2020年10月7日 星期三

Parenting Was Never Meant to Be This Isolating

Nuclear families have always relied on a community for practical support.

Parenting Was Never Meant to Be This Isolating

Kiki Ljung

“Everyone seems to forget that being a parent is, for most people, a choice.”

“I understand these are uncertain times, but I can’t tell you how many pre-pandemic complaints I’ve heard from parents about the care of their own children. Your kids are not someone else’s responsibility.”

“When we were raised, one of our parents stayed home and raised us. They didn’t drag us off to a stranger’s house at 6 a.m. so both of them could be ‘fulfilled.’"

These are some of the comments generated by an article about tech workers without children, who were griping that colleagues who are parents have received an unfair amount of leave during the pandemic. The notion that selfish parents get too many perks and benefits yet still complain about kids who should be their sole responsibility isn’t new; that idea was around pre-Covid.

But as our entire country is under duress, with massive job losses, the threat of illness and various other uncertainties across the board, I have noticed more people expressing these kinds of thoughts, especially whenever I write about mental health issues among parents.

What this criticism fails to grasp is that throughout basically all of human history, parents have never, ever raised children in isolated nuclear units the way they have been doing for much of 2020, with little to no hands-on family or community support. Individual families being completely responsible for children “is absolutely unheard of except in total emergencies,” said Stephanie Coontz, an emeritus professor of history and family at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and the author of “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”

As far back as we can go in prehistory, parents engaged in what biological anthropologists refer to as “cooperative breeding,” said Robin G. Nelson, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology at Santa Clara University (and an old friend of mine). That’s the idea that family and community members would help with holding, grooming and sometimes even feeding your baby. Sarah B. Hrdy, an anthropologist, called these helpers “alloparents,” and her research suggests that shared child care may have been “the secret of human evolutionary success.” Dr. Nelson called group living “part of what it means to be human.”


When you go back to the beginning of American history, the same facts hold: From Colonial America through the early 20th Century, there were almost no parents whose days were dedicated to just child care without support. Poorer parents worked alongside their children as young as 5 in crowded tenement sweatshops, textile mills and in the fields, while older children and other family helped care for children too young to work. And wealthier white families were not doing the child care without household workers. “Middle-class women were able to shift more time into child rearing in the 1800s only by hiring domestic help,” Coontz noted.

In fact, one parent (the mom) staying home and only spending her time on housework and child care was “a historical fluke,” for the white middle and upper classes that began in the 1940s and 50s, “based on a unique and temporary conjuncture of economic, social and political factors,” Coontz wrote in “The Way We Never Were.” As she points out, during World War II, Americans saved money at a rate that was “three times higher than in the decades before or since,” and real wages increased more in the 50s than they had in the previous 50 years.

And they were not “alone” the way many parents are during this pandemic. Middle-class mothers who stayed home with their children did so in communities of other mothers like them — the children would be pushed out to play in suburban neighborhoods. Even in the heyday of the American nuclear family, only the wealthiest white families were able to live that Donna Reed life — as Coontz points out in her book, one-third of nonimmigrant white families “could not get by on the income of the household head.”

Black families were excluded from this vision, and were fighting for basic civil rights in the 50s and 60s. As Dr. Nelson noted, even the idea that children are an active “choice” for most people erases the history of forced sterilization of Black, Native American, Asian and Latina women. Just last month there were reports of a whistle-blower calling out potential unwanted hysterectomies performed on immigrants at an ICE facility earlier this year.


Even before the pandemic, modern mothers and fathers were spending more time with their children than they did 45 years ago. As my colleague Claire Cain Miller has pointed out, mothers were spending five hours a week doing things like reading to children, ferrying them to activities and helping them with homework, compared to 1 hour and 45 minutes in 1975, and they have less solo leisure time than their midcentury counterparts.

Those parents “complaining” about caring for their kids are possibly doing so because this is not sustainable. Parents are sending their kids to “a stranger’s house” for child care not because they want to be “fulfilled,” but because they need to afford basic necessities for their families, or if they’re lucky, they are saving for retirement and college. At this point, many parents who remain employed are scared to lose their jobs or be pushed out of them to care for children — analysis from the National Women’s Law Center suggests that of the 1.1 million workers who dropped out of the labor force last month, 80 percent were women.

But despite some very loud griping about parents on the internet, Coontz believes that most people are “pretty damn sympathetic to mothers and fathers.” In my real life, not my virtual life, I have received so much support and kindness from colleagues and friends during this time, regardless of parental status. Living through a pandemic weighs heavily on us all: We cannot hug our loved ones, there are over 200,000 dead and an estimated 1.8 million Americans are grieving the loss of relatives. We should be extending grace in all directions, instead of fighting for scraps.

P.S. Follow us on Instagram @NYTParenting. If this was forwarded to you, sign up for the NYT Parenting newsletter here.


Want More on Parental Stress During the Pandemic?

  • A new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests that “60 percent of households with children across the country have lost jobs, or businesses, or have had wages reduced during the pandemic.”
  • The stresses on parents and their kids, particularly the ones struggling to make ends meet, are intense. In a previous newsletter, Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., said that we need to be treating the pandemic as “a mental health crisis, and one that does not have an end we can see.”
  • Considering the state of the world, no wonder parents need something to take the edge off! “My hobby is doom scrolling and learning the science of Covid and smoking weed and sitting on the toilet staring at the wall,” Julie Kortekaas, 36, a mother of two children ages 10 and 18, and a health-food restaurant owner in London, Ontario, told me. “I just hide in my bathroom and vape.”

Tiny Victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.

My 17-month-old only cried the last hour of a five-hour car ride. Sharon Jakopchek, Washington, D.C.

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