Parenthood is an increasingly de-valued currency. As a litany of recent articles, books, and polls show, our culture is ever more skeptical of the worth of having children and unappreciative of the work and social contribution that it entails.
A recent Time magazine cover provocatively touted “The Childfree Life,” complete with an envy-inducing photo of a sunbathing couple on the beach. Financial magazines and websites argue that kids spell financial doom. Author Jessica Valenti has been making the rounds with her book Why Have Kids?, in which she exposes the “truth” about parenting—that it’s hard—a truth that apparently has been obfuscated to the billions of parents over the past several millennia. Last month the New York Post did a write-up on the latest study finding that childless couples are happier than their parental counterparts, and last week NBC news ran an article attributing the gold medal of one athlete to his “alternative lifestyle.” His alternative lifestyle is being a married father. I could go on.
The social de-valuing of parenthood is bad for everyone, but especially for women. This is because parenthood makes greater demands, especially physically, on women than men.
The Irish Catholic philosopher Cormac Burke has noted “the widespread loss…of the sense that parenthood is a privilege.” He continued:
Here let me put forward a very tentative impression. One still meets men who are keen on fatherhood, looking forward to becoming a father or proud of being one already. While I may be wrong, I am inclined to think that one meets fewer women who are keen on motherhood; fewer girls who sense that there is a lot of fulfillment in becoming a mother…
To lose the sense that parenthood constitutes a major means of personal fulfillment is worse in the case of a woman, because the good pride of motherhood is of a deeper order than that of fatherhood. Motherhood asks more of woman; the woman gives more of herself in becoming a parent, she has a greater part in bringing about a work of creation.
This is not in any way to say that parenthood does not make great demands on men, or that it is not a source of great fulfillment for them. But it is women who stand to lose the most when a culture walks away from pride in parenthood.
It is women who stand to lose the most when a culture walks away from pride in parenthood.
One can easily see the manifestation of the current mindset in the way that society does not refer to or think of motherhood as work. Mothers are often asked, “Do you work?” New moms are constantly asked, “Have you gone back to work yet? Are you planning to go back to work?” For mothers of newborns, questions such as these can cause great strife and anxiety, as they are often experiencing the most physically and emotionally demanding work of their lives. Mothers are left with the sense that motherhood is just a pause from the real work that society expects them to return to, as soon as they are physically able, whenever their “disability leave” (as it’s legally categorized) ends.
It should come as no surprise, then, that data across the board show women are struggling with the greatest levels of depression and anxiety in recorded history. Parenthood remains a tremendous physical, emotional, and psychological demand from conception onwards, with a disproportionate burden falling on the woman, but society increasingly shrugs off the effort as “alternative” or irrelevant.
While the recent focus on the male contribution in the home is a good one—it’s good for fathers to be engaged, to share in parenting and domestic duties—it’s sometimes part of a broader effort to eliminate any appreciation of the different roles that men and women play in parenthood. The result is a further devaluation of the unique contributions of women in parenting. Couple this with a culture less and less interested in or experienced with parenthood, and you have a perfect recipe for female unhappiness.
Millennials see more value in parenthood, not less, than the generation before them.
The rising generation, however, offers reason to be optimistic. Millennials are significantly more likely to say that “being a good parent is one of the most important things in life” than the generation before them, according to a recent Pew study. While it’s concerning that millennials increasingly separate marriage from children, they see more value in parenthood, not less.
The challenge for our generation, then, is twofold: first to help reinstate in society the view that parenthood is a fulfilling privilege, and second to restore a proper understanding of parenthood as work.
Leon Kass once said:
We human beings are at work not only when we are occupationally working. We are also deeply at work in the activities of love and friendship, and especially when we are actively engaged in family life, the domain of private life in which Americans find the most meaning.
All the can-women-have-it-all conversations in the world are futile until American society once again appreciates parenthood as the most important human work there is. Are millennials up to the task?