No Safe Choices For Birthing Persons

When I saw the title of Elizabeth Bruenig’s op-ed, I skipped over it. My child-having and rearing days are long behind me, and while the love-hate relationship between Millennial parents and  their children over who gets to be the center of attention may fascinate them, it doesn’t do much for me. But that was a mistake on my part, because I read the headline through Boomer eyes, not realizing that there is nothing so banal, not even the decision to have children, that can’t be twisted into a culture war battle.

Millennial women in the United States are waiting longer than any generation in recorded history to have children, a trend that’s raised the rate of births among 30-somethings to a 50-year high. They didn’t start the trend, but they’ve taken it to new heights. “While slightly more than half (53 percent) of women in their early 40s in 1994 had become mothers by age 24,” one 2018 data analysis published by the Pew Research Center observed, “this share was 39 percent among those who were in this age group in 2014.” Yesterday’s geriatric is today’s “Juno.”

There’s a baby bust going on. While the pandemic didn’t help, it wasn’t the cause. Rather the combo of women putting career ahead of marriage and kids, money concerns and stunted adolescence. pushed young people from their 20s to their 30s, even 40s, before deciding to “sacrifice” their own lives for the sake of children. It didn’t help that so many other youngs parents seemed to find dealing with kids to be a huge burden.

Insofar as the current baby bust is related to lengthening delays in childbearing among younger generations, one might suspect birthrate hand-wringers would have a special interest in relieving the financial hardships associated with having kids, but one would be somewhat mistaken. While a slim vanguard of right-leaning statesmen have backed policies that would shore up struggling families, they have met resistance from their own side. Most conservatives tend to argue that the financial concerns voiced by hesitant would-be parents are less salient than their cultural habits, like individualism. And so it goes in the culture wars.

The case for young parenthood would be simpler to plead if it weren’t for that particular back-and-forth — snowflakes this, boomers that. Millennials stand accused of immaturity and selfishness, of lacking the grit and commitment to bring up children — who, I gather, get in the way of avocado toast and grapefruit mimosas. The reality is less contemptible and more prosaic: Young people are hesitant to start their families because of legitimate worries about money and stability, along with a variety of cultural concerns that, were their baby boomer parents honest, they would admit issued from their own design.

They seem to relish telling each other how haarrrrrrrrd it is to raise kids, what a pain they are, how demanding they are. And they validate each other’s misery in parenthood, replying that they’re not selfish, shitty parents for whining incessantly about how hard it is to not be able to cater solely to one’s one wants and desires. Kids, so demanding.

Of course, Boomers were to blame, because the only superpower of the Millennial generation is the ability to blame someone else for all perceived difficulties and take no responsibility for one’s circumstances or expectations. Their concerns are legitimate. No one ever had concerns until them, and parents of earlier generations sat in bed and ate bon bons while wet nurses suckled their offspring.

But what of having children — or getting married, for that matter — before establishing oneself? That is: What to say to the young person who might consider those kinds of commitments if not for the finality of it all, the sense that she may be making somebody else before knowing who she herself really is? The standard-issue airline safety warning comes to mind: In the event of an air pressure change inside the cabin, secure your oxygen mask in place before you attempt to assist other passengers you may be traveling with. They don’t say or you’ll both be screwed. But you know that’s what they mean.

It apparently never dawned on Bruenig that the reason a warning was needed was because it was counterintuitive. Parents would first make sure their children were safe before themselves when the warning was issued, just as they would take a bullet for their child if needed. There was no conflict between caring for your child first. That was the imperative, “was” being the operative word.

Elizabeth Bruenig didn’t deny any of this, and yet wrote that she had a child at 25 and, well, was good with it.

What I didn’t understand — couldn’t have, at the time — was that deserting yourself for another person really is a relief. My days began to unfold according to her schedule, that weird rhythm of newborns, and the worries I entertained were better than the ones that came before: more concrete, more vital, less tethered to the claustrophobic confines of my own skull. For this member of a generation famously beset by anxiety, it was a welcome liberation.

Sure, it’s still all about her, how her daughter made her feel, but it’s not as if narcissism can be cured by childbirth. The upshot is that she made her choice to have a child and found fulfillment in it. This was the promise of feminism, that a woman could make the choice to be CEO or mommy, and either path would be readily available to her if she had the chops. Bruenig made her choice and wrote that it was a good one, at least for her. And the moral of the story?

The feminist left wasn’t having any of this “happy mommy” thing, but it was nothing compared to this shot from the blind side.

Adulting is hard, and not everyone is cut out to be a parent.

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