the following is extracted from email i sent to a friend today. we'd had a disagreement about child care and parental / maternity leave policies in the workplace, and she sent me a long, thoughtful email stating her position. she believes that all of us should help take care of all our children and our elderly; that there should be a safety net. i agree. she also sees parental leave as a normal life necessity, whereas leave time for other purposes she characterizes as "Me time" or "vacation." and that's where i disagree; also, she didn't like my suggestion that it's unfair to offer preferential treatment to parents and families without offering something similar (such as non-family leave time) to nonparents, and found it whiny to complain about things being "unfair" when "that's just how things are."
so. here goes:
i believe in a social safety net. i believe in education, in creating an environment that enables children to grow and adults to take care of each other --- whether or not we're taking care of people we happen to be blood related to. i also believe that fairness is an OK thing to strive for. the desire to open our minds / consider that other people's situations might deserve a different approach / even consider that our *own* sorrows and unfair treatments might be worthy of better approaches than we've gotten in the past / help people in the future even if there is no totally workable solution today / work toward equality / allow for possibilities that seem alien to us... this desire is what ends up, eventually, bringing about justice and "fairness" for people who are gay, black, Latino, disabled, transgendered, or female.
"that's not fair" vs. "that's just the way things are" is relative...
...many people still believe that if you're gay, you're out of the mainstream and you shouldn't be able to get married. that's not fair, but that's just the way things are. women make eighty cents on the man's dollar today. it's not fair, but that's just the way things are. parents are given advantages for their life choices (by taxes, family leave, etc) while non-parents' interests are largely ignored. at what point do we say, well, you know, that *isn't* fair and i'd rather see things balance out a little better?
personally, i came to this issue from a happily childfree but pro-child state of mind. loved kids. thought we should educate them and help each other raise them. still do think that. i stayed late at work so my boss could go home to his kids when i had my corporate job in NYC; in fact, i'd kick him out the door when he'd run late. it never occurred to me that he was still making $30,000 a year more than me while i took on his work overload and trained all our department's new hires; now i wonder about that. i loved my nieces and nephews and was glad i wasn't their mom.
i sort of comprehended the biological/limbic urge to reproduce, but not really. i was not impressed by people whose *only* goal in life was reproduction, though i respected that many of my friends had always wanted to have children. i thought some infertility treatments were excessive; the people spending $50,000 on that stuff could help hundreds of children for the same amount of money, but their special precious DNA wouldn't be promulgated. that seemed self-centered to me.
my attitude began to change when i took on the Portland Center for Reproductive Medicine as a client. there i learned just how deep and fragile and huuuge this issue was, and that people's desperation to produce their *own* bio-offspring wasn't just the sort of everyday selfishness that could be easily solved for everyone by adopting (which is not an option for everyone, either). something else was going on.
so i had to open my mind to their experience. my compassion increased. later, i got hit by the bioclock. my research took me to the book "The Baby Boon," which i had mixed feelings about. i didn't like the shrill attitude, but then again, the political facts and realities were stark. the more research i did, especially just talking with childless people, having them write to me after i started publishing stuff & blogging about all this, and dropping by support groups --- well, the more i (again, reluctantly) had to admit that the stuff in "The Baby Boon" was accurate. the assumption that family is superior to everything else in life is a political assumption. it is also a stark denigration of nonparents and of nonparental activity in life. i need three months to care for a helpless infant: i say our culture should support that. if i am offered a three month book tour opportunity, the only one i will be offered in my lifetime, i should be able to take those three months to carefully nurture *that* baby --- in that case, my baby is a book.
you could scoff, "A baby isn't a book! That's ridiculous!" but that's an entitled position, one honed by a majority-rules, pro-natalist culture. personally, yes, i would risk my life to rescue a baby from a burning building. i doubt i'd do that for a book. but we aren't talking about killing babies for books; we're talking about supporting *the meaning in people's lives.* to dismiss one person's source of meaning as being inferior to our source of meaning as parents is discriminatory and extremely hurtful to many others. we can't be surprised that the low rumblings of anger around parental entitlement have finally burst into an ugly childfree movement that many childless-by-choice people won't even be associated with.
i believe that the conflict is heightened by a sense of entitlement by parents, by our lack of compassion, understanding, or even interest in what nonparental people do. it's heightened by our assumption that everyone else owes us and our offspring something --- often without us even offering gratitude or acknowledgement. "Hey, it's so fantastic of you folks to vote for the school support bill, even though you don't have kids!" or "Wow, childless people, can i just say THANK YOU for subsidizing my child-dependent tax break every year?" do we bother to thank anyone? i don't see that sentiment around much. it's ungracious, and eventually it grates on the minority.
we're especially screwed by our sense of entitlement in letting our kids run roughshod everywhere; back when kids were more frequently disciplined, when people didn't regularly bring two-year-olds to white tablecloth restaurants, this sort of public argument just didn't break out very often. as parents and kids decrease their visible respect for nonparents, the problem will heighten. if we step on someone's toes enough times, can we really expect them to feel good about helping our children? one can say all day, "everyone's children are society's issue" but that isn't going to convince someone who made the choice not to reproduce and who is informed every day, by the law, the media, the culture, by her family, and her workplace that she is implicitly inferior for not being a mom. instead of saying she has the wrong social values and that she sucks (she's already being told that enough!), we could say: hmm, if this person were being treated respectfully and equally, would she consider getting on board with our pro-family agenda? she might indeed. but not if we act like she owes it to us.
i don't have any theories about how, exactly, fairness would be doled out, even if people got on board to consider it. some enlightened employers do encourage their employees to have real lives: family lives, creative lives, whatever. you can get time off from Powell's Books to take your band on tour, or to care for a sick person, or to have a baby. i think that's a good thing. in the long run, i believe people will be better and more productive workers, anyway, if their needs as real people are taken care of. i don't believe that it is my or your right, or the tyranny of the majority's right, to determine what everyone's real needs as real people should be. just because the majority are parents or future parents doesn't mean that parenting is more worthy of accommodation than other things people do in their lives. parenting is more important *to me*, and i have the luxury of being able to parent.
that's jolly good for me. what about my infertile friend who always wanted children, whose family line literally ends with her --- no nieces, no nephews, nobody to carry on the family name? my friend in the wheelchair whose condition is getting worse, who was diagnosed with a new, probably genetic problem on top of it, and grieves the children he will never have? his decision not to procreate was for the betterment of society in general, actually, and i think he's way less selfish than pregnant, bipolar, fibromyalgic me for making that difficult decision and sticking to it. what about the East Coast writer who has tried zillions of infertility treatments and tried multiple times to adopt, only to be turned away for reasons of health or because she's not married? my several female friends in their late thirties/early forties who haven't managed a loving partnership in their lives that is stable enough to provide a foundation for childrearing?
if any of those people wants three months off to attempt to find meaning in life via a trek to Nepal, they should absolutely get it.
even if i believed that parenting and family were necessarily more important *to everyone* and *a priori* and *objectively* than all other human activity and sources of life meaning, i would be careful to include other opinions than my own... not just to be nice or something, but because it is strategic. if the ultimate goal is to feel right and righteous about parenting beliefs, that's one thing. if the ultimate goal is to create a society that is healthier and provides more support to parents and children, then we need to get a bit Obama about it. in that case, it doesn't matter who's ultimately right in the eyes of god or philosophy or idealized visions of ethical realities; what matters is that we built enough consensus to make good, slow changes. that healthier society will not happen unless the majority can widen its arms a little bit and be more inclusive of the needs of the minority. (we've got a black president. that's a start. a hundred years from now, we might be open minded enough to have a childless, atheist female president, but i wouldn't put folding money on that bet. not yet.)
i also believe that in a time when contraception and abortion are readily available, having a child is usually a choice. a person with a disability who gets SSI income is unlikely to have made a choice to become disabled; the elderly don't choose to have their hips and knees fall apart and their arteries clog. if we want to compassionately support members of our society who can't quite get by alone, we should. i'm all for it. i don't think the "choice" between reproducing and not-reproducing, if you get walloped by the biological clock like i did, *feels* much of a choice at all... yet it is. i could choose to remain biologically childfree and miserable forever. crappy choice, but a *choice.* if i knew the planet was covered in nuclear radiation for the next thousand years, i would not choose to birth a child into that environment. if push comes to shove, it's not like i'm forced to have children and therefore society owes me something. i make the choice, i take the plunge. i hope society will help me as i dive into the craziness that is bio-motherhood! but i hope it will also bother to include nonparents in its policies and considerations of what's important in life.
i didn't argue that maternity leave was a "vacation." you chose that word and that idea. however, i don't consider it a "vacation" for a person to pursue whatever is most dear and important to them in life. having children, caring for sick relatives, finding spiritual enlightenment, playing the guitar: i am not god. i don't get to tell other people what should make their lives worth living. if it's the guitar? well, OK, *i* can't imagine living for the guitar, but i also can't imagine telling Andres Segovia not to take a month off to tour Europe while his co-worker Maria gets three months off to pursue what she considers valuable: having another baby. i wouldn't deny JS Bach his 90 days off to compose music, either. i don't see why policies should promote one person's meaning of life (and contributions to society and culture) and not others' as well. i think there's room for all of us.
it is quite a can o' worms, isn't it?