Specifically, I wanted to address the 'I agree that it would be better to leave children at home, but it isn't always possible' argument, which, in one or the other avatar, keeps coming up. It seems like an unassailable argument - reasonable, self-evident, particularly effective when made to someone who isn't a parent and therefore doesn't understand the 'reality' of the situation.
Not quite. Reluctant as I am to seem insensitive to the very real difficulties of parenthood, I think it's important to recognize that that kind of stick in the mud attitude is precisely the problem. Unquestioning acceptance of the current situation married to a taking for granted of your 'right' to inflict your problems on other people is not an acceptable response to a social issue. After all, helpless, hand-wringing appeals to the status quo are a staple of all forms of social oppression. We'd love to leave our children at home, but you can't always find a babysitter. We'd love to see more women in top management, but you just can't find a candidate qualified or high performing enough. We'd love to see more students from the backward classes in our top colleges, but there just aren't enough good applicants. Each one of those statements may be factually true, but it obscures the fact that the 'reality' it's based on is itself socially constructed, and could change with a little effort from those making the statement. The solution to a problem mired in the current reality is not simply to accept that reality (and tell other people to accept it) and let the problem persist, but to ask why that reality exists and what we can do to change it.
So, let's accept for the moment that it isn't always (or even often) possible to leave your child at home. And let's then ask - why is that? Is it because the basic infrastructure / resources necessary are lacking? Is it because parents are irrationally protective and unwilling to accept what are, in fact, perfectly reasonable solutions? Is it because parents have so blindly accepted the truth of their own victimisation that they're both unable and unwilling to look for new solutions to the problem, to be, in a word, entrepreneurial? Is it because parents (and in particular mothers) are made to feel guilty about the perfectly sensible act of leaving their kids at home and going out to reconnect with the rest of the world?
Why can't we find babysitters? Is it because we live in a country with acute labor shortages, where everyone is gainfully employed and hired help is hard to come by? Surely not. Can it really be that hard to find a trustworthy person who will, for a reasonable fee, watch over your child for a few hours? Consider the parallels to hospitals, and the whole system of personal attendants (okay, okay, I know that's changing - and a good thing too - but it used to be true that you could always get a personal attendant to look after a patient if you wanted one, and I'm not sure it isn't still true). If we can find attendants to look after sick people, why can't we find them to look after babies? Fine, so maybe there's some amount of organization required. Perhaps a website that serves as a clearing house for babysitter services. Perhaps agencies that will certify babysitters. But given genuine, clearly signaled demand, none of that should be hard to do.
Besides, we may not even need to go that far, or turn to a system that 'professional'. I'd think the easier solution would be simply to 'baby pool'. After all, there are thousands of these new parents out there, yes? You can find them in every area, every apartment complex. What's more, they tend to know each other anyway, even, on occasion, identify as a community. Why is it so difficult to work out a simple arrangement where A looks after B's child while B goes out, and later B returns the favor (you could do this with more than one person of course)? If parents simply collaborated among themselves they wouldn't need to inflict their children on the rest of us.
You're going to tell me it's not that easy. Of course it isn't - social change never is. But that's no reason for not working towards it. You're going to tell me that I don't understand the difficulties involved. And perhaps I don't. But spell them out for me (and, I suspect, for yourself) and we'll see how they hold up or how we can solve them. You're going to tell me that as an individual parent you can't change the way things are. And you can't. But that, again, is true for every social problem. Solving any social issue requires collective action. You can't cop out by claiming helplessness. Besides, it seems to me that parents have no difficulty reaching out to each other when they want to. Take the 'momblogs'. So you have this great community of people who interact, share war stories, agree on how hard parenting is. Why doesn't that community help its own members out? Why don't readers of these blogs offer to babysit for each other's children, so we can all have a life?
In her comment to earlier post, MM talks about how she'd hate to see public space getting more fragmented and exclusionary. I agree entirely. I'd hate to see that too. The point is that that kind of exclusion is the only solution to the baby problem available to non-parents. If parents won't cooperate between themselves, won't put effort and ingenuity into finding collective solutions to the problem of how to take care of their children, but will instead persist in taking the easy but ill-mannered route of thrusting their children upon us, what can we do but shut them out entirely? That kind of divisiveness hurts everyone, but it's unfair to expect non-parents to bear all the pain of maintaining social contact with parents, and frankly, it's not worth it. If we want to protect the inclusiveness of adult public space, we need to create means to protect that space itself, and that means parents finding ways to keep their children out of it.
Of course, it will still be true that there will be times when parents will not be able to leave their children home. No solution is ever complete. But frankly, that doesn't matter. What I object to, primarily, is not so much the presence of children as the attitude that goes with it. If I were convinced that a parent who brought a child to a party / concert had, in fact, made a genuine effort to find a way to avoid having the child there, and that said parent was conscious of the disruption the child represented, was making every effort to minimize that disruption and was sensitive to the harm he / she was inflicting on other people by having the child there; if, moreover, I knew that I could complain when the child's behavior proved annoying, and that my displeasure would be treated with respect, I wouldn't mind so much if occasionally someone did bring a child along. But that isn't what I see. Nine times out of ten what I see is a parent who feels he / she has a right to have the child there, who is totally oblivious to the annoyance the child represents and who would be indignant rather than apologetic if this were pointed out to him / her or if he / she were asked to leave or curb the child in anyway.
Finally, let me say that this whole 'but you can't expect someone to just sit at home while their child is growing up' argument is a total red herring. As a thought experiment, imagine a world where bringing a baby into a public space not specifically identified as 'Baby' were an offense, much like smoking outside a designated smoking area (again, this is a thought experiment, I'm not suggesting we create a world like this - I wouldn't want that to happen). Do we seriously believe that parents would simply sit at home and stop going to theaters, movies, restaurants and parties? Isn't it more likely that with the ban on babies a fait accompli they would find ways to leave their babies at home (insert obvious quip about necessity being the mother of invention. heh)? Sure, every now and then they wouldn't be able to find anyone to care for the baby and would have to give up on a social event. But I can't imagine they would let it happen often. It's the old, old story - if you're bearing the full cost of a problem you find ways to solve it, but as long as you can pass on the cost to someone else, you don't bother. With the way society is today, parents receive a subsidy of unwilling tolerance of the disruption their babies represent from non-parents, and it's convenient for them to depend on that, even take it for granted. I'm not saying we should withdraw that subsidy or turn intolerant. I'm saying that parents need to recognize the existence of that subsidy and use it responsibly and sparingly. That the civil thing to do would be to act as though this hypothetical ban really were in place, and try to work around it, with a combination of personal sacrifice (by parents) and public indulgence (from non-parents) taking up what can't be worked around.
P.S. As reparation for saying all these things about parents, here's a poem from the new issue of Crazyhorse, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday (and which includes a glorious prose piece by Amber Dermont called 'Assembling the Troops' which you simply must read if you can get your hands on it):
The Baby Years
went unrecorded, eclipsed
by sleep in winks, the swiftest
showers, three-minute eggs.
Nothing before had escaped
examination. Then night and day
married and collapsed;
reflection came only in mirrors.
As if she'd meant at first to go
somewhere else, she seems in pictures
benignly surprised, a speaker
cut off mid-sentence and conquered
by accidental joy - as if an old
standby had broken and a better version
been repaired. One afternoon
the doubt disappears, the dogged
proving, the stream of questions...
Nestled in pillows, exhaustion,
laundry, books without words,
she comprehends the centuries
of silence, the vocabulary
never learned from flash cards
or study abroad. It's there
in cookbooks, in how her mother
makes a bed, in the melody
that stops the crying. And she'd nearly
missed it, so buried she'd been
in definitions. She can almost give in.
- Adrienne Su