Role playing

Something that became clear to me not long after arriving in Spain, over seven years ago, was that this country has very clearly-defined roles in terms of family. This has changed over the years, but you'll still find elderly mothers being looked after the (younger/est) daughter. When I started going out with my now-husband, a long-time resident and expert on Spanish social affairs asked me, "There is a daughter, right? Just so that you know that the mother-in-law won't have to come and live with you." The eldest son - my husband, in our case - has a clear role. His - our - children have an ever-so-slightly higher status in the family, being of the first-born male (I had a son first, which was probably viewed as a Good Thing too). As there is no father, he is the de facto head of the family. If all of this seems impossibly archaic in a country with gay marriage and many female government ministers, then consider this: until Franco died in 1975, women enjoyed shockingly low status in society. Under his permiso marital, wives couldn't have a job, own property or even travel without their husband's permission, and divorce was almost impossible. Now, of course, there's more freedom - conservatives would say, too much; feminists would say, not enough. The socialist government has introduced new laws on abortion, fast divorce and same-sex marriage, widely supported by the population, and they also passed a sex equality law - men are still paid 40% more than women. So things are changing. But for people like my mother-in-law, a very kind woman who is a devoted mother and grandmother, and who was left to bring up five children when her husband ran off with his secretary, her role has always been clear - she stays at home looking after her family. (Divorce was very taboo back then, and she still refers to him as her husband, although he died when they were no longer married.) She adores both our children - they're called Mi rey and Mi reina (My king and My Queen), as many are in Spain. Children are adored and doted on here. So, going back to roles played, and status enjoyed, by different members of the family here in Spain, I was fascinated to see her Christmas present to my daughter. I've avoided giving her dolls until now, not wanting to enforce the typical stereotypes. I know it's unavoidable, with nursery and school influence, but I wanted her to be just a child for as long as possible. Then, her nursery gave her a doll for Christmas. And her Yaya (Granny) have her another one. Which talks, laughs and cries. But rather than leaving her granddaughter to go off and play with her doll, she was shown how to hold it like a baby, rocking it and shushing it, and Yaya calling it hermanita (little sister) and telling her to look after it. We're not planning on having any more children, so this is as close as she'll get. But it was fascinating to see a not-yet-two-year-old girl being instilled with a caring instinct, to look after her younger sibling. I'd never seen that before. This is one aspect of Spain that I love. Children are brought up, and expected, to look after their siblings - and cousins, nephews, nieces etc. You never have to ask them to do it, and I've never seen them complain. My nephew and niece are a case in point. Both teenagers, they have a much younger sister, and will look after without being asked to, and with as much care and attention as any mother. Can you see a 16-year-old English boy doing that? No, neither can I. So while I shy away from my daughter being pushed into a stereotypically female role (I was tempted to give a doll to my son, too), the overwhelming sense of shared responsibility for younger family members, taken on willingly, is a real eye-opener and an extremely positive aspect of Spanish family life. Long may it continue. For both sexes. Don't you reckon?
Blog published on 13 January 2011