For no reason in particular, I have been thinking about perceptions of parenthood vs. childlessness and my conclusions have some implications for FA.
It is all too easy to pontificate when you have little real knowledge or firsthand experience, and parents and childless alike talk past and about each other without true understanding.
Let us start with those who are childless. I think we all know the childless, most likely young person who likes to give advice to experienced parents at the end of their ropes about everything they are doing wrong. Parents themselves do it to each other. All too often, you hear statements along the lines of, “I would NEVER allow my child to do that. What’s wrong with you?” On the flipside, you might be accused of not caring enough. Here is an FA favorite: “No parent who cares about their kids would poison them with processed foods/animal products, etc.” I’m sure you are all familiar with that gambit.
Now, these people aren’t totally ignorant. They might know parents. They might have done a little research. They might even have babysat kids on and off as a teenager.
Does that mean that they know? Of course it doesn’t. They do not have intimate knowledge of you and your child. They probably are not experts in the fields of pediatrics, psychology, or related fields. They do not have to attend continuing education classes, pay for basic expenses for themselves and their children, provide care for their child with a brain injury and take them to their appointments, work full-time on the night shift and sleep while the kids are playing, helping with homework, keeping track of their whereabouts, going to conferences, or doing essential housework like laundry. (I don’t consider keeping a house spotless or even tidy necessary housework. As long as it is sanitary, comfortable to live and move around in, and there are no special events taking place there, that is good enough.)
Did I leave anything out?
Oh, if the parent has a disability or illness or has no partner, good freaking luck. Childless people very often don’t grasp that, nor do they grasp the deep attachment parents have for their children. Childless people often do not understand that parents WANT to cuddle with their children, are pained by their cries, and that their hearts melt when their children laugh, smile, or say, “I love you.” Parents frequently struggle with guilt and shame at something that they have done wrong, like lose their temper or not working. So for a childless person who thinks they know everything to tell that parent that they are lazy or overly permissive is not helpful whatsoever.
Granted, we all know parents who fail not just to provide for the child’s basic needs, but who fail to love, support, and guide the child. Merely keeping children alive for 18 years doesn’t even approach what it takes to be a good parent, and I just don’t understand parents who take the attitude that they did the bare minimum required of them for 18 years, so they’re done. They treat parenting like punching out of work at Wal-Mart, and one has to wonder why they had children at all. Seriously, if you view having children as an obligation, don’t bother. Consider adoption instead. If the first thing on your mind when your kids are born is, “How many days until their 18th birthdays so I can have my life back?” you’re better off childless. I could never, EVER do that to my kids and that some parents want their kids out of their lives as soon as possible is just plain sad.
Other parents go to the opposite extreme and have no expectations for their children whatsoever. I know one parent that allowed his adult son to move in whenever he wanted and he would often trash the house, smoke pot, and just be of little help and show little respect. Another parent I know has a daughter that threatens to kill herself every time she does not get what she wants, and the mother used to give in every time. There is nothing wrong with saying, “You are more than welcome in my life, but you need to respect my boundaries and do something to help yourself or to help us.”
Anyway, it is not uncommon for childless people to be intimately involved in the lives of children and parents, and sometimes, it takes an unbiased observer to tell these parents to wake up and to give them advice. Sometimes it takes a childless person to look at a situation and be willing to say that this is abuse/neglect and this isn’t right. Few parents who are neglectful or abusive will actually admit it. Childless people are ideally suited for this task because, unlike parents, they do not have an ego involvement and do not have a reflexive desire to defend other parents. Childless people can and do care for children and parents and have some knowledge of what parenthood is about.
Misunderstandings of parenthood by childless people are well recognized, but very few people are aware of their own misconceptions of the childless. My theory as to the cause of this phenomenon is that, just as childless people judge parents based on their limited experience with childrearing, parents judge childless people based on their limited experience with childlessness.
Since every parent was once childless, it sounds odd for me to say that, but hear me out. Generally, when parents think of a childless adult, they think of themselves in their late teens or early 20s. Perhaps they had a part-time job and took four classes at college but had no major responsibilities. Perhaps they partied a lot, used a few substances, and were accustomed to spending their money on frivolous things like designer jeans.
In short, they were carefree and used their childless as a temporary stage during which to get their youth out of their system to commit to marriage and family. Because THEY were not too responsible as childless adults and their childlessness was specifically for the purpose of “getting it out of their system,” they assume all childless adults behave that way for the rest of their lives, and that they choose childlessness so they won’t ever have to grow up.
Parents do not consider that maybe being childless at 20 is very different from being childless at 40 and that the motives for childlessness differ between parents-to-be and lifelong childless. If you:
- have a handicap or personality that makes parenting impractical or impossible
- do not have a parental drive
- are unable or unwilling to maintain a long-term relationship despite reasonable efforts to do so
- have other all-consuming commitments, like research or monastic/clerical life
- have other dependents like elderly parents
- are deeply scarred because of past abuses
- have [insert miscellaneous reason here for not parenting]
then choosing to be childless is hardly motivated by a fear of growing up. These people are also galaxies apart from young childless people who need to “get it out” because they know someday that they will have a family and that they can’t do that stuff anymore. The common image of a childless person that is promoted in our society, the wealthy adult with a high-level job that they love, who loves to travel and spend money on luxury cars, and just is too selfish to focus on children is laughable. This image no more represents the average childless adult than Angelina Jolie represents the average career mother. Childless people grow up too and serve their communities, including the children and parents within it, well.
Parenting is fraught with logistical difficulties, an emotional roller coaster, and hard work. Yet the disadvantages of parenting are offset by the cultural privilege that comes with it*** and parents are blind to it because they assume that their brief stint with childless adulthood extrapolates to the whole of childless adult life. People admire and sympathize with parents. People are willing to aid parents in need either through private charity or government assistance. Meanwhile, it is next to impossible for a single adult to get any substantive assistance from the state, no matter how in need they are. Most societies fear or otherwise look down on childless people, if they notice them at all. Childless people are invisible unless they are being condemned by parents for their endless list of mortal sins.
That was a lot, was it not? Okay, take a five-minute break and then we will reconvene to discuss the implications for thin privilege.
Welcome back, class! Let’s start up again.
Fat people are bombarded with (largely ineffective, dangerous) advice on how to maintain the ever elusive so-called body weight and improve their genetic legacies magically with diet and exercise, or perhaps a fatal unnecessary surgery or two or five. More often than not, this advice is offered by thin and average-sized people, and once in a while, you have an (allegedly) former fat person who has internalized an alarming amount of fat hatred.
Fat people just don’t realize how EASY it is to lose weight and keep it off. (Funnily enough, weight loss is easy when someone needs to shame a fat person for being fat, but it’s a heroic act of sacrifice, dedication, and moral fortitude when someone needs to be congratulated for their weight loss.) Then comes the line that we’re all waiting for:
“I lost 20 lbs that way and I’ve kept it off for nine months now.”
They assume that because a healthy, wealthy, able-bodied person can lose a small amount of weight for relatively short period of time that a person much larger than them can keep it off for life…just like that! There is no consideration for those fat people who also take medication, have an illness or disability, or who live under the stress of poverty. This is a manifestation of what is called thin privilege.
Yet there are those for whom being thin is anything but a privilege. Some cultures idolize fat as the standard for beauty and thinner (or sick) women in those cultures may go to extremes to *gain* weight. Should you happen to live in a family or culture that is concerned about illness or disordered eating, thinness that is perceived as unusual may be medicalized and improperly treated. If you are suspected of having an eating disorder and are seen as non-compliant with treatment, your freedom can be taken away and you will lose the trust of those around you. Genuine mental illnesses exist and they aren’t rare, but mental illness can be, and has been, used as a convenient explanation for those that don’t fit our standards and a way to excuse societal problems.
These are obvious example of thin disprivilege, but it is relatively uncommon nowadays. Thinness isn’t always a privilege either even in rampantly anti-fat cultures like ours. A person in recovery from an eating disorder such as anorexia needs, like any other person with an illness, to live in a climate in which recovery is encouraged. For anorexics, this includes abandoning the moral judgments placed on food, eating regular, well-balanced meals and for pleasure, moderate exercise for pleasure, and realistic, positive body images and role models. NONE of these are commonplace in our culture and indeed are challenged on a regular basis.
Anyone in the double digits now is considered fat and in need of intervention. Occasional overeating or eating processed or “comfort” foods on a regular basis is redefined as binge eating disorder, regardless of the person’s overall psychological and behavioral profile and in the absence of addictive traits. Models are airbrushed past the brink of physically possible reality and every time a person tries to balance this onslaught with a hint of a positive message for fat people, it is seen as encouraging obesity.
Selling clothes, even the plainest or least attractive clothes, is encouraging obesity. Showing fat characters on TV as anything other than objects of pity and scorn is encouraging obesity. Criticizing diet, exercise, and health problems for promoting eating disordered behaviors is encouraging obesity. Insisting that fat people have a right to equitable health care and job opportunities is encouraging obesity. There is simply no form of encouragement or assistance that a fat person is allowed to have and keep for themselves. You can’t go a single day without hearing someone engaging in diet talk or seeing an advertisement for weight loss. How is a person deathly afraid of gaining weight supposed to react to that?
Those who are not familiar with the person’s illness with stupidly congratulate them for their spectacular weight loss and ask for diet tips. Others will warn them that they should gain weight, but not TOO much, because obesity is just as bad if not worse. The pain experienced by a person with anorexia is glorified out of existence and people will admit to being *jealous* of that person.
Some avoid medications that they desperately need, or continue to take hazardous substances like heroin, to avoid weight gain. Illnesses like cancer or lupus are secretly envied, albeit to a minor degree, because that person is so thin without even trying. A weight loss surgery patient could be dying of malnutrition, may privately be willing give anything to gain weight, and all the onlookers will envy their single-digit clothing size. And no one is interested in the terrible cost paid by some for their thinness and too many doctors will not treat these illnesses because of a fear of weight gain in their patients. So they continue to suffer in silence.
Patients like this would do anything to enjoy food and movement like anyone else, to be healthy again, to be loved as they are, and would gladly give up their thin privilege to achieve those things. For them, thinness is not a privilege.
Too many people assume that they know what a fat person endures when they try again and again to meet society’s expectations. Too many people are ignorant and uninterested in those who have that thin privilege but who do not want it.
The only thing I know for sure is this: No one escapes the prison of fat hatred. Nobody.
***Not all parents experience this privilege. Prostitutes raising children after escaping the abusive pimp that raped and impregnated them in the first place isn’t exactly a cakewalk.