All the Parents are Poor and Exhausted; All the Childfree are Skinny and Rich, and Other Annoying, Stubborn Misconceptions

Time magazine covers seem custom-designed to annoy me. The latest example is their “The Childfree Life” cover.

Stories of the childfree lifestyle are always illustrated this way. They feature a handsome, childfree couple on a beach vacation or at a cocktail party. Don’t procreate, and this too can be your life (provided, of course, that you’re rich enough, leisured enough, and lucky enough to have a handsome, lovely spouse or partner like this… Then you can have this life).

“Childfree” is the new coinage for childless, which the childfree feel signals deprivation, or barrenness. In Marriage Confidential I talked briefly about the childfree marriage as an emergent trend. I defended it gesturally, largely because it seemed to need a defender.

Parents have been known to say outrageously rude things to the childfree. Sometimes they’ll ask point blank why the person has no children, or they’ll comment that they can’t imagine being happy without children. Or, in some cases, they’ll imply that the childfree are selfish, juvenile, or emotionally stunted.

These are, of course, indefensible and outlandish things to say.

I think they get said because the sense that one can be happy (a lame adjective of a life) without children is unidirectional. Put another way, it’s not retroactive:  I bet you can definitely be happy without children before you have them. But once you have them, most all parents truly cannot imagine their lives entirely realized and fulfilled without the children that they did have.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a mediocre parent, or even a lazy parent. It doesn’t matter if your child’s a real pain in the ass or deemed charming and brilliant. It doesn’t matter if they cause suffering (and they will, either mild or profound).  It just doesn’t matter. Don’t ask me why it doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t. I am surer of this than of anything I’ve ever known. Once children are there, it seems impossible not to have had the experience of being with them. The emotion isn’t contingent on objective indicia of quality, worth, or merit.

And this brings me to that Time magazine cover.

I love the cover’s subtle opposition between the leisured, relaxed, unharried childfree and the harried, hassled, frazzled parents off-stage somewhere, likely at an infernal Chuck E Cheese.

First point: You can have the same damn vacation when you have a child. You can go to the same cool, sophisticated cocktail parties. You get a sitter, or your children stay with your relatives or their friends, or your children are away at camp, or you take a vacation with your family and enjoy it. You can be the couple on the beach, too!

I sometimes think from the alarmist ways that the childfree are prone to discuss parenthood that they imagine a child eternally in the state of a colicky newborn, or a spirited two-year old. The challenge of parenthood seems frozen in this moment, from which a portrait of the beleaguered, scary inner life of parenthood gets created.

Amazingly, however, children grow up. As if the force of a great river has suddenly gotten diverted, they reach a point when they are fairly independent, and their own people, and the river flows in the other direction. (For my taste, I’ve yet to read a memoir of motherhood that captures the whole palette of emotions as well as Anne Lamott’s brilliant, hilarious, compassionate, non-idealized, and profoundly human portrait in Operating Instructions.)

These lifestyle journalism pieces (I’m not writing here about the Time article itself, which I’ve not had a chance to absorb, but of other “childfree lifestyle” pieces that I read while researching my book) tend to overestimate the encumbrances of parenthood, as if you’ll be toting around a squalling infant for the duration. The effect is to naturalize a standard of hyper-parenting by the implication that parenthood is a drain on all other facets of self, or life. Which it’s not. Conversely, the effect is to denaturalize the figure of the parent, to render them only as a parent, as someone who can’t possibly have fun, a job, a creative life, friendships, or other adult activities. Which they’re not.

And, by the way, poor people can be and often are wonderful parents. That simple reality gets tragically lost in the lifestyle calculations about how much money it takes to raise children, as if you have to be rich to do a decent job.

It’s ironic, but the truly timeless function of procreation is turned almost into an exotic role, and an all-consuming lifestyle.

Meanwhile, what’s the implied logic of the childfree, with this cover, and others of its ilk? That they prefer their lifestyle because it allows them nicer vacations, better cars, and fancier restaurants? “When Having it All Means Not Having Children,” their sub-headline reads. What’s the “all” in that statement? More stuff, leisure, and money, judging from the cover.

Sure, if you do a spreadsheet, you’ll see that parenting is a losing proposition. So is love, devotion to a social cause, intimacy, friendship, creativity, fandom, and owning a goldfish.

Human relations don’t belong to the economy of handbags and vacations, so the implicit trade-off thinking is disturbing. Nor do I think it reflects the values of the childfree. The childfree couples that I know didn’t avoid having children because they wanted to go to Aruba or buy a BMW.  They made the decision for lots of reasons—including financial worries, true, but not out of a desire for luxuries. Some feared they wouldn’t do a good job; some didn’t care for children as a class of human being; some were intimidated. I didn’t sense it was because they wanted to have what they imagined as a plusher lifestyle.

Let’s follow that logic through. You can save even more money if you sever all ties to family, never get married, eschew romantic relationships, and avoid friendships (since friends occasionally require help).  Then you can be an entirely unattached, non-contingent human, with a fat bank account and drawer full of fancy socks.

The troubling logic in many “lifestyle journalism” pieces, which must attempt to generalize out of millions of personal decisions to create simple pro/con views, is the desiccated calculus that gets applied subtly to all forms of attachment—not just between parent and child, but between spouses, friends, lovers, colleagues, you name it.  In my book I describe some opinion polls and qualitative research among the childfree that cited literal concerns about that calculus, about not having enough money to raise a child, as the main reason why they didn’t.

Everything is about a bottom-line utility of what makes sense, and attachment of any kind, by that standard, will always lose out.  Attachments are never “worth” it, although they always are, in real life if not on paper. I hope that the distorted view—apparently now internalized--that parenthood is a herculean, all-consuming, nearly impossible, and profoundly irritating task that requires loads of money and whose success is measured by a corporate-derived bottom line of where a kid goes to college or how much money she makes doesn’t deter people who sincerely want to procreate from rolling the dice, and doing so, and having fun in their parenting lives.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.