Opinion

The parenting problem the government can't fix

America's fertility decline is about more than money. It's about a society that doesn't like kids.

A few years ago, I was sitting at a farmhouse table in an unpretentious Wisconsin pub. I was with a group of fellow graduate students and our professor, celebrating the end of the fall semester over Scotch ale and fried cheese curds.

Aware that I was flying out the following morning with my husband and then-7-month-old daughter to visit family on the East Coast for Christmas, my professor asked if this would be my child's first flight. I said "no," and as I began to explain that we were trying to familiarize her with flying at a young age, a classmate interjected.

"Every time I see a baby on a plane, I'm just like, 'Why are you here?!'" he said with a theatrical groan. I was sort of stunned, but as I searched my brain for a polite version of my gut response, another student chimed in to say kids in restaurants are "way worse" than babies on planes. "They're just so loud," she said sheepishly, after catching my uneasy expression, "I'm sure your baby is good, though."

I had trouble selecting an opening anecdote for this essay because I had so many options from which to choose. Often, these interactions take the shape of a compliment, like the time a waitress in Arizona told me as I was leaving her restaurant that although she cringed when I first arrived, my 6-month-old was surprisingly sweet. "I was like 'Oh God, not a baby. It's like I'm at the grocery store but I can't leave!' But your baby was so good!" she said. Other times, it's a jab at another parent who "couldn't control" his kid in public — unlike me, it's implied, whose children never misbehave. 

That is, of course, ridiculous. My children are just as likely as anyone else's to throw a tantrum on a plane or knock over a glass of juice at a restaurant. I do my best to respond appropriately under the circumstances, but my kids will be learning how to function in polite society for many years to come. All I hear when people gripe about other children and parents is that my kids are only welcome in public if they don't act like, well, kids.

As America's birth rate continues its years-long descent, it's getting harder to ignore that the U.S. is a difficult place to raise children. Some argue we need to provide parents with more material support, such as paid parental leave, child care, or cash allowances if we want people to have more babies, while skeptics note that those policies haven't increased fertility much in other countries. I'm a strong proponent of robust family policies, but I'll admit that they might not be enough to convince me to have another child — because it's not just the financial or professional toll of parenting that worries me.

There is a cultural weight dangling from the yoke of modern American parenthood — one that is probably beyond the government to alleviate. The very same logic of self-sufficiency that rationalizes our anemic family policies — "Don't have kids if you can't afford them" — underpins our social expectations for children, and by extension, parents. It echoes in the grumbling about unruly kids disturbing the tranquility of public life and the censure of incompetent parents unwilling or unable to manage them.

Children are a personal choice and therefore a personal problem, many people seem to believe. Have as many as you want — just make sure they don't bother the rest of us.

The problem is that this credo is totally out of step with reality. All babies cry. Even the best-raised toddlers have poor motor control and still-developing emotional regulation. They talk a little too loud and ask a million questions and occasionally lose their minds when they bump up against a boundary and find it doesn't move out of the way for them. A world full of perfect parents is not a world without tears and temper tantrums. Pretending otherwise sets completely unrealistic expectations for those navigating life with little children in tow. 

In this sense, parenting is an inherently social occupation. Trying to cram it into an individualist framework, where the costs and consequences of children fall on parents and no one else, distorts the whole endeavor.

This became vividly apparent to me when, at 14 months, my first-born reached into the seat pocket of an airplane and found an open tube of chapstick, which she promptly began to eat. I knew I should take it away from her, but I also knew there was a good chance she'd wail for upwards of seven minutes if I did. It was a horrifying predicament for a people-pleaser like me: There was simply no way I could do right by my child without subjecting everyone on that plane to her grating screams.

To my immense disappointment, this kind of social calculus is considered a feature of parenting, not a bug. Giving parents the space to do their job requires all of us to tolerate inconvenient childish behavior, something an ever-smaller portion of our society is willing to do.

The only alternative is for parents to avoid public life altogether. To be honest, that's exactly what I did for a while, especially after giving birth to my second child. Now nearly three, she is by nature loud and tumbly and destructive — preternaturally disposed to seek out the limits and possibilities of her surroundings, whether it's an artfully stacked set of porcelain coffee mugs at a cafe or the bellowing acoustics of a train station platform.

We've come a long way over the years, but to this day, there is no bringing my second-born in public without subjecting those around us to the occasional ovary-shriveling scream. So, for a long time, and well before the pandemic, we stayed at home.

People can probably appreciate now better than ever how living that way was tough on my mental health. More than anything, it is the fear of reliving that isolation that most holds me back from having another child.

I know of no way to legislate widespread tolerance for children into American culture. Parental leave and child allowances can ease the financial strain of parenting and make it easier for parents to stay tethered to their professional circles. And we could probably do a lot more to design public spaces in a way that doesn't set parents up for failure. (How about no more stacks of glass objects within toddlers' reach?)

But the truth is that even in an America with policies and public squares designed for them, children would still act like children. We will have to decide for ourselves whether we are willing to welcome them as they are.

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