What's Tony Thinking

Can You Be Liberal and Pro-Family?


For at least a generation conservatives have managed to corner the market on the pro-family label.

Indeed, to argue for policies that encourage the one-income family where a mother (or father) who wishes to do so may stay at home to focus on child raising is to risk being called reactionary or worse.

My own take is that in the present world of frayed community connections and ubiquitous social media, parenting is more important and difficult than ever. Children don’t raise themselves. Liberals ought to be more concerned about family life and pro-family policies.

On Sunday, Mother’s Day, the New York Times carried a provocative  story that flipped “Just Do It” Nike on its head. The title of the piece, by and about champion runner, Alysia Montano was, “Nike Told Me to Dream Crazy, Until I Wanted a Baby.”

Successful female track athletes who want to have a child pay a huge price: they lose their income from endorsement contracts. Not simply because they are pregnant, but because they take time off. A no-no with Nike. The Times piece called for maternity leave for athletes who hold endorsement contracts.

But there’s a bigger cultural issue here. How does it happen that “dream crazy” and “just do it” and all the other mantras of living life full out and at maximum realization of potential don’t much include children?

In some respects the answer is simple: to be a parent is to place the interests of another, a vulnerable child, ahead of your own. Parenting, unless you’re in an income bracket that allows for 24/7 nannies, remains a sacrificial vocation. There are interests, pleasures and activities that people give up when they become parents. Their own self-interest, at least to some extent, is a sail trimmed.

Personal fulfillment and self-realization is really the ethic that is pre-dominant in our society, certainly among its elites. My greatest obligation is to my own wants, desires and potential. “I gotta be me,” is a cliche but that doesn’t keep it from being repeated endlessly whether from Disney kids movies or Nike ads.

Being a Mom or Dad reconfigures that, often quite dramatically and suddenly. To become a parent is to be forcibly nudged from being the center of the world — which for most of us is a very good thing, and one that contributes to our maturation and wisdom.

The predominance of the ethic of individual self-fulfillment may be one of the reasons that the American birth rate is declining precipitously. Or it may just be that kids are demanding.

People in more traditional communities, whether religious or cultural, often haven’t bought “my personal fulfillment as the highest calling” argument. Family and parenting continue to be a central. But often in such outlier communities, economic forces have made family and child-rearing a tough go. Once again these folks are out of step with what corporations, culture trend-setters and media in America most prize.

So “Dream Crazy” and “Just Do It,” just so long as your crazy dream isn’t a family.

Recently Ross Douthat did a fuller look at the issues until the title, “The One Income Trap.” He reviewed the debate, noting Elizabeth Warren’s onetime advocacy for the one-income option. Here’s Douthat:

“This is the real “trap” created by two-earner culture. There are many families that want to raise kids on one income, or one income and some part-time work, and instead find themselves pressured, financially and culturally, to keep up with the dual-earning Smith-Joneses next door.

“That pressure has major human costs. If you look at expressed female desires in our society, there is both a substantial unmet maternal preference for part-time work over full-time work and a general desire for more children than American women are currently having. These two desires are intimately connected: No matter how gender-egalitarian society becomes, the physical realities of gestation and childbirth make it natural for most families to desire at least a temporary division of labor during the years when their kids are young, a temporary period of male breadwinning to balance the burden borne by mothers.

“And a working world that doesn’t accommodate this natural desire will end up with, well, what we increasingly have in the West — a lot of well-off dual-earner couples but fewer successful relationships and fewer children than either sex desires.”

Note this part of the final bit, “what we increasingly have in the West — a lot of well-off dual-earner couples but fewer successful relationships and fewer children . . .”

Alysia Montano’s working world wasn’t much interested in accommodating her desire to be a mother, even as it urged her to “Dream Crazy.”

As noted above, it appears to me that parenting, never a slam-dunk, has only become more challenging these days. Children need parental presence and guidance as much now, if not more, than ever. Liberals have a stake in this debate and ought to wrest the pro-family mantel back from the conservatives who have mostly given it lip service and passed off being anti-gay as being pro-family, which it most definitely is not.



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