Parenting á la Antonin Scalia

FullSizeRender (7)Ever since the unexpected death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia nearly two weeks ago, his personal life as a husband and father of nine children has come into focus — in part because of this widely-circulated op-ed by son Christopher Scalia, and this hotly shared homily from his funeral, delivered by son Father Paul Scalia.

In summarizing Scalia’s legacy, it’s obvious to cite his brilliant intellect, his principled originalism and his consequent rigorous analysis of legal text, his sharp prose and his congenial collegiality with his fellow justices — and, indeed, he is most “relevant” to the public in his role as a Supreme Court justice, even if a surprising number of Americans had never heard of him as recently as last year. (I cannot relate to this, as I was utterly starstruck when, at a long-ago Ash Wednesday Mass in D.C., I spotted him in a nearby pew!)

Yet, from where I sit, in all the throes of inglorious stay-at-home motherhood, Scalia’s apparent ability to welcome and raise nine children with some degree of effectiveness — with, of course, more than a mere assist from his wife, Maureen, who, it sounds, did the lion’s share of the day-to-day work of raising their children! — dwarfs all of his other mountainous accomplishments.

Scalia’s two selves — the private and the public — were not two at all, but one and inseparable, which means, naturally, that he would not have been the Supreme Court justice he was if he were not also the father and husband he was — and he would not have been the father and husband he was if he were not also a Supreme Court justice. (Yes, yes, I realize how obvious this is — but I maintain it’s still important!)

Because I don’t aspire to become a Supreme Court justice, I’m not particularly interested in how his personal life might have propelled his career. Because I do aspire to be open to life in all its fullness (i.e. to continue to play “Vatican roulette,” as Scalia once put it) and to raise healthy, happy, holy children who respond generously and affirmatively to the Lord’s vocation for them, as it appears the Scalias more or less did, I am acutely curious as to how his public life might have propelled his personal life.

As to that, Christopher Scalia’s op-ed provides a couple of important clues. According to Christopher, his father’s office was sacrosanct — a place to which other family members only very rarely had access — and Antonin’s lamp often burned late into the night. On one occasion, he asked Christopher to mow the lawn and, when Christopher said he was too busy, he mowed it himself — but mentioned that, as a Supreme Court justice, he had better things to do.

Another clue comes from journalist Lesley Stahl. According to Stahl, Antonin often and unapologetically missed his children’s sporting events and the like. As he saw it, she said, they were playing soccer, not him; he was working.

In other words, Antonin Scalia had a life outside of his family to which he attached importance — and he made no apologies for it. Presumably, this sent a clear message to his children that they were not the center of the world, even if they were the center of their own little domestic world. Evidently, this did not hinder his children from achieving success in that world of which they were not the center; probably, it even helped them.

Perhaps the takeaway for a stay-at-home mom should be this: Better hope you married a man with an interesting and important career that will attract and motivate your children to join the adult world in due time. Indeed, that is one takeaway.

Another takeaway is that a clear division of labor according to gender — which, in recent times, has meant the father works outside the home while the mother works inside it — is a time-honored approach to family life for a reason; it enables both man and woman to excel in his or her respective sphere. (It’s worth noting, though, that, at one time, a clear division of labor according to gender occurred within the home; neither parent worked outside it!)

To me, though, Antonin Scalia’s example is primarily a reminder (even to stay-at-home moms who have “abandoned” their careers!) to remain interested in and a part of the adult world — not only for our own sakes but for the sake of our children who need to see that all adults — even those adults who care for them and are readily accessible to them — do, in fact, have a world unto themselves, a world of responsibility and freedom, a world children ought to want to join because they will enjoy it even more than their happy childhoods.

This has always been my argument to do housework. It is not that it is more important to clean the house than it is to care for my children; it is that cleaning the house is caring for my children and not because they need a reasonably clean house (although they do!) but because they need to see that work is a necessary and noble part of every adult’s life.

This has also been my argument to read a novel on the couch when the children can see me. Children need to see that adults enjoy forms of leisure that are not yet or only partially accessible to them.

This has also been my argument to put the children to bed before we go to bed ourselves. Eventually, as they go to bed, they will be dimly aware that their parents remain awake for some time after they go to sleep. It’s wise to awaken in our children a curiosity about the mystery of adult life. After all, we want them to long for the day when they will be old enough to drink a glass of wine themselves and to contribute to the conversation they hear continuing outside of their bedroom doors.

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Read a book! Drink a glass of wine! Be an adult!

This mindset is not reducible to “couple time” or “me time” because it is not motivated by selfishness but by a mature understanding of the hierarchy of a home. It is part and parcel of a mindset that wants what is truly best for the child, which is to grow up — not too quickly, of course, but eventually. It is the mindset of parents who want to serve their children but not to be enslaved to them.

The French apparently have this down, at least according to Pamela Druckerman, the author of Bringing Up Bebé. “It’s not enough for French mothers to have pleasures and interests apart from their children,” she writes. “They also want their kids to know about these things. They believe it’s burdensome for a child to feel that she’s the sole source of her mother’s happiness and satisfaction. … They know that if you act (and dress) as if you have a fascinating inner life, you may soon find that you actually do — and that you feel more balanced as a result.”

We can quickly talk ourselves out of this approach. “Oh, but I’m not a Supreme Court justice! What do I have to do that is more important than playing with my children?” In fact, what we as stay-at-home mothers have to do that is more important than interacting with our children only on their level is to demonstrate to them that we are adults and to be an adult is different than to be a child, that adulthood comes with burdens and privileges they will want to assume. (Of course, playing with our children is a great perk of stay-at-home motherhood and this is not an argument to never play with them. As in all things, balance!)

It requires common sense to apply this mindset because it could quickly and easily be carried too far into the realm of neglect or self-indulgence, but, if there’s one attribute Antonin Scalia patently possessed in spades, it’s common sense. Would that what is supposedly “common” was not actually so rare!

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