Civil Liberties

Politicizing Parenthood


I used to think it was nobody else's business whether my husband and I planned to have children. I used to think it was rude to make such personal inquiries.

But politeness is a social construct, and my view is a minority opinion. So after nearly 15 years of answering such questions from friends, acquaintances, people I've just met at conferences or cocktail parties, store clerks, cab drivers, manicurists, and, most recently, the customer-service operator who changed my Sprint PCS phone number from Los Angeles to Dallas, I have given up. I guess my procreational plans, or lack thereof, are the world's business.

I like kids, but I don't expect to have any of my own. I'm 40 years old and spend most of my time working. I'd be a terrible mother. Now you know.

I'm telling you this not because it's any of your business–it isn't–but because, like many formerly private matters, parenthood has become a political issue and nonparents an aggrieved interest group. Despite their incessant talk of "inclusion," "tolerance," and "diversity," both Democrats and Republicans are working assiduously to divide America into two classes: parents (or, more accurately, parents with children at home), who are important and valuable, and everyone else.

The Republicans may be the party of "family values," but we can thank the Clinton administration for turning the New Discrimination into a major public policy. The first bill President Clinton signed was the Family and Medical Leave Act, whose main point is to give new parents the right to quit their jobs for three months, leaving the work to be picked up by unmentioned co-workers. Earlier this year, Clinton ordered new Labor Department regulations to encourage states to make that leave paid, by letting new parents collect unemployment insurance during their voluntary absence. (So far, no state has taken up the idea.) He has also proposed that federal law add parents to the list of groups protected against workplace discrimination–a formula that would inevitably punish companies that give childless workaholics greater pay and more promotions than they give soccer moms and dads.

When candidate Al Gore talks about "tax cuts for working families," he's engaging in not one but two forms of class warfare: against the higher-income people who pay most of the country's income taxes (and presumably vote Republican) and against workers of all incomes who don't have dependent children (and who often vote Democratic). The Clinton administration's tax policy has been almost entirely geared to reward parenthood with various tax credits.

The Republicans have mostly gone along with, and often sought to top, the administration's bias. Gone is the goal of neutral tax-rate cuts, in favor of the new gospel of behavior modification and interest group payoffs. In her often caustic book, The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless, Elinor Burkett calls the 1997 tax cut, which included a $500 tax credit for children, "the most massive redistribution of wealth since the War on Poverty–this time not from rich to poor, but from nonparents, no matter how modest their means, to parents, no matter how affluent."

The trend shows no signs of abating. Analyzing George W. Bush's Republican convention, David Brooks of The Weekly Standard suggests that it marked a turning point, transforming the GOP "from a work party to a home party." Instead of the traditional Republican celebration of entrepreneurs and workers, he writes, "this convention worshipped the child-rearer." It was a perilous strategy for a candidate best known as his parents' son, but perhaps an understandable one.

Conservative intellectuals, meanwhile, incessantly declare that "the" purpose of family life is to raise children. Follow this rhetoric and pretty soon the childless are not merely second-class citizens, but fake families and quite possibly less than fully human. Women's lives, in particular, are meaningless if they have not, in author Danielle Crittenden's words, "brought into this world life that will outlast us." Without kids, she suggests, a life's work amounts to a mere "pile of pay stubs." So often does this attitude emanate from the Independent Women's Forum, a group of high-profile conservatives including Crittenden, that some of its own disgruntled members have taken to throwing around the phrase "mommy nazis" to describe the ideologists of mandatory motherhood.

Nonetheless, it's hard even for me to sympathize with some of the organized childless–or "child free," as they prefer to be called. Burkett and her followers can be just as intolerant as their foes. Too often, they seem to hate both children and their parents. They have the blinkered anger of self-styled victim groups. And, like their opponents, they show little understanding of the relation between employment and compensation.

In Burkett's view, providing "family-friendly" benefits, such as on-site day care or health insurance for family members, violates the sacred principle of equal pay for equal work. So does expecting workers without children to be more flexible or to work longer hours than people with kids. Accommodating employees who need time off for family responsibilities is, in Burkett's assessment, a form of discrimination, because people with kids will almost always ask for more flexibility than those without them.

The problem with this view–and with the contrary Clintonian vision of legally obligated privileges for parents–is that it ignores the explicit and implicit bargaining through which employers and employees come to terms. A day care center may not matter to most employees, but it may be essential to attract certain workers. A lawyer who bills more hours than most of the firm may demand, and get, the opportunity to bring her baby to work, even if some of her colleagues think it's weird. To hire and hold talented people, employers have to give them what they want, and that won't mean a one-size-fits-all package.

"From where I sit, the increasing insistence by employees that employers accommodate their lives has been a welcome revolution," writes Lisa Belkin in a recent New York Times Magazine cover story on the "backlash against children." She has two young sons and likes working at home on a flexible schedule. What she doesn't say is that the Times gives her that privilege not because of laws or regulations, or because the paper is a humane, understanding place (it notoriously isn't), but because she's unusually good at what she does. Even the Times can be accommodating to keep its most talented writers.

But Belkin is never going to be managing editor of the Times. In fact, as long as she needs those flexible hours, she isn't going to be a manager of any kind. Other people, with work schedules that often stretch late into the night, bear the burdens that make lives like hers possible. Many of those people have no children.

But these people aren't victims. They are striking their own bargains, bargains that differ from those that conscientious parents insist on. After all, people without children do have the freedom to do things that caring parents with dependent kids can't–to work long hours, to travel frequently, to relocate, and to do all these things on short notice if necessary. In return, they can achieve positions that devoted parents can't. Barring laws to the contrary, the people who put more time and energy into their work, and who are good at it, will reap greater rewards.

Politicizing parenthood reduces our ability both to accommodate differences and to benefit from them. By announcing that society has decided on one best way to live, it creates winners and losers, citizens who matter and those who don't.

The great insight of classical liberalism was that government neutrality in matters of faith and conscience would foster social peace. The same is true of parenthood, which is equally personal and thus equally explosive. Allowing people the freedom to make varied arrangements–from family-friendly workplaces to (currently illegal) child-free apartment buildings–won't eliminate all conflicts. But it gives people fewer causes for grievance and more ways to alleviate life's stresses.

Society needs both parents and nonparents, both the work party and the home party. While raising children is the most important work most people will do, not everyone is cut out for parenthood. And, as many a childless teacher has proved, raising kids is not the only important contribution a person can make to their future. The children who are "our future" will inherit a world created not just by parental devotion but by the sort of zealous, focused endeavors that can preclude good parenting.

As Francis Bacon observed four centuries ago, "The perpetuity by generation is common to beasts; but memory, merit, and noble works are proper to men. And surely a man shall see the noblest works and foundations have proceeded from childless men, which have sought to express the images of their minds, where those of their bodies have failed. So the care of posterity is most in them that have no posterity."

Bacon, writing under the rule of the Virgin Queen, leaned too far toward the party of work. The republican Constitution that seeks to "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity" does not play such favorites. Neither should those who govern under it.