Commentary: Parenthood should be taken off its pedestal
There is nothing innately virtuous about having children, says the Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh.
LONDON: Schadenfreude is a lowering emotion. The English language should take pride in its lack of a word for it.
Why, then, when I read about Felicity Huffman, does something akin to that feeling nibble at me? Why do I smirk when I am meant to mutter gravely about the thanklessness of parental love?
It is the smirk, I think, of the wilfully childless. And it is directed at our alleged betters.
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE
The college admissions scandal, of which Huffman has become the first jailed culprit, should change a lot of things. One is the idea of America as classless. Another is the ludicrous rise of the university as the one and only way to respectability.
Even in Bourbon France, there was the army or the church — the red or the black.
But of all the shibboleths that needed slaying, the most overdue was the moral aura around the idea of parenthood. Those who tried to bribe and defraud their children into colleges — their private schools not being enough in the way of dice-loading — are seen as spoilt millionaires or as hypocritical left-liberals.
But ahead of either of these things, they are parents. Their antisocial behaviour is, to some extent, hard-wired. How nice, as a non-parent, to be clear of that charge for once.
CHILDLESSNESS FROWNED UPON
The equation of voluntary childlessness with selfishness is not new. Nor is it always and everywhere wrong.
I have been so free for so long that getting me to do anything that is not my prime desire in the moment is like taking a cat for a walk. I am still seething about having to attend a weekend office retreat in France in 2009.
Whatever the opposite of being institutionalised is, I am that. But this kind of egoism is aired well enough in our culture. It is the egoism of Alfie and About a Boy. Its victims tend to be few and localised.
Much less explored is the parental equivalent. At its most trivial, it is the foisting of baby photos on bored guests, or second-hand accounts of a child’s alleged witticisms, a genre of conversation that we might call Kids Say The Darndest Things.
The next level up is the social nuisance, rarer in America than in Britain: The Panzer-like prams, the conscription of café staff as auxiliary nannies by sprawled-out, high-decibel families.
THE CULT OF PARENTHOOD
But then there is the truly dark stuff, and 2019 will be remembered as the year of it. What is the anti-vaccine movement if not the cult of parenthood taken to the ultimate end?
What are the Huffmans of this world if not the same thing? It is soothing to pretend that these people have sprung out of nowhere.
But they are products of a culture that has been in train for a while now. At some point around the millennium, “As a parent” seemed to displace “As a person of faith” as the most preening overture to a sentence.
It became more common to hear people say they would “do anything” for their children, as though that were an unproblematic boast. Child-friendliness became a test of things, even of cities, so that London and New York must cringe and take lessons at the feet of Oslo.
All of this was due a correction. College-gate has freed us to say what once felt subversive.
Beyond the survival of the species — which motivates almost no one to have children — there is nothing innately social about parenthood. In fact, it sets up private attachments that are bound to conflict with the common interest.
A society with a balanced view of parenthood can manage this tension well enough. A society that exalts parenthood as an immense favour to the world cannot. The result is a Hobbesian struggle for the advancement of one’s kin at all costs.
A HEALTHIER VIEW OF PARENTHOOD
The footballer Gary Neville once described winning the Premier League as the best thing in life. “People will mention kids,” he said, anticipating the quibble, “but everyone has kids.”
Leaving aside a certain looseness with the statistics there, it is a healthier view of parenthood than has prevailed for a while.
It is a stage of life, not some kind of apotheosis. Pretending otherwise has liberated people to behave unconscionably.
Never has self-involved bachelorhood felt more exemplary a way of life.