[Warning: long and pontificating post. So much for my new emphasis on brevity]
Reading Sridala's post over at Ultraviolet this morning made me think about the whole vexed question of parents in society - the conflict between a parent's natural enthusiasm for his / her child and the desire of those of us who aren't interested in children not to have the little tykes inflicted on us. 
Because let's face it - new parents are annoying. They prattle, they gush. Not only do they have a seemingly infinite store of stories about their little brats, they are usually incapable of recognizing that other people have little or no interest in these stories (or in the babies themselves) and are quick to take offense at the first sign of disinterest. Worse, they often insist on bringing their baby along with them, so that it can disrupt all civilized proceedings in the general vicinity. We've all seen them - parents who bring their babies to parties, restaurants, concerts, flights, movies, offices, etc. - and then, instead of being suitably ashamed when junior disturbs everyone around, seem to think it's their right to inflict their baby on us, and are surprised when we turn away.
The trouble, I think, is that society inflates the importance of babies to the point where they come to seem almost sacred. It's natural for parents to be excited about their children, but when that excitement comes at the cost of self-reflection it becomes a problem. Because the cult of the Baby is sacrosanct, new parents seldom feel the need to make conversation about their babies interesting - they presume that everyone will share their enthusiasm anyway. Worse, being a parent becomes a means of self-definition - an easy route to approval and status that tempts people (especially those who have little else to say for themselves) into projecting themselves primarily as parents at the cost of everything else they are or could be.
The fall-out of all this is a negative reaction from those of us who don't much care for babies / children. If we tend to treat new parents with scorn, it's simply in reaction to the privileges they seem to be arrogating to themselves. If we act as though a new parent is no longer the person he / she used to be, and must be incapable of intelligent conversation, it's because bitter experience has taught us that this is often the case, and the risk of finding ourselves trapped in a 'baby' conversation with no polite way out makes us prefer the stereotype to honest inquiry. If we refuse to have anything to do with a person who has a baby on his / her arm, it's because we resent having the mewling and puking little monster inflicted on us.
Of course, the downside to this is that a lot of bathwater gets thrown out with the baby (sorry, couldn't resist). Even parents who may actually want to talk about things other than their children find themselves cut off from all other conversation - trapped in the counter-presumption of their role as parents. Sridala describes this as new parents becoming "a ghetto unto themselves" but I think it's more like the formation of two opposing camps. After all, being a non-parent can be a fairly ghetto-ising experience as well.
The solution, I think, is what I will call civil parenting. Parents need to stop assuming that we're all interested in their children, or are willing to tolerate / make sacrifices for them. They need to stop taking it for granted that people will be overjoyed to hear about their baby or to be in the presence of said baby (I won't even start on the whole practice of thrusting infants into one's face - as though one were judging a contest for bonny babies). They need to accept that people have the right to say that they don't want to hear their baby stories or that they don't want their baby around. Having a baby is kind of like smoking - you're welcome to do it if you want to, but you shouldn't force other people into passive parenting.
Does this mean that parents must necessarily give up on having a social life for the time their children are too young to be left alone? Certainly not. First, there are always baby-sitters, there's always the option of one person staying at home while the other goes out (and I really mean one person - I DO NOT mean the mother stays at home while the father goes out).
More importantly, though, there's nothing that stops new parents from sharing their enthusiasm over their kids with those who are genuinely interested. Sridala writes that she found herself "vowing to never inflict my private and necessary absorption with motherhood on anyone else." Nothing so extreme is called for. All you need is to vow never to share your p. and n. absorption with anyone who's likely to see to as an infliction. Sridala's post talks about the whole phenomenon of 'mombloggers'. As the popularity of these bloggers bears testament, there is a whole world of people out there who are interested in babies and enjoy talking about them. Hell, they may even be a majority. So finding people to share your newfound fascination with shouldn't be hard.
I think a good parallel is with poetry. Many of us feel what I can only describe as a 'private and necessary' absorption with poetry (remember Yeats: "I have no child / I have nothing but a book"). Yet we don't automatically assume that everyone we speak to will share our enthusiasm. And we certainly don't expect that it will be okay for us to start reading our poems aloud at any and all social gatherings and expect other people to shut up and listen. And if people tell us they don't care for poetry we don't take it personally. In short, we don't experience a sense of entitlement from being poetry lovers. Instead, we seek out people who are interested in poetry and share that part of ourselves with them. We organize / attend poetry readings. We start blogs that talk about poetry or join online discussions about it. And we don't give up on friends of ours who don't care about poetry. We respect their disinterest and talk to them about other things. What we need is a similar maturity when it comes to children.
The 'momblogs' (a term I dislike, btw, it's both reductive and sexist) are a good example of civil parenting, actually. I rarely read any of them, but I think it's great that they're out there. Not just because they serve as a community for people who are interested in discussing children, but because as a clearly demarcated and identified space, they have the courtesy to signal to those of us who may not be interested that we should stay away. They aren't a ghetto - they're simply a suburb - one where I personally wouldn't want to live, though I'm happy to visit and glad to know people who do.
The usual crib one hears from parents when they're asked not to inflict their children on society at large and limit their parenting activities to select company, runs along the lines of "but why should we have to pay the cost / suffer for being parents" . Three things:
First, parents should 'pay the cost' of being parents because it's their decision to become parents in the first place. Presumably, if you've chosen to be a parent, it's because you see some benefit in having the little tykes around (though what this might be I confess I couldn't say) so it seems little to ask that you make some sacrifices for what is, to you, a privilege. (I realize, of course, that for many people parenthood is more a reflex undertaking than a considered choice, but I don't see why I should suffer for their poor foresight). If anything, the question should be the other way around - why should those of us who don't have children have to pay for other people's decision to have some.
Second, and more importantly, as Sridala's post points out, the costs of not being a civil parent can be high as well. In a society where parents are seen as Parents and little else, new parents can end up missing out on many other aspects of life. The greater the parents' ability to behave cooperatively and respect the preferences of non-parents, the less the scorn and resistance they're likely to face, and the greater their access to a life outside of the parental role. Building a society where being a parent isn't the focus of a new parent's life is good for everyone. The 'cost' of being a civil parent may well be that you get to keep the friends who would avoid you otherwise.
Third, this is an argument for defining boundaries, not for allocating costs. Remember Coase? To the extent that the presence of children in the public space represents a situation akin to the tragedy of the commons, who bears the cost will depend on how society allocates 'rights' over that space. And given the numerical majority of parents and the overall superstructure of parenting as a good, the chances are that those rights will go to parents, not to non-parents. All I'm suggesting here is that we make the allocation of those rights explicit, so that those of us who want to avoid children can do so. I'm perfectly willing to pay, say, 15-20% more on an air-ticket for the comfort of knowing that there won't be any children under 12 on the flight. I'd be happy if there were restaurants that kept children out, even if eating there meant I paid a premium. And I don't mind in the slightest if parties I'm invited to are overflowing with children and babies, as long as I know this in advance so I can simply not go. The trouble with the way our society is right now is simply that it's considered unacceptable to not like babies - most parents would be offended if I told them I wasn't going to come to their party because their children would be there. And that's just silly.
Bottomline: If you show up at a party with a few month old baby in tow, you should expect to have people treat you as nothing more than a baby-producer, and have people who don't like babies avoid you. This doesn't mean that people are judging you, simply that they're refusing to allow you to inflict your parenthood on them. It's not you who is being victimized, it's they who are refusing to be. And if you want to keep their friendship you need to respect that.
 Of course, Sridala's post isn't only, or even primarily, about parental roles. But as I said in my comment to that post, her points about gender stereotypes around parenting I entirely agree with. It's ridiculous and unfair how mothers get saddled with a disproportionate amount of the scorn, guilt, career pressure and social isolation that comes with being a parent.
 The other old chestnut is, of course, the categorical imperative argument - someone has to have children so that humanity can go on, etc. etc. If you're thinking of trying that one here are my views on arguments like that
 Finally, if you want my real views on proud parents, see here.