In her book "Death Without Weeping" anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes challenges through lens distant mother love in rural Brazil the possibility that are feelings are innate versus cultural. Emotions, rather, come from our we speak in our culture. Our emotions have been dictated by our language and our language by our culture.
“emotions are discourse; they are constructed and produced in language and in human interaction. They cannot be understood outside of the culture that produce them. The most radical statement of this position is that without our cultures, we would not know how to feel .”(1992)
She found that the women who lose so many "little angles" during their first few years and even weeks of their lives do not experience grief that we might expect they would. They have beliefs that their tears might dampen their wings so they have a harder time getting to heaven. They believe that the little soul did not want to stay. They believe they will soon have another. Many babies do not receive names their first year of life and are seen as kind of non-human. Such poverty and such chronic loss seems to have crafted a way in which women speak about and experience grief so that they can continue survive emotionally and perhaps even to keep impregnating. Oddly too, the little children do not play with dolls, she posits because they have too much experience will babies in boxes (coffins) or lifeless babies.
While it could be too easy to write off these women as cold and uncaring, the gift of Scheper-Hughes is that she instead shows us how adaptive we are into the world in which we find ourselves and how language helps shape this world and inform how we ought to feel within it. The feeling of "strangeness" that many of these women seem to feel towards their newborn, aka indifference, might not be that foreign in more prosperous cultures, though we speak less about it. British studies have found that 40% of first time mothers in middle-class prosperity feel indifference towards newborns. But this is not part of the discourse of this culture. It is rarely spoken of and those mothers experiencing this emotion are often told they have post-partum depression which is just another name perhaps for this estranged feeling. So their expression of these feelings might be stuffed down..."you are depressed" the friends will say. Not necessarily so helpful. Surely some great discourse work has been done around postpartum depression. Suffice it to say for this short blog, the reminder that not just what we think but what we "feel" can be dictated by the language of our culture. Perhaps we feel different things that we cannot voice or perhaps we just have emotions based on the stories our culture has about what things mean....hmmmm...That photo is me at Tiananmen Square a place where one can reflect a long time about how discourse can frame emotion.