‘Selfish’ Parents & Cultural Policing
Reader Ned writes:
I am white, professional, middle-class, in my mid-thirties and I can tell you that none of my friends are considering having more than two kids. And they (or I guess I should say we) absolutely look down on people who have lots of kids, though I don’t think it’s a proxy for looking down on the religious. Instead, there’s an unspoken conviction among us that in a two-income household it’s not possible to be a good parent to more than two kids. There’s too little time and too few resources to do the job adequately, and parents who nonetheless have three or four or more children are thus viewed as selfish. I’m not defending this point of view, but it’s very real. I don’t know anyone, for instance, who doesn’t feel extremely uncomfortable at the thought that one’s children would have to share a room growing up, and believe that in such a case, one would be failing one’s children, providing them less than they deserve.
This is exactly what I was trying to get at in that earlier post. It is a strange and alien point of view to me, but I am acutely aware of it. It is interesting how the parents who have more kids are condemned as “selfish” instead of “sacrificial,” i.e., sacrificing material comfort for the blessing of more children. This is a classical case of justifying one’s own preferences by stigmatizing the preferences of others in one’s tribe. I don’t think this is even a conscious thing on the part of most professional-class white people. It’s just what their particular culture teaches them to do to others within their culture.
This is why I insist that these harsh judgments ultimately come from status competition among whites. It doesn’t really bother a white professional person, or a SWPL, to consider that a black inner city woman might have lots of children, and no father in the home. They are the Other. Not so when one’s colleague at work is the father of six. Having so many children violates the unwritten code of one’s tribe, and could produce guilt feelings. If the Smiths have so many children, and they are like us in almost every respect, then their countercultural (for white professional class people) decision casts our decision not to have that many children in a certain light. For example, Mrs. Smith is a stay-at-home mom, because you’d have to be to raise that many kids. That the Smiths made this choice shows that this choice is possible within our tribe — and that can be a profoundly unsettling thing for people who are committed to a double-income, materially prosperous way of life. So people who are tempted to have more than two or three children must be subject to stigma to banish the thought of defying the social norm that undergirds the lifestyle most white professionals wish to live. The fecundity of populations outside the white professional class (e.g., the urban black underclass, the white working class) doesn’t feel like a threat to them, so they only care about it in the abstract, if they care about it at all.
I say this as the father of three children who would have had more if that had been possible. And I say this as a white professional who is not interested in passing judgment on any of his tribe for the number of children they have. We usually don’t know what factors go in to a family deciding to have x number of children. Reader Ned points to social norms driving this among his friends, and while I think those social norms deserve criticism in the abstract, in the case of particular couples, I reserve judgment. Again, we never really know what’s going on within families, e.g. medical problems, that inform these decisions.
UPDATE: Sharon Astyk, the class-betraying crunchy Jewish liberal, adds in the comments thread:
I have to say, the single most alien I have ever felt in the world was on the day I received an award of high achieving writers under 40. Most us were not much under 40, and since the award was being given in NYC, two had just had their first child, one was pregnant with her second, 3 had one child, and of the other 20-odd recipients, all had no children and were debating whether to do anything about it (or had decided not to). When, at the dinner, I revealed that I had written my four books while having four biological children and (at the time, we now have four) caring for two foster children, I became the two-headed calf. The entire group crowded around me with “How do you write?” “How do you manage?” “Are you CRAZY?!?!?!” A few people were envious, but most were frankly horrified – their assumption was that I would have no further career, and that that was what mattered most to me. The idea that a professional writer and a professional academic (my husband) could have a good and healthy life with a large number of children was utterly alien. I have encountered the sense that I have betrayed my class, sex, culture and community before – that I am somehow betraying women particularly – by choosing this life, and that I have also doomed my self to failure and enslavement. My books were dismissed as an aberration and so was I, on the assumption that no one could actually do this. Now to be fair, they probably can’t in NYC, where the economic demands of the culture are so great, but not everyone does live there.
The truth is that parenting is work, but it is good work, and it is totally doable with a lot of things. Can all adults have a high-powered career and parent at the same time? Probably not. Ah well. My kids share rooms, they share toys, but they have each other, their family, their farm, their animals. Every family gives their kids some things, and by choice, DOES NOT give their kids other things. When my now-12 year old asked why we couldn’t go to Israel for the summer like some of their friends I observed their friends don’t have dogs, cats, goats and chickens. They also don’t have foster siblings, and babies in their lives. My kids, asked if they’d change, said no. Would they like the trip to Israel TOO? Sure, but the underlying problem of the assumptions above is that they don’t see that there’s a price paid – a price in only having one other sibling to share experiences with, a price in terms of not having someone lying next to you in the room to read _The Lord of the Rings_ aloud to the way my boys read to each other. A price paid in the need for more structured activities and driving around to provide friendships and company, because there isn’t someone to play baseball or monopoly with hanging around. A price to pay in a lack of familiarity with little ones and intergenerational relationships.
I’m not saying having smaller families is bad – I think everyone should have the number of kids they want. But as in so many things in our culture, we calculate only one side of the ledger and then miss the whole other one.
Thus do we see how crunchy conservatives and crunchy liberals sometimes have more in common with each other than with the mainstream iterations of our politics.