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Parents don’t want tips from the childless Confinement magnifies all the downsides of raising children, and it's driving us to despair

You wanted children? Well now you’ve got them all the time. Credit: Alex Livesey - Danehouse/Getty

You wanted children? Well now you’ve got them all the time. Credit: Alex Livesey - Danehouse/Getty


May 20, 2020   4 mins

Under lockdown, society starts to fissure along all its old divisions. Haves versus have-nots, young versus old. And then the bitterest divide of all: those with children versus those without, two tribes that seem to regard each other with deepest incomprehension and fury under the common suffering of pandemic. But the kingdom of the parents and the kingdom of the non-parents have long been at odds, and the latter have some justice to their resentments.

For those who haven’t reproduced, there is infinite insult in a world where progeny are treated as proof of moral worth. Andrea Leadsom was clumsy enough to say it out loud during her 2016 campaign for the Tory leadership when she told the Times that being a mother gave her an edge over childless Theresa May because it meant she had “a very real stake in the future of our country”, but there are plenty who hold similar opinions without ever quite voicing them.

Being a parent supposedly gives you purpose, access to a love that makes other loves seem flimsy, is a statement of global optimism (why have children if you don’t think there’ll be a world for them to live in?), and an act of sublime selflessness.

Which leaves the non-parents implicitly adrift, with nothing to comfort them but their allegedly shallow version of human affection, their bitter pessimism and their selfishness — and, presumably, a powerful urge to point out that being a parent  didn’t actually make Josef Fritzl a better person. The injury is compounded for those who would like to have had children but for whatever reason haven’t been able to.

In truth, the myth of parental satisfaction is at least half over-compensation. Being a parent is hard. You sacrifice your social life, your sleep, your disposable income, your once-reliable lack of contact with humans waste. Such great cost is more bearable if you can fool yourself that it’s purchased access to knowledge and goodness. But claims of individual illumination hide the fact that bringing up children is a collective enterprise. Lockdown has cut us all off from the collective. And so, the cracks begin to show.

Parents are tired, in a bone-deep, desperate way. Entertaining a small child all day with no nursery, childminder, grandparents or nanny to step in is exhausting — doubly so if you are trying to work from home at the same time. Older ones need homeschooling, and for every parent boasting about their artistic interpretation of the water cycle, there are a dozen whose efforts to explain long division or whatever have dissolved into tantrums (theirs, their children’s, probably both).

Teenagers, at least, are independent enough not to need constant one-on-one attention. But on the flipside, they’re also teenagers – and teenagers who have been effectively grounded for the last two months, with their future swept away in front of them. The relief of cancelled exams gives way to anti-climax. No prom, no post A-level celebrations, no idea when or if life might restart. Many are struggling with it. You would probably not, all things considered, choose one as a housemate if you weren’t related.

And in among this, the stuff of daily life still needs doing, only all of it made harder. The shopping (but doing the supermarket takes twice as long with careful skirting round the other shoppers). The cleaning (but there’s more mess and dirt than ever, because everyone is in the same space all the time, grubbying it up). It’s like the swim proficiency test when you had to dive for a brick while also wearing pyjamas, only all you’ve done now for weeks and weeks is dive and dive and never surface. That “you” is not unisex: ingrained habits of housework mean all this falls heavier on women than on men in most families.

The reaction of some of the unspawned to all this has not, it’s fair to say, been wildly sympathetic. On Twitter, childless pundits have chipped in gleefully with parenting advice. Doing a lot of chores? You should make a rota (a tip that falls down on the fact that making and managing a rota is plenty of labour on its own).

One commentator magnificently claimed that the more children you have, the easier it gets, because there are more people to share the work. This is, of course, why the typical female executive is a mother of nine.

Much of this has a tone of you-made-your-bed to it. You wanted children? Well now you’ve got them all the time, and if you really loved them you’d be fine with it. You chose your choice. Part of its cruelty is that it denies parents the space for ambivalence: say you’re happy, or you may say nothing at all. And we should be able to be honest about the fact that parenthood is ambivalent. Its pains and its rewards are tightly poised, particularly for women, which helps to explain why it is that wherever women’s prospects improve, a lower birthrate follows.

Human infants, with their ludicrous and extended dependency, are the work of many adults, whether those ties are of kinship or contracts or simple friendship. It is absurd to treat children as an individual affectation of their parents’, when they are a part of the entire community.

Without at least some babies to grow up into new adults, after all, the whole state begins to topple over. Parents who believe that having children makes them automatically wise are wrong. Non-parents who believe that not having children makes them free are wrong too: we are all tangled up in this together, and there is room for more kindness all round.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Jacquie
Jacquie
4 years ago

Under lockdown, society starts to fissure along all its old divisions.

Does it though? I have found the lockdown to be rather amicable.

Sarah talks about parenthood from a perspective that I don’t recognise. I am an immigrant married to a Brit, and neither of us have family in the UK. I raised my children on my own – no free family childcare, no babysitters, no nannies, no nursery, no school – so lockdown has been life as usual for me. I chose to have children. I chose to raise my children myself rather than outsource to someone who didn’t particularly care about my kid. Isn’t that what motherhood is meant to be? Why would you have children that you can’t stand and don’t want to be around? Having children for me was a considered choice, not a default.

wherever women’s prospects improve, a lower birthrate follows.

Not so. Governments forcing stay-at-home-mums into work when their kids really could use having them at home, is not what I would consider ‘improving’ anyone’s prospects. Some of us actually want to be mothers in the true sense of the word, and society makes that nigh on impossible. We don’t value the work mothers do in economic terms, so we think they are slackers that should be gainfully employed, and we pass legislation to force them into it.

As a BC home educator, I got all sorts of flack and insinuations that there was something wrong with me, possibly MĂƒÂŒnchhausen’s, becuase I wanted to ensure that my kids actually got an education without all the damage that the school environment causes. Now we are all forced to home educate and kids are loving it, mums are loving it, and I’m waiting on the deluge of apologies. I’ll not hold my breath.

To those non-birthers with their “you chose to have kids, now suck it” whining, I say this – when you are old and drooling on yourself, my kid will be the one feeding you your meat puree and wiping your bum. You had better hope I raise a really good kid.

Kate H. Armstrong
Kate H. Armstrong
4 years ago
Reply to  Jacquie

Very well said … thank you … on behalf of all those mothers who considered having children a ‘blessing’ (out of date term I know!) and, the source of great happiness, not to mention personal development.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago
Reply to  Jacquie

I agree completely with your comments about motherhood, and the enormous benefits of good enough mothering, constantly devalued and undermined by successive governments and in poor economic understandings. Feminist theorists hardly ever talk about motherhood and its importance and have repeatedly attacked, dismissed and denigrated it for decades. Well raised children make for a decent society and it starts with good mothering as its model.

Go Away Please
Go Away Please
4 years ago

Feminists have only ever considered the 1-2% of women who are in highly paid careers, a group most of them either fall into or aspire to.
Most women just have jobs in order to earn the money they and/or their families need in order to survive in the society we have created.
You know the sort of woman I’m going on about. Some of them read out the news for a living and go on about equality so that their salaries move from £300,000 pa to £450,000.
They never talk about motherhood, ever.

Keith Merrick
Keith Merrick
4 years ago

I liked the article, as I like many of Sarah Ditum’s pieces. What was missing was any recognition that what she was describing was western parenthood rather than parenthood per se. Many western children are so full of themselves that they are unbearable to be around. Children from other cultures, say Asian children, are often much less unbearable. Sometimes they can even be a joy to be with.

Julia H
Julia H
4 years ago
Reply to  Keith Merrick

I found this while travelling. Some cultures produce sweet, humble children who are innocent of the big bad world while others (including ours) seem to produce a lot of spoilt, self-centred, overweight, knowing brats who own too much stuff but still aren’t satisfied.

Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
4 years ago

Look at the numbers. There are stats all over the ONS.
Children don’t get this illness. Neither do young adults. OK there are a few cases in children, but they are comparable to many other childhood dangers.

Yet we are locking up children for …. what?

Humans are social creatures. We need human contact as part of our condition. Denying your children (I don’t have any because if my medical situation) is probably doing them no end of no good.

Renee Johansson
Renee Johansson
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Children may not be likely to get this illness, but they are certainly capable of spreading it, and many parents don’t share their children’s predilection for minor symptoms.

annescarlett
annescarlett
4 years ago

When I was 13 to 18 years old nothing on this earth would have kept me indoors, I met my mates and we walked miles to other towns to meet other friends, went to youth clubs and discos, we also, from being very young developed an acute sense of danger, whether that was the local pervert, bumping into someone who gave us the creeps or a place we should not go. From being small we played outdoors unsupervised, built dams, swam in rivers, climbed trees and our mum’s didn’t want to see our faces until teatime or bedtime. We built up what is called resilience. I now have teenage grandchildren who barely go out and are generally glued to some sort of screen, other grandparents and parents I speak with say the same.. This is not their fault, the media have terrified parents since the late 90s, parents were convinced there was a pervert around every corner and children were not allowed to play out unsupervised. Furthermore they had to be escorted to and from school or a parent was looked upon as neglectful, there were reports of parents being reported to social services for allowing 11 year olds to catch the bus alone or cross a busy road. This led to rush hour being busier than it already was. The reduction in buses, the closing of youth services and any teenagers in a group being reported to the police has all contributed to the damage our young people have suffered. We allowed the media to scare us to death then and we are doing it now, all for a virus that most of us would brush off and in the end will likely kill as many as a bad flu season.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago

Comments and advice from childless people about raising children are moronic. Though often not intentional to be so. Best to nod and ignore I have found.

But the structure of government is that many childless people dominate the policy and structure of child welfare services. This is dangerous. Then mildly offensive opinion becomes the jackboot of a fascist policing force for children. Assaulting the bond between natural parent and child.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allan

All of us have had the experience of being children -so if we reflect on that experience we are eminently well
equipped to understand what it is that children actually need -whether
we have children or not.

You are perhaps talking about people who are not in touch with their own experience of what it was to be a child and have not thought about it much since. Many parents fall into this category too.

In terms of our leading class, it might have something to do with the frequent recurrence of private boarding school experiences in early childhood -often results in a sort of renunciation/ rejection of the normal and ordinary situations of childhood.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago

The point about ambivalence in parenthood is quite correct. Of course there is ambivalence in parenting, but on balance the idea is that the whole project is generally worth the candle (which is why we have survived as a species for so long). But it is, doubtless, hard work.

But you denigrate so much -children in particular for their ‘ludicrous and extended dependency’ -as if that’s their fault and they only do it to make your life unhappy! You are so sceptical about anything positive to do with parenting. It’s all over your choice of words; ‘for those who haven’t reproduced‘. An interesting (and rather egocentric) way of describing the jointly creative endeavour of bringing new life into the world.

I think your notion of the ‘bitterest divide’ as being between those who have children and those who don’t is pure fantasy in projection. It reflects ambivalence that you are not willing to hold for yourself, and your own envious resentment of ‘the childless’. The whole piece is littered with this sort of stuff. You write; ‘It is absurd to treat children as an individual affectation of their parents’, when they are a part of the entire community’. I literally cannot think of a single good example of this phenonmenon -how much of our shared society is specifically tailored around and focussed upon the raising of our children?! Public spending on children is around £120 billion per annum in the UK. I’m not saying it’s enough but it’s hardly negligible is it?

This seems to be the way with feminist experiences. Full of grievance and resentment and failure to find much that is pleasurable in existence apart from the pursuit of grievance and resentment. The feminist preoccupation with the misery of female life -and the man’s life of course is all jam and biscuits by comparison. I think you should also stop denigrating men in this way -it’s unpleasant and not true, and you wouldn’t accept such gross generalisations about a woman. You don’t appear to be a very good exponent of the ‘kindness’ you theorise we should all be practising ‘in this together’.

You also conclude with an expectation that you should also be valorised for your ‘reproductive’ efforts in ensuring the state does not topple.

I’m sorry but I just find this sort of mindset puzzling in the extreme.

Why don’t you ask for help if you need it rather than castigating the whole world for your difficult experiences?

I would add one thing -all of us have the experience of being children -so if we reflect on that experience we are eminently well equipped to understand what it is that children actually need -whether we have children or not.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

Well I have had children, so won’t be handing out any unworkable tips.

When they were young, three of them, plus two adults in a one bedroom flat. Sometimes bad weather itself forced us into lockdown, until eventually we just put on waterproofs and the whole family went out and walked in the rain. It wasn’t easy.

A surprising number of people seem to be making the best of it though. You see lots more parents and children out together, running, cycling, walking. There are some positives, perhaps even things to learn from. Some may even look back at this time with nostalgia.

But the real lesson here is about social class (or status if you prefer) and the great limits this sets on you. I can’t even imagine how awful it must be to be stuck in a high rise with kids during a lock down. How different from people with a reasonably sized house.

But the message isn’t really about the suffering of lockdown (It won’t last forever), or the downside of having kids, it’s about the failure of our society to provide decent, appropriate, affordable housing for everyone, not just for the well off. It’s that that will make all the difference.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

“it’s about the failure of our society to provide decent, appropriate, affordable housing for everyone”

No open-borders-supporting Remainer should ever be allowed to get away with complaining about the housing crisis. You’re not an open-borders-supporting Remainer, are you?

John K
John K
4 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Indeed.

300,000 net immigration a year means we need (roughly) 100,000 new homes, 150 new GPs (2,000 average patient list), 150 new hospital doctors, 250 new primary and 60 new secondary schools assuming they have average numbers of children, and 100,000 more cars on the road.

No government in the last 50 years has achieved anything like that level of spending on infrastructure, training and other facilities. And after CV-19 it’s not gonna happen for another decade, especially as we are wasting north of £100 billion on a railway we don’t and won’t need..

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago
Reply to  John K

Exactly. Well put.

ralph bell
ralph bell
4 years ago

Points all well made. Children should be in school as the level of risk in this group is insignificantly very low. The has not been 1 proven case of transmission from child to adult.
Communtities should all help sharing with the caring and raising of young people, but the scaremongering in the media has led to many parents being paranoid and organisatiins treating non relatives as a concern or high risk.

Pauline Rosslee
Pauline Rosslee
4 years ago

I can’t see the point of this article- somewhat silly for UnHerd.

Childless – or child free people contribute more and take less from the ‘system’ and often sort out the mess that the ‘adults’ with children make of bringing up their children.
I have seen it all as a retired teacher – parents who made no effort to feed – or keep clean, or protect, or educate, or discipline their children. Children sent to school hungry minus breakfast, not properly dressed and minus any reading or home work done. . For such children school is one place with a decent lunch, a structured day, kindness and fun. Schools need to open asap!
Some parents abuse children in every way. Many who will not manage to fit into society and become useful and valued members. Many will be like their parents and never bother to work- and yet think they are entitled to be funded for life- and produce children similarly damaged and idle.

In our society we have plenty of parents living on benefits and yet having more children to neglect and treat badly. and there’s plenty of these even in the leafy shires.. And also many neglected children in better-off families.

There’s no shortage of people on the world and pollution of all kinds would be reduced with fewer people – not more. How many children are in reality deeply wanted and not merely an accident of sex?

Jacquie
Jacquie
4 years ago

In our society we have plenty of parents living on benefits and yet having more children to neglect and treat badly. and there’s plenty of these even in the leafy shires.. And also many neglected children in better-off families.

Pauline, families on benefits are the exception not the rule. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study testing whether there were three generations of the same family that had never worked. They were unable to find such families. “If they exist, they account for a minuscule fraction of workless people. Under 1% of workless households might have two generations who have never worked ““ about 15,000 households in the UK. Families with three such generations will therefore be even fewer.”

Childless people contribute more? Huh! We all pay the same rates of tax relative to our incomes. Parents spend more in the economy as they have any number of children to feed, clothe etc. By having children we are creating jobs in all sorts of fields not least teaching! Perhaps you should pause for a moment and consider who is going to look after you in your daotage, if I don’t have children? Who are tomorrow’s doctors, nurses, carers etc. going to be?

Childless people abuse children too so that is not a measure of anything.

For such children school is one place with a decent
lunch, a structured day, kindness and fun.

Perhaps school is the best place for specific children who fall into the abuse/neglect category that you speak of – still the smallest minority- but it cannot be said to be a general truism. Research shows that achievement and better life chances correlate more stongly with an engaged mother, than with socio-economic status, [State] education, the presence/absence of fathers or any of the other categories used to measure achievement.

How many children are in reality deeply wanted and not merely an accident of sex?

Wow! I am sorry that you are so jaded that you think this statement is even appropriate.

catlouisem
catlouisem
4 years ago

Why the title change, Unherd? Seems you’ve deliberately changed it to a fishing, trolling-esq heading that doesn’t really reflect what the piece is about. Why encourage discord where it’s not necessary. I thought better of this website!

Michael Upton
Michael Upton
4 years ago

This is a good article. I can only say that one of the good things about having the kids at home all day is that it gives a parent more opportunity to discuss with them whether in an expression such as “affectation of their parents'”, the presence of the genitive is sufficiently indicated by the word “of” as to render the addition of a possessive apostrophe redundant. Maybe I need to get out more, but then so do we all.