My current reading obsession is Philippa Gregory; I watched the first episode of the STARZ show The White Queen as a free online premiere, but since I don’t actually subscribe to the channel, I can’t keep current with the series. No matter. Until the show becomes available on DVD, I am content to plow through the entire Philippa Gregory corpus, beginning with the “Cousins’ War” quintet. Beginning with The White Queen, the series chronicles the lives of women navigating the ever-changing political allegiances of the War of the Roses. Each book focuses on a different female, and the series as a whole works as historical fiction that examines the power—and the limits of that power—that women exercised for their families’ advancement.
Throughout the books (and the show, I imagine, as well as throughout history itself), children of the great and powerful exist as their parents’ pawns. Boys were desirable as heirs for a house’s lineage and girls were (less) desirable as chattel to secure alliances with warring states. The whole basis of the Cousins’ War is that relatives with claims (of varying strengths and legitimacies) to the throne fight to the death to put themselves and their children on the throne of England. And of course, the court is riddled with intrigue; suspicions of double-dealing abound, and even members of the royal family can’t trust their parents or children or spouses to act with compassion instead of ambition.
Part of my interest in the show is genre-based; I’m a fan of The Borgias and The Tudors, so another historical costume drama is right in my wheelhouse. Yet I’m also piqued by the broader topic of parental ambition. It’s nearly impossible to love and raise children without dreaming of their futures, without imagining successes for them that surpass our own. Wanting to do better by our children is not, in itself, wrong, but it misses the mark when we lose sight of our children as individuals and see them as new editions of ourselves. While the works of Philippa Gregory are filled, at least in part, with her imaginings about these powerful families, the climate of parental ambition overriding children’s humanity is all too real.
From schools to careers to leisure activities, parents exercise considerable control over the lives our children lead. It’s not the authority that I object to; I worship a benevolent King and generally find hierarchy, when it is based on justice and goodness, to be a positive thing. Parents who fail to engage with or guide their children are remiss, but the Cousins’ War series points to the persistent practice of ignoring or overriding children’s legitimate desires and imposing our own. How much freedom do—and should—children have over their time, their choices? What do parents and children owe each other in terms of allegiance and compromise? Who, after all, are children for?
There are many cultures with many different answers to those questions, and I certainly don’t pretend to have it all figured out. I know firsthand the feeling of disappointment, even shame, at not living up to the visions my own parents held for my life. In some instances, my shame pointed to my sinfulness, and I grieved my family because they love me and wanted to protect me from harm. In other instances, our dreams simply didn’t line up, and I think they went through a kind of grieving process, of giving up the imaginary child in favor of the one they actually got. That seems like a process all parents must at some point face if we are to maintain healthy relationships with our children as they are, as, indeed, God made them to be.
So when I ask myself, who are my children for, the answer always comes back to God. And God knows the plans for them, the hopes and the futures. My job is to strive to align my will with God’s, praying that my children come into the fullness of His plans for them instead of pushing my own agenda. My dreams for my children are good dreams, as are all parents’ dreams I think, but they are unbearably inferior to God’s plans. We may, like the characters in Philippa Gregory’s texts, imagine our children fulfilled by wealth and power and status; we may trust in a crown of gold to secure their inheritance, justify our behavior, and immortalize our legacies. And, in the end, all earthly crowns give way to the King of heaven, to whom we can only say, “Thy will be done.”