Hero: Merriam-Webster Dictionary1a: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or abilityb: an illustrious warriorc: a person admired for achievements and noble qualitiesd: one who shows great courage
I’ve never been fond of how we throw the word “hero” around. When I was growing up, it seems like we reserved the word for extraordinary acts of sacrifice — someone running into a burning building to save a child or a young man giving his life to save his fellow soldiers on the battlefield.
In these days of coronavirus, the word “hero” has been used non-stop to describe doctors and nurses working on the “front lines”. We’re even calling our teachers heroes. I guess I don’t mind all that much. I understand the sentiment. I suppose it’s quite easy to look at a picture of a tired doctor at the end of a long day in ICU and call him a hero for sticking out the job he gets paid to do. We can look at his fatigue, his crumpled scrubs, the lines on his face from his mask and we can see the sacrifice right there on his face. We can measure his impact because what he does has immediate outcomes in real-time.
It is far more difficult for some starry-eyed, millennial opinion writer with a brand new thesaurus and a gig at The New York Times to look at a father schlepping back and forth to his office job every day and see a hero. That writer probably sees a bored man, or a defeated man, or an uninteresting man who doesn’t have an immediate impact on those around him….certainly not the way a doctor does. His heroism is invisible, because you can’t make a commercial out of it. His service, his bravery is spread out over an entire lifetime, not just one crisis.
The commitment to the nuclear family is one of the most heroic acts in our culture and yet it remains invisible…to the media, to celebrities making thirsty social media posts thanking the “heroes” four times a day, to our elected officials. In fact, the traditional family seems to only ever be insulted and derided in pop culture these days. I suppose that is because so many of our coastal reporters and celebrities don’t have families of their own. They don’t know how to quantify the sacrifice it takes to raise a family and maintain a marriage. It just looks like a relic of a different era to them, instead of the essential foundation of a healthy and prosperous society
If we’re going to be using the word “hero” to describe anyone who does the hard things to help others, then we must share that label with the mothers and fathers who save society every day, one hug, one bowl of cereal at a time, one vow at a time. If heroism is about sacrifice for something greater, then a couple choosing to raise a family together and to stay together through all of the good and all of the bad must qualify. There is no car commercial or celebrity sing-a-long for us. We walk in anonymity every day. There is no one out there who would dare say that being a single mother or divorced parent isn’t hard, but to simply suggest that raising and maintaining a nuclear family is also extraordinarily difficult will bring ire and derision.
But let me tell you something…it is no small thing to commit to a marriage and see it through. It is no small thing to bring children into this world and then make the hard decisions every day to make sure they don’t grow up to be serial killers or Instagram influencers. It is no small thing to get up every morning and go to the desk job that you enjoy or simply tolerate in order to feed your family and give them the opportunities you’ve always wanted for them. It is no easy task to choose to love a person every day…every, single day…on the days they’re fat and on the days they’re slim…on the days they’re cruel and on the days they’re loving…on the days they’re the last person you want to see and on the days you can’t wait to see them. It is no easy task to choose someone else’s happiness over your own every day. That’s what mothers and fathers, husbands and wives do all the time, with no fanfare and no cute musical tributes and no nightly claps. We do it because we made a commitment…even deeper than that…a covenant. We do it because we know it’s the best shot we can give our kids at healthy and prosperous lives. It’s not the only one, but it’s the best one and every single statistic and study bears that out. Science is on the side of commitment but sexiness certainly isn’t!
It isn’t easy to be a young mother trying to care for the neediest creatures in the world all day long and then also trying to care for her partner. It isn’t easy being a young father suddenly charged with protecting and providing for this small, strange nation in his house. There are times when you want to run, when you feel like you just can’t take this pressure any longer, when you feel like there is more passion, more satisfaction, or more adventure out there if you could just be free to go find it. It takes heroic levels of commitment to let those feelings wash over you but never act on them. It takes incredible bravery to face a future that will never not include this other person until death, and to do it all for an idea…the very risky supposition that getting married and staying married will bring greater opportunity for your own children and then one day their children, and so on and so forth. It’s not a guarantee — we certainly know of miserable marriages that hurt everyone involved — but again…that’s what is so risky about it. You just can’t predict the misery but you commit to work through it when it comes anyway.
That’s the other sacrifice that no one talks about. The commitment to the nuclear family isn’t about enduring misery, it is about working for happiness. We have a perverted idea in our Western culture that happiness is about ease. It just comes to us. But happiness must be pursued. Sometimes it has to be wrestled to the ground, tied up and dragged back to your humble abode. It’s a fight, but one we’ve committed to win. Defeat is not an option. That’s damn heroic if you ask me.
There is no “great society” without the nuclear family (one that includes children or not). Statistically, it is one of the brightest indicators of success and I’m sorry that we live in such fragile times that to even suggest the nuclear model is the most effective model sends scores of wounded and battle-weary mothers and divorcees into defensive rages. I’m sick of always having to qualify common sense arguments by first having to appease and acknowledge all of the people who have had very different experiences. One does not negate the other, but both exist and that is my point.
So here’s to the heroes who will never get the “thank yous” on the award stage, the Tik Tok dances dedicated to your sacrifice, or the fawning spread in our favorite publications. You’ll never get paid for what you do and, in fact, you’ll only ever be viewed by our popular culture as “lucky” at best, oppressive in your traditional lifestyle at worst. Here’s to the dads who never trade in their wives for the younger model and here’s to the mothers who never stop working to straddle that line between lover and parent. Here’s to the families who are screwed up like everyone else but still choose to walk together even when it’s mostly uphill and snowing.
Here’s to the tapestry of heroism. Don’t ever think the nuclear family doesn’t have a place there, too.