Is it just me, or has the world gone completely crazy when it comes to childrearing?
You know what I’m talking about. Once upon a time, people expected to get married in early adulthood and have kids at reasonable intervals. Parents stayed married and paid the bills, while kids played in front yards and freely opened sidewalk lemonade stands. Children fit naturally into the rhythm of American life.
Nowadays, we treat children like a deathly plague, unless of course you’ve decided you want one. Then they become a luxury good worth tens or even hundreds of thousands. Once acquired, they must be treated like prize poodles, feted and protected at every turn.
The traditional family model has largely been put through the shredder, much to the detriment of children. We try to make up for this by hovering over our kids every second, and sending the police after parents who still think it’s fine to take their grandparents’ more laid-back, “let the kids play” approach.
In other words, our ideas about family are a huge, hairy mess. It’s strange we would have so much trouble figuring out a thing that’s been done since Neanderthal times. Then again, maybe that’s the real problem. Unlike Neanderthals, we’re obsessed with figuring out how to do this. We’ve fought tooth and nail to free ourselves from the natural implications of our biology and, as a reward, we now have to plan every detail of family formation. There’s no taking comfort in “the done thing” anymore. Parenthood today is all about doing it right.
Planning: The Parent Trap
Isn’t it ironic? For a society obsessed with family planning, we’re pretty much flunking the healthy-kid test. Children born into disadvantaged circumstances (which generally means both poverty and a tumultuous family life) have a grim life outlook. Illegitimacy and fatherlessness have climbed sharply. I’m guessing Neanderthals managed this better.
Allow me to make a possibly radical suggestion. What if the planning fixation is itself part of the problem?
It takes a fair amount of hubris even to try to micromanage something as significant as the production of the next generation. When biology and circumstance were calling most of the shots, the awesome responsibility was a little bit mitigated. Now that we’ve undertaken to rewrite the whole script (in a way that’s somehow supposed to fulfill us as adults while simultaneously producing healthy kids), we find ourselves in the grip of all kinds of parental pathologies.
As I see it, the trap of modern parenthood unfolds in three stages. First, we try to get a jump on good parenting by having our kids at the right time and for the right reasons. This, however, is impossible. So new parents find themselves plagued by guilt and anxiety from the very beginning.
Next, we try to compensate for that initial failure by overprotecting and obsessing over our kids. Even if our motives for having them were less than totally adequate, we assure ourselves we’ll “make it up to them” by ensuring their lives are wonderful. The anxiety intensifies, and we try to re-invent the wheel by creating some new norms for what “good parents” are expected to do for their kids. Checking all the boxes will give our consciences some relief, even if we can’t absolutely guarantee that the kids will turn out well.
The new standards are filtered through that same “parental planning” paradigm, so they’re demanding and sometimes just ridiculous. In stage three, we recognize that the new parenting norms are completely unrealistic for all but a select few. We could relax our expectations into something more reasonable, but we’re moderns, so we go the statist route instead. That means, on the one hand, calling for the government to assist through institutions and programs. But it also means allowing the hand of the state to creep ever further into our family and life plans.
Seriously, is it any wonder that more and more people are just deciding to forego the whole parenting thing entirely?
Step One: Finding Adequate Reasons to Procreate
What does it take to be a good parent nowadays? Well, we already know the first step. To be a good parent, you must plan things. Having a baby before you’re ready will ruin your life. You must wait until “the right time” and have adequate reasons to procreate.
Unfortunately, this is already a recipe for failure. Asking people to get married before having kids makes perfect sense. But this nebulous, existential expectation that we should be ready is wildly unrealistic. Almost nobody is fully prepared for parenthood, nor can we ever have adequate reasons for making a baby.
That’s not hyperbole. If you think you personally can generate good-enough reasons to pass on your genes, you’re on a fool’s errand. There are none. When I grow a human being inside my body, that person is not my project. He is my equal. His life and happiness matter as much as mine. If I try to justify his existence in terms of my desire or fitness to be a parent, I instrumentalize him as a mere component of my own happiness. That’s degrading, no matter how highly I prize his life.
Modern parents may not quite see things in this light, but I think they feel the tension between their personal expectations (“must do this the right way!”) and the reality of parenthood. Gazing on that small, vulnerable human that was “planned” into existence, the hubris of this entire venture becomes a crushing weight. What sorts of loss or failure might that child suffer? How can anyone ensure that his life will be happy or fulfilled? The sense of responsibility is overwhelming.
It’s terrible to begin family life mired in fear and self-doubt. For some, the only relief is to assure ourselves that we’ll “make it up to” the child by ensuring that his life really is wonderful. “I may not have had adequate reasons for creating you,” we think, “but I’ll make sure you don’t regret it.”
Step Two: Overprotection
This leads to our next impossible parenting goal: ensuring that our children are successful and happy. It should be obvious that this is not possible, but modern parents have a high capacity for self-delusion.
Much has been written about the phenomenon of helicopter parenting. We have piles of sociological evidence that American parents are paranoid, exhausted stressballs who run themselves ragged trying to give kids every advantage. They take every possible precaution to keep kids safe. Ironically, this has made children less resourceful, but not notably safer.
It’s sad to see parents so consumed by terror for their children’s future. Even more insidious than this, however, is the push to demand helicopter-type monitoring for every child. Increasingly, parents are expected to serve as round-the-clock bodyguards for their children almost until adulthood. Those who refuse may face legal consequences.
As in romantic and marital relationships, modern people are no longer satisfied just to wrestle their own demons. Every member of our society must be dragged into the same churning cauldron of confusion and regret. So you think it’s okay to let your kid walk three blocks to school alone? You want him to play in the yard while you clean house? Unacceptable. Somebody call the authorities.
From the outside it just seems crazy, but these bizarre exercises in Draconian parent-policing may begin to make sense in light of the “planned parenthood” ideal. No one can actually be a good parent by these ludicrous standards, but by haranguing people for tiniest departures from the ostensible norm, we can enjoy the righteous glow of good-faith commitment. To some of us it just seems ridiculous to prosecute mom for leaving the baby asleep in the car while the older kids put money in a Salvation Army bucket just ten yards away. But liberals use these exercises to persuade themselves that they will tolerate Only The Best for America’s Children.
Step Three: Asking Uncle Sam for ‘Help’
It’s fairly obvious that everyone can’t live up to the new Gold Standard of helicoptering. It’s designed for upper-middle-class families that include no more than two children. If you’re poor, or have limited communal support, or have more than one or two kids, it’s pretty much hopeless. You might as well just accept right now that you’re a parenting failure. Also, your kids are doomed.
We could do the sensible thing and develop some healthier parenting norms. But the planning paradigm effectively prohibits this. Designer parents rely on these norms to keep themselves sane. Their only solution, then, is to call on the government to reinforce their insane modern standards through a combination of carrots (universal pre-kindergarten, anyone?), sticks (Draconian parent-policing), and Malthusian social engineering.
The dream of utopia-via-womb-control has reared its ugly head with some regularity throughout Progressive history. Planned Parenthood started out on friendly terms with eugenicists, as Margaret Sanger cheerfully noted that the two were working together “to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.” Plenty of healthy women were tragically sterilized in pursuit of this goal.
Eugenics became taboo for awhile in the wake of World War II, but the idea is not dead. More recently we find Ruth Bader Ginsburg willingly telling journalists how abortion can help us to avoid “growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” And today’s liberal journalists are getting ever bolder in recommending broad-spectrum strategies to render the poor barren. One simple procedure, and people can enjoy years of empty sex without ever getting “punished with a baby”! Wonderful times we live in.
These ideas are mostly pitched as benevolent schemes to help the poor self-actualize. We should be suspicious about that from the start, considering that family is almost always a central source of meaning and fulfillment in life, especially for the sort of people who are never going to start a company or win a Lifetime Achievement Award. But of course, enabling the poor to thrive is not the central goal. The issue is planning. In our modern administrative state, everything must be sanitized, registered, and by the book.
As James Poulos has recently explained, this is the pink police state promise: we’re all entitled to safety, autonomy, and abundant hedonistic pleasure, and in exchange we permit the government to meddle in every little intimate detail of our lives. Who can doubt that childbearing is high on the list of things that need regulating? We can’t just let people go around procreating at will. Some even neglect to consult their life coaches! Think of the chaos that can result!
In addition to sterilization, we’ve already seen a few calls for licensing requirements for parents. Expect to see more of that as time goes on. I’m guessing it’s on the mind of more prominent liberals than are willing to admit to it in the present hour.
Is There A Cure for Parents?
Is it possible to walk this process back? Can we somehow rediscover a more natural, less frenzied form of parenthood? I think we can. What we need at this juncture is to recover our sense of the naturalness of parenthood. We need to reconnect to older customs and life patterns, but also to our own physiology.
That means respecting the realities of our natural fertility, and not forever trying to manipulate it to extraneous ends. It means accepting that the procreative aspect of sex is a part of the human experience, and not a social injustice that government should be expected to alleviate. It means acknowledging that the bond between mothers and the infants they carry is meaningful, and that children naturally develop into adults as members of broader communities.
But the first step is to recognize that our problems lie, not in under-planning, but in over-planning. For millennia humans have raised families with far less chin-scratching, and mostly done a better job than we. Let’s take a few tips from our Neanderthal ancestors, and stop overthinking this. Find someone you love. Make babies together. Have some fun in raising them. This simple formula has worked out well for countless human beings throughout history. Let’s give it another chance.