Saturday, December 22, 2007

Civil Parenthood Revisited

Okay, so I realize we're heading into Dead Horse county here, but I started to reply to some of the comments on my last post and figured I might as well get another post out of it.

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


Anonymous said...

I've been following this discussion, and what I'm puzzled about is whether it really is as prevalent as that? Have you perhaps had an exceptionally bad luck of frequently ending up in the neighbourhood of a difficult kid/parent, or I the rare fortune of hardly ever being in such situations?

I'm not questioning your reaction at the moment. You obviously have had more than your share of screaming toddlers or over-enthusiastic parents to deal with, given how you feel about this. But somehow (thankfully) I've never come across this problem anywhere - be it at concerts, plays, movies, parties, restaurants or on planes.. At the most a one odd over-eager parent or hyper-active kid, but nothing that would have caused one to start counting till 10. Surely nothing that would make me want to start setting rules. :)


Falstaff said...

N: or maybe I'm just hyper-sensitive to kids. To be fair, I can't really speak for parties or even for restaurants - since I rarely go to either. I certainly don't go to parties where there might be kids or to family restaurants. But yes, I've had my share of brats at concerts, plays and on planes.

Also, to reiterate, I don't want to "start setting rules". I just want parents to start behaving better voluntarily. This isn't just about keeping children out of public space, it's also about finding ways to enable parents to participate in that space without bringing their kids along.

Anonymous said...


Getting children into public spaces IS part of making it more inclusive. As a member of a civil society, one agrees to abide peacefully with all members of that society in a public space, no? Children, disabled people, LGBTs, Perfectly Nice Grandmothers, Ukranian oligarchs, Poetry Nuts, Bloggers, George W Bush...

Which could make for an interesting trade-off, you know. Take babies and poetry nuts for example as candidates for inclusion into a civil society. On the one hand, babies are certainly aesthetically more pleasing than poetry nuts. +2 for the baby and -2for the poetry nut. On the other hand, PNs don't have bowel control problems (we hope). Hmmm, could be a dead tie...

Digression aside, isn't this debate a matter of giving way too much importance to the category of "babies"? They're just things you know, neither to be loved nor hated till they reach some semblance of adulthood (which would be five years old if Simone de Beauvoir is to be believed).

Non-parents should just ignore the things and continue conversations with parents as though the babies didn't exist, unless proven otherwise.

Parents should be given that very sensible Lewis Carroll advice:

"Speak roughly to your little boy
And beat him when he sneezes
He only does it to annoy
Because he knows it teases."

And everyone should be sympathetic to babies in planes because you would howl too if your ear felt like it was killing you and you hadn't developed the skills to say "fuck" AND you're saddled with a stupid parent who takes you on such flights before teaching you to say "fuck" when your ear hurts.


Falstaff said...

n!: Yes, but the whole point about babies is that they don't leave you in peace. If babies could be set to silent like cellphones I'd have no issue with them. But they can't. So the question of whether babies should be allowed into public space as long as they're silent (they should) is a moot one.

As for "continue conversations with parents as though the babies didn't exist, unless proven otherwise." I agree in theory. The trouble is that there's always the risk that person with baby wants to talk about babies. And because you can't shut him / her up when he / she starts, you risk being trapped. Think of it this way: There are two types of parents: A - who want to talk about poetry; and B - who want to talk about babies, with some probability distribution p (where p(B)= 1-p(A) >.5 - especially if person actually has kid in tow) and a value function of the conversation v, where v(A) > 0, v(B) < 0 and -v (B)>v(A) (at least for someone like me). So, in the absence of any information about whether the person is parent type A or B, the expected value of walking up to someone and striking up a conversation Econv = p(A).v(A)+ p(B).v(B) which is strictly negative. Therefore you avoid people with kids. To hell with all this innocent until proven otherwise stuff - I'm not the Spirit of Justice, I'm just someone trying to have a good time. Now parents can change that equation either by signaling that they don't want to talk about babies (changing p) to which end leaving your baby at home is a good starting point, or by recognizing and respecting the fact that people may have no interest in their babies (thus making v(B) less negative). Actually, come to think of it, they can, in theory also raise v(A) by being capable of such utterly fascinating conversation that you'd risk being dragged into a baby conversation - if Anthony Lane showed up at a party with a baby over his arm I'd still talk to him.

Plus, have you ever tried to have a serious conversation with someone holding a baby? I'm unconvinced it can be done. Sooner or later the baby is bound to disrupt the proceedings, or if it won't then some idiot will wander up and start talking about the baby and your interlocutor will be forced to turn aside and acknowledge this.

I don't disagree with your classification of babies as 'things' but since when are things not eligible to be hated? So okay, maybe it's not the babies I'm annoyed with but their parents. Same difference no?

Space Bar said...

Nice poem.

maybe I'm just hyper-sensitive to kids.

No, no. I'm sure you speak from bitter experience. I've no doubt at all that somewhere in your past you've had the little creatures dribble all kinds of things over you (and smile engagingly at you afterwards, like they'd produced Great Art); and have had to change diapers and/or bathe them (and yourself); and what you really need is deep hypnosis to sort these issues out.

the mad momma said...

LOL @ spacebar's comment. plenty of headnodding as I read ~N and n!'s comments.

My take - we put our kids to sleep and went to a theater and watched a movie at 11.30 pm last night. it was insane because we're up early with our babies and have had barely 3 hours of sleep. but we chose to do it this way because we didnt want to inflict our brats on others and if we do it during regular hours, we have no safe help to leave our kids with. my son has a huge burn mark on his stomach from the first time i left him for an hour with domestic help and went to pick up groceries.

so yes - you can either find ways to go to restuarants and parties later at night or then stay at home. but travel is uavoidable - if i HAVE to get to X city, I will travel with my child who is going to be in agony, and there I expect the sympathy you would have for any helpless creature in pain... annoying though the bawling is. if i HAVE to pick up groceries and have no help, you will see me looking frazzled and trying to stop my toddler from topping over a mountain of cans. And here, trust me - more than you, I WISH I had someone to leave him with.

Its not overprotective. its just no longer easy. even in India, we cant find good help. I wouldnt leave a dog with the help anymore, let alone my child ! :)

sheesh. i should stop. my comments are getting longer than the post.

Anonymous said...

Well..monsieur be a good boy and write for us a nice happy story...after all you do want presents from santa...its xmas time once again.

dipali said...

Been enjoying your comments at Space Bar's blog. Interesting debate going on here. The parents I have issues with are the ones who come visiting with their offspring and then don't even bat an eyelid when the said offspring is wreaking havoc and destruction upon your tastefully appointed home.
You can't really escape living in the world without infants and children impinging upon your consciousness.
Some of them are a lot more interesting than many adults I've met. (Must be meeting the wrong adults, I know)

Anonymous said...

"....inflict their children on the rest of us"

Are you nuts? Do you want a society in which children aren't seen at all in public spaces, perhaps somewhat likes in the years past when handicapped persons/children weren't made to feel welcome in public?

Would understand if you simply said that parents need to control their child's behaviour such that it doesn't bother other people but I get the feeling here that even the sight of children in public irks you, in which case this really is your problem not one the public( parent public that is) needs to address.

You are even more vicious then the nutcase that created a stink some weeks ago about mombloggers.

And BTW ofcourse there are ways to leave children behind at home but many parents do not WANT TO. So perhaps its you who should just stay at home.

Falstaff said...

SB: :-)

MM: Yes, but the point is that since this problem of unreliable help is one presumably everyone shares it's something we should be working on solving. Instead of complaining about how people don't talk to people with babies we should be complaining about how there isn't help to leave babies at home with.

In the meantime, I'm not unsympathetic towards parents who have to drag their kids along to public places. But my sympathy doesn't extend to making my life more stressful by trying to have conversations with them or helping them out.

anon: See above.

dipali: Yes, those too. But it's all the product of the same attitude.

anon: you know, this is precisely the kind of idiotic and indignant reaction that I would expect from someone who was an uncivil child-obsessed parent. Notice that I didn't say I had a problem with the sight of children - you inferred that - making it your problem, not mine. As for parents who don't want to leave their kids at home - that's fine, but they shouldn't expect the rest of us to treat them as intelligent human beings looking for civilized conversation, since they're clearly not. They can do what they want to, as long as I'm not expected to talk to them or even acknowledge their presence, and as long as their kids aren't disturbing me.

Sue said...

I was starting to feel indignant but then you made me laugh. I'm sorry, I'm afraid your baby pool idea is hilarious.

One baby is as much as most people can manage. Two of their own, yeah, maybe even three, but of their own. Managing two infants only one of who is yours is not just difficult, it can easily become impossible. I could list out the difficulties but you wouldn't really get it. So here's my suggestion: Go and babysit any infant whose parents you can convince to let you do this. Babysit for three straight hours and come back and talk of baby pools.

Baby-sitters are hard to get. Very difficult to get certified house-help and how on earth do you know what they do when you're away since the baby can't speak? Am I being paranoid? Maybe. Better than turning paranoid after a tragedy, don't you think? With a baby, a tragedy can be very easily arranged.

debate popular said...

Nice poem, I believe that the issue of parenting is complex and the main thing that we must be clear about what makes you happy is yourself and your children and not feel guilt for everything that happens around.