Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Hierarchy of Love

The movie, I Will Follow is as much a meditation on loving as it is on grieving. We follow Maye as she packs up her recently deceased aunt’s house and prepares to leave and return her own life. A cast of characters pass through and help her to reconcile her aunt’s death and begin life anew.

The aunt, Amanda, an eccentric character and professional drum player who dreamed of playing in a rock band, succumbed to breast cancer. The two had a close, loving relationship that demonstrates the complexity of how we love. As a na├»ve little girl, I thought love was love, but I grew up to learn that even in loving there is a hierarchy. The greatest love is reserved for mothers, then fathers as evidenced by how much more attention we give to Mother’s Day than we do to Father’s Day. After all, it is mothers who bring us into the world and we should love them the most, right?

After parents then it’s siblings and after that we have to figure out who’s next on the tier for our affection. In the extended family there are grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces nephews and in-laws. Figuring out where everyone fits is tricky. The hierarchy changes when we marry and have children and so we shift and shuffle the ways in which we love and oftentimes things get complicated like they did for Maye when we break rank.

We meet Fran, Amanda’s daughter and the tension between the cousins is immediate. Aunt and niece had the kind of relationship that should have belonged to the mother and daughter, but didn't. Amanda and Maye's relationship went against the hierarchy and Fran resented Maye for that. At one point, Fran asks Maye if she has ever thought that the very qualities that she loved about Amanda didn’t make her the best mother. Fran also demands that Maye give her all of Amanda’s things because they belong to Fran and her children because she’s the daughter. The movie never reveals what happened between mother and daughter nor does it ever tell us anything about Maye’s mother.

Love isn’t the same for everyone; it can complicate, create confusion or cause pain when someone loves out of order. So,I wonder about our capacity to love. Is it limitless and boundless, or are there known but unspoken restrictions? How do we love? Do we do it differently depending on the family pecking order? What happens when relationships change? Or order isn’t followed?

Mae is single with no children. Fran is married with three children. So, did Fran’s sense of obligation to her immediate family prevent her from being there for her mother? Mae loved her aunt so much that she left her boyfriend and moved to another state to be with her aunt. During a phone conversation, Maye asks him why wasn’t he there for her and he said that he couldn’t just pack up his life and move away like she did.

Like Maye, I am also single and childless and I wonder what this means for me on the hierarchy of love. What do I do if my hierachy is missing a tier or two?


  1. Thoughtful post, thank you for sharing!

    I know it's kind of silly, but when I found my partner (now my husband) I couldn't figure out where to put him in my quick dial list on my cell phone -- after my mom and dad, of course, but does he go before my brother? Sister-in-law? Best friend? Somewhere in between? For now he's below bro and sis-in-law as I've known them both longer than him, but above my best friend (who I've also known longer...hmmmm). Thinking about moving him up to just below mom and dad at this point.

    Not having met him until I was 36, I had become pretty used to the idea that that particular level of the hierarchy might remain vacant. I was beginning to consider becoming a single parent because I knew I wanted to experience being a mom. So I guess I'd say the hierarchy of love is complicated and fluid, and governed by lots of unwritten rules, memories, joys, longing and many, many tears. ~jlh

  2. Love: the always interesting topic of teenagers and romantics.
    Forgive this trite truth: God is Love. However, we are so far from being our ultimate God selves that not only is our love hierarchical, it’s conditional and most often confused, for what we think is romantic love is more likely an addiction. Yes, we care for those who fulfill a need. That’s why we love our mothers more: They take care of us at our deepest level of need. Well, that’s my take. Excellent review, Ms. Gates.
    Dana Spell

  3. I love this post. It causes you to look at your tiers. It helps me because I was in the process of doing this. I don't think I was doing it right until I read this post. Thanks for sharing.