Parents Feel Isolated and Judged. It's Time to Change That.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that I’m sitting down to write the case for parenthood after exasperatedly wrestling my 4-year-old through her bedtime routine. Yet that is exactly what we need these days: people standing on their porches and shouting (well, whisper-shouting, the baby’s sleeping), “I have Goldfish crusted to my pants, but I love having kids!” A return, in other words, to a pro-parenting culture.
I normally write about the pitifully inadequate policies America has in place to support young families, most notably the lack of universal child care. I can talk your ear off at a party about how our birth rates are plummeting because couples are looking at things like child-rearing costs and then capping their family size below their ideal, or often just choosing to not have kids and go get a Puggle instead (please invite me to your party).
All of this is true. American families are struggling, and the pain is being felt across nearly every income bracket. Today’s families can’t thrive in a system that was designed for one-earner couples in which women didn’t get crazy ideas about wanting to be able to choose their work-to-mothering ratio. All the while, expectations on parents are increasing; modern parenting, is, as Claire Cain Miller puts it in the New York Times’ Upshot blog, relentless.
It’s also true that cultural norms have a significant influence on fertility rate and parental happiness. Policy is necessary — oh-so-necessary! — but not solely sufficient. Indeed, even in European countries with much friendlier family support policies, fertility rates are dropping and the percentage of permanently childless adults is climbing. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with individuals choosing childlessness, we know that on the whole, women in particular are having less children than they themselves say they want. The family has slipped from the gravitational center of society. That’s a problem.
What I’ve heard when talking to today’s parents is that they experience looks of derision or judgment, particularly those with more than two kiddos underfoot — a look of, 'Why did you have that many if you can’t control them?'
We can see this reflected in popular media. Most contemporary TV shows about families — many of which I enjoy! — revolve around their dysfunction: Billions and Game of Thrones come readily to mind (though shout-out to Ned and Catelyn Stark for their excellent parenting and large brood; RIP). Children in media are more often than not found either fighting with their parents or contending with the scars left by their parents. Childbirth is nearly inevitably displayed as a fearful medical emergency instead of a natural act, and the raw power and sanctity of that act is too often absent. Even when parenthood is illustrated with a warm hand, the circumstances are laughably askew from American realities: perhaps the sunniest such current show, Modern Family, is about three well-off households in L.A. who somehow never have trouble securing child care one way or the other.
This relates to what a stay-at-home-mom friend of mine once termed a “people problem” that goes along with modern parenting’s weighty money problems. There seems to be less of a sense of village-raising, fewer people swooping in to (consensually!) take the screaming baby so that mom or dad can clean up the toddler’s spilled juice. More often, what I’ve heard when talking to today’s parents is that they experience looks of derision or judgment, particularly those with more than two kiddos underfoot — a look of, “Why did you have that many if you can’t control them?”
This feeling is pervasive. A recent survey conducted by the parenting site Motherly “found that 51 percent of moms feel discouraged when it comes to managing the stress of work and motherhood. About one-third of moms said that their mental and physical health is suffering. And 85 percent of moms said that our society does not do a good job of supporting mothers.” Eight-five percent! It’s relentlessness without relief.
The impacts of this isolation threaten not only our nation’s future but its current health; both the figurative health of families and the literal health of children.
We should consider how we can begin to reject the logic that we are only responsible for our own children.
Jennifer Reich, the author of Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines wrote recently about the rise of individualist parenting, and its role in anti-vaxx behavior, for Vox: “For mothers, the pressure to manage their children’s nutrition, body size, learning styles, peer interactions, or physical activity is boundless and reinforced by schools, doctors, peers, and parenting magazines... Mothers often tell me how hard they work to do ‘research’ about raising their children. They don’t mean systematic research in the way scientists do.”
Later, Reich gets at the heart of what she has learned: “I am suggesting that we should consider how we can begin to reject the logic that we are only responsible for our own children.”
Parenting is, was, and always will be hard and largely unglamorous. It tends to be, as Jennifer Senior titled her excellent book on the subject, All Joy, No Fun. But at this point, we’ve lost the joy half; if I was a 22-year-old contemplating the next phase of my life, parenthood would look to me like “No Fun, Where’s The Nearest Puggle Store?”
And we need kids. Families are at the heart of community’s sense of what a recent National Academy of Medicine paper termed “collective efficacy.” Collective efficacy is a measure of social health answering the question “can individuals work together to accomplish their goals,” and research has found that kids and families act as a sort of community glue. In fact, when you help parents, everyone gets happier. And we’ve got big issues to tackle, big goals to reach! Poverty persists, the planet is crisping, and an older, more childless electorate is not what we need stepping up to the plate in the coming decades (this is meant generally: there are, of course, short-sighted young parents and future-oriented geriatric singletons).
We need to have each other’s backs in the day-to-day — an ethos of offering free babysitting to our neighbors, aiding the harrowed parent in the grocery store or airport.
So, we need to put the sheen back on parenting. We need stories that highlight the one-of-a-kind, heart-expanding moments of sleeping-newborn ecstacy; the unrivaled, awesome power of childbirth; the perspective shift that’s more potent than any psychedelic drug (I assume). We should also absolutely talk about the (literal) poopy parts, the ridiculous, the exhausting, the grievous. We should just talk about those parts within the broader context of the fact we wouldn’t change being parents for all the world.
Indeed, it needs to become common knowledge that despite all the very real challenges, most millennial parents ultimately enjoy parenting and find it incredibly meaningful. As Romper’s Janet Manley has written, “Parenthood is frequently a gateway to massive personal and spiritual growth, and never-before-experienced levels of love, hilarity, and ability to live in the moment. So why do we feel compelled to add a caveat — ‘of course, it sucks’ — when we discuss this experience?”
On a practical level, it also means parents and non-parents need to band together. We need to have each other’s backs in the day-to-day — an ethos of offering free babysitting to our neighbors, aiding the harrowed parent in the grocery store or airport — and push for family-friendly amenities like safe sidewalks and indoor playgrounds for rainy Saturdays. We also need to flex our political muscle (after all, no one wants to say “no” to a bunch of toddlers who were just told that man in the suit is withholding gummy bears). Parent power can fuel both needed family support policies like a child allowance, as well as broader societal policies like real, bold action steps to fight the climate crisis.
Let’s shift the narrative. Let’s take parenthood back.
Elliot Haspel is an early childhood policy expert. He holds an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It” (Black Rose, November 2019).