Letter from the Editor: The Rules

Bending, breaking, questioning


Parents joke that there is a very special club for people raising miniature versions of themselves. (I will freely admit that while I understood the genetics of looks before I had kids, I didn’t full grasp that genetics extended all the way to the most profound depths of personality.) There are happier and sadder members of this club at any given moment, but given that my miniature-Meg is both not of the same gender and not a teenager, I’m generally a more jolly club participant.

I’ve found that watching your personality play out across a very tiny person both gives you an innate understanding of why they’re acting the way they are, but it also gives you a new way to love yourself. Suddenly, you’re watching all those traits about yourself that people have been telling you are horrible, or that you’ve been trying to will away your whole life, and you’re watching them in a very small, very new human being. You’re observing your purest self in someone who you instinctively know was born just as they were meant to be. The process makes you spin your own opinions of yourself backward to the beginning, to question the idea that you are inherently flawed… or can just think yourself into being someone different.

And then, of course, you get to work trying to civilize your poor child.

Lately, I’ve been watching the way my almost-carbon-copy clings to rules. He’s two, and two-year-olds love structure. But there is a recognizable trait in him that runs deeper than that. For him, the world is emotional and huge, and he clearly feels that if he can just instruct people on the order in which things should be done, he would have less to fear. So my hyper verbal kid has learned ordinals. Or, more specifically, he’s mastered one ordinal: first. This means he will give you a sequence of steps to follow that goes something like this, “First, eat sandwich. Then first, read book. Then first, night-night time.” All while emphatically gesturing, to make sure you understand the importance of doing the correct things in the correct order.

I have, not surprisingly, always had a similar relationship with rules. They’ve always offered me a comforting construct, a safety system in a vast and unpredictable world. But because I’ve always cared about what was supposed to come first (and then second first), I’ve also always been deeply invested in thinking about the justice of the systems we lay out for ourselves. I’ve spent much of my life questioning rules that I thought should be re-written, or intentionally breaking rules that I thought needed to be broken.

It makes sense then that my two biggest political issues, at least within my work, are gay marriage (unjust laws!), and women’s names after marriage (a terrible, broken, sexist system). My dream is not that we get rid of all rules (or pretend to) but that we craft different systems. Ones that make more sense, that fit our values better, that guide the world toward more just outcomes. Questioning and changing the rules is harder then following them, and it’s harder then getting rid of them all together. But for me, it’s where we are able to change the world for the better, and to figure out where our values actually lie.

Which is why, after my son gives us a string of instructions, I’m always happy to answer his endless squeaky “Why?”s.

Because learning the rules for the sake of rules, that’s terrible. But learning the rules so you can question them, investigate them, and improve on them… well, that’s something I can get behind.

This month on APW, we’ll be exploring the rules. The rules of wedding planning, the rules of etiquette, the rules of marriage and society. And hopefully, just like the tiniest of toddlers, we’ll be asking “Why?” with one palm turned up, over and over again.


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