A few years ago, I was sitting at a farm table in an unassuming Wisconsin pub. I was with a group of graduate students and our teacher, celebrating the end of the fall semester over Scottish beer and fried cheese curds.
Knowing that I was leaving the next morning with my husband and 7 month old daughter to visit my family on the East Coast for Christmas, my teacher asked me if this would be my child’s first flight. I said “no”, and as I began to explain that we were trying to familiarize her with flying at a young age, a classmate stepped in.
âEvery time I see a baby on a plane, I’m like, ‘Why are you here ?!’,â he said with a theatrical moan. I was sort of stunned, but as I searched my brain for a polite version of my gut response, another student stepped in to say that kids in restaurants are “much worse” than babies on planes. “They are so loud,” she said sheepishly, after catching my uneasy expression, “I’m sure your baby is okay, though.”
I had a hard time choosing an opening anecdote for this essay because I had so many options to choose from. Often times these interactions take the form of a compliment, like the time a waitress in Arizona told me as I was leaving her restaurant that although she cringed her teeth when I arrived, my 6 month old baby was surprisingly soft. âI was like ‘Oh my God, not a baby. It’s like I’m in the grocery store but I can’t leave!’ But your baby was so good! ” she said. Other times it’s a hit against another parent who “couldn’t control” their child in public – unlike me, it’s implied, whose kids never misbehave.
This is of course ridiculous. My kids are just as likely as anyone to have a tantrum on a plane or spill a glass of juice in a restaurant. I do my best to respond appropriately to the circumstances, but my children will learn to function in a polite society for many years to come. All I hear when people complain about other kids and parents is that my kids are only welcome in public if they don’t act like, well, kids.
As the United States’ birth rate continues to descend for several years, it becomes harder and harder to ignore that the United States is a difficult place to raise children. Some argue that we need to provide parents with more material supports like paid parental leave, child care or cash benefits if we want people to have more babies, while skeptics note that these policies don’t have much. increased fertility in other countries. I am a strong supporter of strong family policies, but I admit that they might not be enough to convince me to have another child, as it’s not just the financial or professional burden of parenting that worries me. .
There is a cultural weight hanging from the yoke of modern American parenthood – a weight the government probably cannot mitigate. The same logic of self-sufficiency that rationalizes our anemic family policies – âDon’t have children if you can’t afford themâ – underlies our social expectations of children and, by extension, parents. It echoes in the growls of unruly children disturbing the tranquility of public life and the censorship of incompetent parents unwilling or unable to deal with them.
Children are a personal choice and therefore a personal issue, many people seem to believe. Have as many as you want – just make sure they don’t bother the rest of us.
The problem is, this creed is totally out of step with reality. All babies cry. Even the best educated toddlers have poor motor control and still developing emotional regulation. They talk a little too loudly, ask a million questions, and sometimes lose their minds when they hit a limit and find that it doesn’t stand in their way. A world full of perfect parents is not a world without tears and tantrums. To pretend otherwise creates completely unrealistic expectations for those who navigate life with small children.
In this sense, parenthood is an inherently social occupation. Trying to cram it into an individualistic framework, where the costs and consequences of children fall on parents and no one else, skews the whole business.
This became very evident to me when, at 14 months old, my firstborn entered the pocket of an airplane seat and found an open tube of lip balm, which she quickly began to eat. I knew I had to take it away from her, but I also knew there was a good chance that she would cry for more than seven minutes if I did. It was a horrible situation for a person who loves people like me: there was simply no way I could do any good for my child without subjecting everyone on that plane to his squeaky cries.
To my immense disappointment, this kind of social calculation is seen as a feature of parenting, not a bug. To give parents the space to do their jobs, we all need to tolerate annoying childish behavior, which a smaller and smaller part of our society is willing to do.
The only alternative is for parents to avoid public life altogether. To be honest, this is exactly what I did for a while, especially after giving birth to my second child. Now nearly three years old, she is by nature boisterous, tumultuous and destructive – supernaturally willing to seek the limits and possibilities of her surroundings, whether it is a set of artfully porcelain coffee mugs stacked in a cafe or the roaring acoustics of a station platform.
We’ve come a long way over the years, but to this day it’s not possible to bring my secondborn into public without subjecting those around us to the occasional squealing of the ovaries. So, long, and long before the pandemic, we stayed at home.
People can probably understand better now how hard living this way has been on my mental health. More than anything, it is the fear of reliving this isolation that prevents me the most from having another child.
I don’t know of any way to legislate on widespread tolerance of children in American culture. Parental leave and family allowances can ease the financial burden of parenthood and make it easier for parents to remain attached to their professional circles. And we could probably do a lot more to design public spaces in a way that doesn’t set parents up for failure. (How about running out of stacks of glass objects for toddlers?)
But the truth is, even in an America with policies and public places designed for them, children would still act like children. We will have to decide for ourselves whether we are ready to welcome them as they are.