*I recently got into an uncomfortable discussion around the primacy of certain people in a man’s life. The choices were: his mother, his sister, his wife, the mother of his child/children, or his daughter.
First I’d like to address the sexism and heteronormative nature of the question. By giving only female options the question assumes that there are no men in a man’s life that are worthy of primacy. It also assumes that men do not and/or should not seek to be #1 in anyone’s life. That point of view denies the humanity of men by minimizing the importance of social bonds. Similarly in 2018 when gay marriage is legal and transgender people are becoming more visible, this question’s narrowly defined answer choices are outdated. It would be more accurate to offer choices of parent/care giver, sibling, spouse, mother of his children, and offspring. I understand that gets a bit wordy so we have the options presented but it still needs to be said.
In addition the question assumes that the man answering has someone to fill all of the options given – namely that he has a sister, daughter, etc. when in reality the only definitive fact is that he had/has a mother. But even that option is problematic because it assumes that he was not an orphan and/or that his mother is still alive. Clearly this question is bettered considered on an individual basis. Nevertheless having identified those stumbling blocks allow me to address the question: if a CIS, heterosexual man has all of these people in his life who should come first.
Coming in 5th place: baby’s mother. In a best case scenario this is a woman who the man in question had a relationship with which resulted in a child and positive feelings for the woman still exist. In the worst case scenario the baby was unwanted and is not thought of by the man. In the worst case the man would probably not answer her call; in the best case he would help the woman take care of her business. But in either situation the man would not be around his baby’s mother very often because of the other females in his life as well as the desire to help her find and prosper in a new relationship. If he has positive feelings for her, he wants her to be happy with someone else; if he has negative feelings for her, he wants her out of his hair as much as possible.
Coming in 4th place: sister. Presumably a man has had a longer relationship with his sister and consequently more positive memories with his sister than his baby’s mother. So when both call, he is more likely to help his sister. But again most men (I among them) would not be keen on occupying too central a role in the life of their sister because doing so hampers her ability to mature. Outside of tasks that require some higher level of physical strength there aren’t many things a woman cannot do without her brother’s assistance. And each time he helps her with a task she can accomplish on her own is another step of developing her dependency on him. My goal for my sister was to ensure that she can operate in the world. Thinking larger picture – companies or organizations that fall apart when one person leaves cannot be deemed successful. Similarly a man should not perpetuate systems of behavior so that when he is not around his sister cannot function. Ergo a man’s sister must be 4th on this list.
Coming in 3rd place: mother. Here is where the decisions get more difficult and more controversial. Many people believe a man should rank his mother higher for all of the reasons you can imagine: this is the person who fed him, protected him, clothed him, guided him, and loved him. And yet I am reminded of a statement a professor of mine made. Paraphrasing: “there is no way to repay the debt owed to your parents.” In other words, when you were a baby you would’ve died had your mother not been there to assist you. There is no way that you will be able to replicate that situation in which she is entirely dependent on you. I conclude then that there is no point in trying to even that score. In fact most parents know that they are signing up for a thankless job for which their children will not be able to repay them. As a man the best you can hope for is to pay it forward as a parent and do your part to produce a person ready to be productive in society.
I realize this seems harsh, as if a man should abandon his mother but that is not the argument I’m making. Assuming that the man in question can find a mate (this entire dilemma is predicated on that assumption), I can also assume that the man’s father will provide support and companionship for his mother. If the mother does not have a mate, it would sill and unhealthy for a man to attempt to fill that void for her. The best course of action would be for the man in question to assist his mother in pursuing activities that make her happy. But those activities should not be centered around her son. Just as it was for the sister a man trying to fill in the role of a mate for his mother undermines his development as an independent person. And if I’m being really honest about this this stunted development appears to be a factor in many failed relationships. A man choosing between his mother, wife, sister, daughter, and baby’s mother assumes that there is only so much he can do to keep them all happy and at least one out of the five has to be disappointed. By choosing his mother over the second and first place females, he ensures that those relationships fail.
Coming in 2nd place: daughter. This is the opposite situation from the previous entry but the same parent child relationship is at the center of my decision. A man should approach his relationship with his daughter with unconditional support but also with the understanding that he will eventually be replaced. To some degree a man’s entire job vis-à-vis his daughter is based on the idea that she will be selecting someone else to be her main supporter and advocate. A man’s status in his daughter’s life in this regard is temporary and men would do well to remember this. Most of what men do as fathers is to prepare their daughters to select their replacement wisely – hence the consternation when your daughter announces that although she went to Princeton to pursue a career in law, she has developed a drug habit and wants to marry someone who works as a supermarket cashier.
Of course this placement comes with a caveat. Namely that when a man’s daughter is first born she is completely helpless; a man might put her welfare first in those circumstances. A man’s daughter might get hurt or injured and need emotional support; a man might put her well being first in those circumstances. Not because his goal is to maintain her dependency on him, but because he needs to produce an emotionally well-adjusted human able to interact with others in society.
Coming in 1st place: wife. At the end of the day, a man’s baby’s mother, his sister, his mother, and his daughter will all seek their closest relationships with someone other than him. Logically it would be unrealistic and selfish to change that fact even if those women are unsuccessful in their effort. His wife on the other has chosen him as the person to most important in her life; in theory a man has reciprocated this choice. His behavior subsequent to the wedding should reflect that. There are multiple non-nuclear family structures prevalent in American society, but ideally a man seeks a close emotional and sexual bond with his wife to the exclusion of the other four options.
Returning to my initial objection. That close emotional and sexual bond can take many forms – maybe a man loves another man in which case he is choosing his husband instead of his wife; maybe he is polyamorous in which case he chooses his wives. But that basic choice of spouse over all others seems to hold water.
Returning to my realization of the tone of my response. This seems harsher than it is. A man will still have relationships with many people besides his wife throughout his life. My ordering of importance is not an argument against those other relationships. But, to take an example from sports, if a man receives messages simultaneously that two of the people in question need something from him – his wife should have the highest winning percentage in those face-offs.
Another way to look at this is to put yourself in the shoes of the person losing the face off. If a friend of mine consistently put her husband ahead of me, I wouldn’t question that at all. If my wife put her friend ahead of me, I’d think something was wrong. The reason for these different reactions is because we privilege the marital relationship above others. The husband-wife advantage over other relationships lessens when dealing with other family members, but it is/should still most important.
Of course no one wants to be on the losing end of one of these face-offs. Someone might argue that they should be first in their father’s mind when they are a teenager, then argue that they should also be first in their husband’s mind once they are married, and then argue that they should be first in their child’s mind when the child is an adult. That is one way of looking at this question but that way is blatantly biased. If we are going to attempt at being fair-minded, a man’s ordering will not change and his choice of who comes first will only change when someone fills in a role or vacates a role (death, or divorce for example).
Lastly, I feel rather strongly that failing to put one’s spouse first is the basis of many relationship problems. If a wife does not when the majority of her face-offs why would she remain in that relationship? (The same holds true for a husband not being chosen by his wife) That emotional closeness will be sought after and if a man’s spouse doesn’t fill that role his efforts to gain that closeness with his mother, sister, baby’s mother, or daughter has unintended consequences which set those women up to expect less of their mate and bail on their relationships unnecessarily.
I don’t subscribe to conventional Christian definitions of marriage. But I will agree that the emotional bond it represents is the most important relationship that anyone enters into.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.