yet the acts have
stayed with me, and even more, the aftermath, the moments in which I
had successfully overpowered and controlled a small child of three or
four and the child had submitted to me. Yet in confronting the swollen,
saddened face of a child and my own hot shame, there was no victory.
Instead, a gray horror filled me, a recognition that I had achieved some
momentary conciliation on the part of the child while losing something
of myself that I would never regain.
It was not until my children were off at college that I read the work of
Italian writer, activist, and translator Natalia Ginzburg, some of whose
writing explores the lives of families against the backdrop of authoritarian regimes. Her collection The Little Virtues is a compilation of essays published over nearly twenty years, from 1944 to 1962; it explores