Thursday, December 20, 2007

Civil Parenthood

[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. [1]

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" [2]. 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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

[3] Finally, if you want my real views on proud parents, see here.


Anonymous said...

falsie..ever wondered you would also end up as one of them if not worse, once you have your own kids...

Space Bar said...

While I agree with you that the decent thing to do with very tiny infants is to leave them at home with someone responsible (preferably the other parent) it isn't always an option. Which is when you've got to make a decision to either be selfish and put your own need for society other than that of an infant who can't even see you very clearly, over those of the infant and regular parenting.

And I entirely sympathise with not wanting to do some default parenting just because there are kids around. Hell - even now, I refuse to coo over other peoples' babies if I don't actually like them and I do still heave a supressed sigh when I have to travel with kids. (This is when I travel alone. When I travel with my son, I expect, if not enthusiasm, at least tolerance, on the understanding that he will not bother anyone else or behave like a prat).

About civil parenting: it's a little more complicated than that. Because parenting is still a highly gendered thing - with mother's taking most of the responsibility for it - the issue of expecting them to do the decent thing and shut up in public about it can be seen as an attempt at gagging their voices. These people talking on their blogs, for instance: why visit them on their blogs where're they're perfectly happy to talk to each other about things they want to, and diss them in a non-parenting space about it? It appears to be a fairly ugly expression of misogyny to me.

Falstaff said...

anon: The thought had occurred to me. I think it's unlikely though. At any rate "once you have your own kids" is a distant enough possibility to not be worth worrying about.

sb: True. But I think the key is to recognize you're being selfish. It's when people don't see that that I get really annoyed.

And totally agree with you on the dissing on the non-parenting space bit. My reaction to the comment you mentioned was "what are you doing reading it then?"

I do see the point about parenting being a gendered thing - though I don't think it should be. In fact, I'd argue that much of the non-civil parenting comes from men - a lot of what gets passed on to society, I suspect, is the slack from men not pulling their weight as parents.

??! said...

The solution, I think, is what I will call civil parenting
The problem is probably deeper than that - it's more of "See what I have" syndrome. People will want to flaunt, be it a baby or a ring.

It's also perhaps a matter of the age we're living in, where people are too scared to tell somebody off. It's like mobile phones - there should be laws to make sure your dinner is not ruined by some idiot yakking away. But does anybody dare ask them to pipe down?

CuriousCat said...

Just a tangential thought. You said "for many people parenthood is more a reflex undertaking". This is absolutely right and this is one of the problems today (I am stating this from experience, I have long time friends that have become parents in the last few years). And a fair fraction of the “babbling about one’s baby” is reflective of the new parent’s insecurity associated with that person now being in a place in life you are not and their need to reassure you and by proxy themselves that this is indeed a good thing. You would quote poetry to me even if I am not interested, if you felt that you had to prove to me (and therefore to yourself) that poetry is interesting and I am somehow a lesser person for not appreciating it. And the only reason you would think that is if you are insecure I think.

the mad momma said...

am a lurker who enjoys your blog... and despite being a parent to two children, I agree with a lot. just a few points if i may

in these days of nuclear families, its not always possible to find reliable help or baby sitters. we'd love to leave kids home and enjoy a baby free party but sometimes thats just not possible.

@ boring ppl to death talking abt babies. well there are always bores who gush on about one particular thing. Lawyers talking shop, jocks who can only talk sports etc... and i think this falls into the same category - particularly those who think that you're unpatriotic if you dont watch India playing cricket. okay maybe there are fine differences, but i think its an individual thing. some ppl bore you with their inability to look beyond a certain topic, others dont. some of the most intersting ppl i know are parents - space bar being one of the first that comes to mind.

finally - children are not like a contagious disease!! you cant stay home for a few months till it goes away. kids are small and annoying till atleast the age of 5 and its unreasonable to expect parents to not have a social life until then. not eat at restaurants, not watch films, not travel. its a part of life.

perhaps the solution might be more baby friendly places or as you suggested, paying a premium for travelling or eating in a baby free environment?

but then.. where does one draw the line. you object to ppl with young babies, someone else objects to sitting next to a couple holding hands, another objects to a gay couple.... i mean soon we'll all be restricted to only two or three parks or clubs where we find others of our type?

i've always imagined being part of a more inclusive society but ppl seem to be getting more rigid and intolerant - hell, even i find cranky kids in an aircraft annoying despite having my own. we're intolerant of ppl with disabilities, of ppl who make choices different to ours, of ppl who keep pets.. everything. wouldnt it be nicer to just be a little more tolerant... here of course we expect the other party has the sense to not be in your face and make you the victim. just coexist peacefully in the same space? perhaps a certain amt of consideration and compassion for a young mother struggling with a child, an older person who is walking slowly and holding you up, a person in a wheelchair.. anything...

but at all times no, I dont think anyone else should have to pay for a choice I made. I'm with you all the way on that.

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of your points (especially the bit about bitter experience) and I like the poetry analogy but don't think it's always possible. After all, it's easier to leave poetry at home than a small child. :)

Also, I tend to agree with MM's views about inclusiveness. If we started making rules based on what annoys some people, where does one draw the line? But the inclusiveness should flow both ways. I'm fine with having babies in the same space as me -- as long as I am not expected to pay any attention to them or behave as if their presence is adding joyful things to my life. Don't expect me to do more beyond asking after its health. Don't expect me to look at it interestedly, make cooing noises, silly faces, or try to think of things to say to it (I doubt we have much in common).

But somehow, If I actually say these things or even indicate them, I am viewed with suspicion and distaste (esp being a woman).

But the understanding should flow both ways, shouldn't it?

Falstaff said...

??!: that I think about it, you're probably right about the flaunting bit. Personally, I always feel sorry for people with babies, so the idea that they may actually proud of the little monster doesn't occur to me.

Agree with the 'scared to tell somebody off' bit, though I'm not sure it's about 'fear'. I think the problem is really the old 'rights and duties' one. It's a good thing that we live in a society where people will be tolerant of other people - not complaining if something the other person is doing annoys them. But it becomes a problem when people who do annoying things start taking this tolerance for granted. We can only create a civil, tolerant society if everyone plays their part by trying to limit how annoying they are to other people.

curiouscat: Yes, insecurity may play a part in this. And I'd argue there's a whole nexus connecting that insecurity to perceptions of gender and good 'motherhood'. But that's a whole other post.

MM: See my new post. I totally agree btw, that parents are not the only nuisances out there. Cricket fans come a close second on my personal list. The difference, though, I think, is that with most other topics people are more willing to accept that you aren't interested. Tell someone who tries to draw you into a discussion of the latest World Cup match that you're not interested in cricket (something I do all the time in cricket season) and they will look at you like you're a creature from some other planet (employing some mix of scorn, pity and bewilderment), but it's rare for them to take this as a personal affront. That isn't always true with babies though. Relatively speaking, I feel babies are the one thing that people are most touchy about, which is why it's tempting to leave them alone. I'm not saying that's fair - simply that that's why it's so.

anindita: Again, see my new post. I agree entirely that tolerance and understanding must flow both ways. My point is just that as things stand it flows just one way - from non-parents to parents. We're all incredibly tolerant of babies - we put up with being expected to "look at it interestedly, make cooing noises, silly faces, or try to think of things to say to it" (when was the last time someone did any of the above to you and you said what you were actually thinking - which was probably, 'get that thing away from me'?). We do it because we've been guilt-tripped into it, made to feel like it's not ok to act otherwise, threatened with being seen as suspicious and cold (on the whole, I'd say it is more of a problem for women - as a man I can get away with the 'typical man' defense if my reaction isn't overwhelmingly enthusiastic, but that just makes my hackles rise). It's about time some tolerance went the other way.

Ravi said...

KRAMER: Yeah, I'll talk to Jerry. Yeah, [Hangs up] . . . you know that was
Michael and Carol. She's wondering when we're going to come over and see
the baby.

JERRY: Oh, see the baby again with the baby..

ELAINE: Who are they?

JERRY: Uh, he's this guy who used to live in the building and they keep calling
us to see the baby.

JERRY: (imitates) Ya' gotta see the babi - When are ya' gonna see the babi...
Can't they just send us a tape?

ELAINE: You know if you waited a few more months it won't be a baby anymore
then you wouldn't have to see it.

JERRY: uh uh because then it would be all grown up.

ELAINE: yeah ha ha ha

The Boyfriend - Seinfeld - Season 3

Anonymous said...

I just tried replacing 'children' with 'African-Americans' in the third argument, and voila, I've traveled back in time.
A hundred years from now, with child rights more recognized & accepted, the world would agree that children weren't goods or positive/negative externalities, but players making their individual utility decisions.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I left that comment BEFORE I read Amit Verma's latest (


Falstaff said...

ravi: :-).

chevalier: I tried replacing 'children' in your comment with smokers, rapists, gerbils, the Taliban and Daffy Duck. It was all very amusing, but it didn't mean anything. Just like your comment.

Sue said...

I typed out a long comment and then decided to post in my own blog instead.

Since I've been a lurker off and on, this is my first comment-that-wasn't. :)

Thanks for the fairness, btw.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Falstaff said...

sue: Aaah. So close.

anon2: I don't know what you mean by "totally agree" - I never said anything remotely like any of that and happen to think your comment is in disgustingly bad taste.

Space Bar said...

Ok, since this post refuses to die and since I'm clearing up by bloglines - this Wondermark was saved purely to show you so go look!


Anonymous said...

spacebar: i've been meaning to say this, but never gotten round to, 'cos i don't know if it is a compliment or not - but, i love your blog because u find such interesting new blogs like the one above. its a joy to find a new "interesting" blog, like finding a new author or a book! :)

- lazy reader

Falstaff said...

SB: Heh. (or should I say ROTFA - Rolling on the Floor Asphyxiating?). Am so glad you put that up and not me.

And the longevity of this thing really is amazing isn't it? Now if only the post had a little more heart one could put a stake through it...

Space Bar said...

lazy reader: thanks! but come say it on my blog!!!

falstaff: asphyxiating? are you a baby on a plane?