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.
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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.