Maybe This is an Opportunity for Parents and Non-Parents To Empathize More with Each Other
At about ten days into social distancing — and improvised homeschooling — this tweet sailed across my feed:
I laughed, but it hurt.
We have an almost-4 year old and a 7 year-old at home. Last night the provincial government sealed up the parks and beaches. The boys haven’t been within six feet of their grandparents for weeks. Yesterday, everyone over 70 was asked to self-isolate.
Parents are on their own these days. It’s one thing to not have access to child-care. It’s totally another to not be allowed to have any, or to get any from extended family. Every family, in every configuration, is on its own island of togetherness and aloneness.
It’s challenging, and we’re meeting it — to the point of it being a transformative experience in some ways. Relational peace and resilience is an incredible privilege. And I know we’re a thousand times luckier than so many. Anyone who is parenting solo now, or exposed to substance abuse or domestic violence — my heart just dies. When the vulnerable are isolated, the veneer of nuclear family safety and its independence cracks.
Back to the tweet: I’ve never, to my recollection, said anything so intrusive and insensitive as what wittyidiot reports to any of my non-parent friends.
But I sure have felt it.
And when I recognized myself feeling it, and I realized it felt off, I took a look at where that feeling was coming from.
On my generous and gregarious side, there is, without a doubt, some inexpressible joy that parenting has filled me up with, to the point that my prior life feels unrecognizable and haunted. And I wish I could just share that with everyone. But on my narcissistic side, there’s a part of me that wants non-parents to validate my choices with their bodies. I want them to share my stress — as if they didn’t have their own. If I were to speak wittyidiot’s quote aloud, I would be speaking from that voice.
wittyidiot’s burn is on point. Whoever said that to him, intentionally or not, was inflating a selfish and defensive need to the point of trumping basic manners towards the many reasons, chosen or not chosen, for not being a parent.
The tweet also points out that the sentiment of “the greatest joy” is, when spoken aloud, disingenuous. When the shit hits the fan, it goes silent. Shouldn’t being a parent be “the greatest joy in life”, for better or worse? Yes, it should. Unless what the parent is really saying, in a passive aggressive way, is: “When are you going to take on the same stress that I have?”
The inflated parent is forgetting, of course, the stress of loneliness, or of building a chosen family, of miscarriage, or moral and political conviction, or simply other work in the world.
They’re also failing to anticipate just how much worse the stress of parenting can get, to the point of that unforgivable thought: that they wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
For me, the last time this issue popped out of the collective unconscious and into the memosphere was from the other side, when that “Lady No-Kids” cartoon by Will McPhail made the hetero-normie rounds:
I laughed then, too, but it didn’t feel clean.
I especially didn’t feel comfortable that the target was a non-parenting woman, contrasted with the mature mother pushing the stroller and herding the 4 year-old. It deepened the misogynistic double-bind of “You’re either frivolous, or responsible for everything.”
Happily, it looks like McPhail evened out the scales with a follow-up:
Gender aside: McPhail illuminates the bald fact that through lack of experience or imagination, the non-parent can be blind to their privileges of time and relative autonomy. And if they flaunt this, knowingly or not, or make assumptions about what their friends who are parents can and can’t do, it can be frustrating.
Or worse: for some it might provoke a grief — shameful because it’s not easily admitted — for a former life, or for choices that could have been. There are now 15K in the “I Regret Having Children” Facebook group.
The first time I clued into this tension was when the priest who was the principal of the Catholic school where my mom worked asked the staff to take on a bunch of extra tasks as though they would be giving up happy hour. I remember my dad grumbling, “Father So-and-So needs to wash some diapers.” I was young, but I understood that this wasn’t just about the work itself. Dad was talking about the kind of work: we don’t float above anything when we’re up to our elbows in crap. We don’t sit in cathedrals in contemplation. We don’t do yoga vacays.
But McPhail’s exaggeration leaves a sour taste. The heteronormies are buttoned-up. Lady and Lord No-Kids are obviously silly.
The problem with the caricature — maybe part of its purpose, in fact —is that it conceals the more stark challenges to parenting as an existential identity.
I have anti-natalist friends who say outright that it’s immoral to have children, given the imminent timeline of ecological collapse. It’s hard to argue with them. I have feminist friends who say that we just don’t have enough justice to allow for parenting partnerships — especially if they are hetero — that are structurally equal. It’s hard to argue with them. I have anti-capitalist friends who pinpoint the heteronormative family as the heart of consumerism, masquerading as love. I have climate collapse friends who say: “There’s no problem in the world that can be solved by bringing more people into it.” I know birth-striking millennials, melancholic but resolute.
All of these folks have good points. None of them are following geese around while not wearing pants. If you were to feed them wittyidiot’s line, “When are you going to have children?”, they would hear: “When are you going to conform to your gender identity? When are you going to accept your fate? When are you going to just admit you’re a producer and a consumer, just like everyone else? When are you going to get down in the shit with us?”
But there’s a lot of ways to wash diapers, and everyone has a fate. Many of these same non-parents are masters of the “chosen family” structure, which binds together those thrown out of the nuclear shelter, or those who had to flee. It’s not all extra yoga and non-fiction. They’re the ones who often have more time to volunteer, reach out by phone, share their baking, or take on an extra therapy client, pro-bono. One anti-natalist I know is spearheading vegan food distribution for the homeless in Santa Barbara. He’s committed to never having children, but he works as hard as I do, or harder feeding people he’s not bio-responsible for.
Here’s something else I’ve noticed: many of the most influential eco-prophets of our time — the “doomers” who can say what others are afraid of saying about tipping points and mass extinction events, for example, and how close they are — are non-parents. Do they have less to lose in speaking the truth? Conversely, many of the most prominent boosters of green capitalism or Green New Deals, or the belief that there are political or technological fixes for collapse — are parents. I think there’s a connection between the biological hope of parenting and maintaining a politics of progress, even when the cold hard math is all wrong.
So far the lockdowns are shining a blinding spotlight on certain differences between parenting and non-parenting life. But what if we looked for something else?
In previous lives I’ve lived on several sides of this divide, albeit in my white, male and hetero way. I’ve been single (obviously), and I’ve step-parented for seventeen years, and now I’m partnered with two young boys.
As a stepfather I was devoted and committed. But I was also resigned to always being on the bio-responsible periphery of more central relationships. The buck never stopped with me. There were years in there where I didn’t think I would be a parent in what I conceived of at the time as a more meaningful way. I’m not saying that step-parents can’t have or feel exactly what bio-parents do — if that can even be generalized — but I didn’t, not quite. Part of that may have been my own emotional avoidance, but a lot of it was circumstance
It did however give me a powerful experience of simultaneous inclusion in and exclusion from the most privileged unit in our culture: the nuclear. This, along with other life circumstances — like being recruited into two cults in which family life was present but ambivalent to the point of being devalued — meant that I also socialized on both sides of that divide.
Back then, I had friends with children and friends without. Childless friends who were happy that way, and those who weren’t. Friends who had taken vows of celibacy that suited their introversion. Friends indoctrinated into celibacy who were quietly raging. Friends who grieved miscarriages and not finding the right co-parent. Friends who felt the clock run out. Friends who knew that having a lot of sex partners wasn’t conducive to parenting, and they weren’t about to change. Friends with children who talked about it, too loudly and defensively, in the way that wittyidiot skewers in his tweet. And also friends with children who were overwhelmed, depressed, terrified that they were passing on their trauma to their kids.
Later, when the stars aligned and I did become part of the nuclear club, I was rudely awakened to the fact that I might not continue to have that same connection with friends without children. The first volley was fired by a good friend at the time. When I told him my partner was pregnant, he ghosted me.
It really hurt. But it made sense. We never got to talk about it at the time, but my guess is that he was betting I wasn’t going to be as available to him, and so he cut his losses.
He was right. No more two-hour lunches, spontaneous cafe chinwags, or hanging out after events. He’d probably seen it happen with other friends: that tunnel-vision-descent into worry and expectation and rearranged values in service to the imaginary baby, but on a functional level can feel pretty narcissistic to the person who can’t share it.
And what a paradox. Expectant-parent worry puts you in a place where you really don’t want to be disconnected from anybody important to you, and yet it is exactly this narrowing vision that can drive key people away as if you had a virus.
At the same time, I felt myself being recruited into a new club. Men who were already fathers smiled at me with a mixture of fatigue, recognition, pride, and schadenfreude: “You won’t regret it,” but also “You won’t know what hit you,” and “See you on the other side.”
And the weird thing about that club? Its impersonality. For me, it feels more symbolic than embodied. I’ve noticed that the men seem to nod at each other more than converse. We share that peculiar nuclear alienation: we belong to families that are largely hidden from each other, but we also share an abstract social power.
Much of the abstraction is a function of time. The demands of the nuclear arrangements that we have — artifacts of patriarchy and capitalism — simply don’t allow for the same levels of sharing time between equals that often characterizes non-parenting or pre-parenting life. Add to that the fact that parenting seems to shunt many families into social funnels determined less by shared interests than biological circumstance. In the meeting places — playgrounds, schoolyards, gyms, instead of parks and cafes — there’s less talk about life in general than about life with children.
And this must make us very narrow-minded at times to our non-parent friends. We don’t have time. Or we don’t share the same timeline. It might also make some of us angry, in that wittyidiot passive-aggressive way.
My gut says there’s some intrapersonal confusion as well: when the parent is trying to communicate with the non-parent, they might feel they are looking back into a life they remember. It’s not true. They’re looking at someone else. Some whose path, with a slight shift in perspective, can be an object of admiration, simply because it is so different.
I don’t have any big “Can’t we all just get along” ideas. The exchanges that wittyidiot lampoons and McPhail exaggerates should obviously just stop, or be kept private.
But there are a few public behaviour things I think we can agree on, especially on social media. That is if you care enough about this particular tension to help build a culture in which parents and non-parents empathize with each other. And especially if your social feeds contain a mixture of parents and non-parents.
IMHO, parents should really own that it’s tempting to use their children to self-object all over Facebook. To use them to show how busy or stressed or fun or woke they are. Or to hide behind. Beyond the massive consent issues involved in using your kids this way — something that non-parents may be more attuned to and put off by than we know — there’s a difference between recording and performing what happens in one’s life. The more one does the latter, the more abstract parenting becomes for everyone. Our relationships need less symbolism, not more. And if you’re a heteronormie, you may be contributing to conventional narratives that continue to bury other experiences.
If you know non-parents who are lonely, maybe text them? Explain your time is limited, but that you’re thinking of them?
And non-parents: pandemic lockdown might not be the best time to post pics of yourself in bubble baths or meandering diary entries about how bored you are. If you know parents who are struggling — reach out to them, maybe? You could read a book to a friend’s kid over Zoom. It sounds small, but it’s extraordinary what even a half-hour of relief can give.
Maybe it’s also for you. Imagine that book you read to that kid over zoom contributes to their ability to concentrate and focus, and that they take that skill and develop it to the point where they’re able to intubate you smoothly when you need ventilation during whatever pandemic hits us in 20 years.
As for me, I’ll continue owning my feelings and softening my judgements. I don’t know what life I would be living if I wasn’t parenting with my partner. But I trust there are men out there who are living non-parenting lives with integrity, supporting the world in amazing ways I cannot.
And maybe one or two out there will see that I’m trying to work on unknotting a primal jealousy of parenting: to fantasize that someone will take care of you unconditionally when you become a baby again. I’ll admit it: I regularly visualize my deathbed, and imagine my sons on either side, holding my hands. The stories starting to pour in from Italy and Spain of parents dying alone fill me with longing and terror.
But something tells me a fantasy that rides on a notion of the care to which parenting entitles me won’t soothe longing, nor overcome terror. I want to fantasize about fostering a future of care for everyone.