When It Comes to Work-Life Balance, Parenting Isn’t a “Choice”

Childless people should get off as much time as they want, but it shouldn't be at the expense of kids.

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As the world has an ongoing conversation about what certain kinds of jobs (mostly office jobs) look like in a post-COVID world, controversies have burbled between parents and childless workers. The basic premise is a familiar one to anyone who remembers that episode of Sex and the City “A Woman’s Right to Shoes,” wherein Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) throws herself a “Single person party” because she’s sick of married people (often with kids) getting to have parties for no good reason. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) also gets chickenpox in this episode and talks a lot of shit about people with kids. In 2008, when I was 27-years-old and writing essays for the now-defunct sex and culture website, I loved this episode, even though it had aired five years prior, and, as a white male who loved talking about Battlestar Galactica, I wasn’t exactly the target audience. That said, when a friend accused me of being a broke, male Carrie Bradshaw, I embraced the label, and everything that went along with it. This included giving people with kids side-eye.

This is a long way of saying, hey, childless people, I get it. You think parents can’t see beyond themselves. You think parents chose the inconvenience of having a child, and therefore, have no right to create a proxy inconvenience for anyone else. In a widely circulated New York Times article, the idea that of a Carrie Bradshaw-style war between childless workers and parents is back in fashion. It discusses how Facebook employees believe, apparently, that flexible leave policies “have primarily benefited parents.”

I could get really self-righteous about this, but because I remember rolling my eyes about people with kids, I’m going to go easy on these folks, and just rephrase this compliant in mathematical terms: Facebook employees believe that flexible leave policies have primarily benefited people who are responsible for the lives of other, smaller people, who cannot fend for themselves.

In fairness to the Facebook employees who are the focus of this article, the real problem is the very prominent comments from readers of the Times who repeatedly express the strange opinion that parents “choose” to have children, and therefore are undeserving of any special treatment. One reader says:

“Those of us who choose not to have children are discriminated against in so many ways. We should get the same number of days off. Just because I chose not to have kids and give up all my free time should not mean I have to work more hours than my colleagues. I’ll take those days off and enjoy them at the pool, thank you.”

This comment is followed up by someone else who says this:

“Everyone seems to forget that being a parent is, for most people, a choice. It brings tremendous benefits to parents, which presumably is why they choose it. It also brings costs. To demand extra privileges because you choose to have children…should I not then demand extra privileges because I choose to have pets, or choose to live an inconvenient distance from my workplace, or make other choices that improve my life in other ways? Fairness does demand equal treatment.”

Look, I want childless people to take time off to get their spa day or whatever, too. And, yeah, I think it’s fucked up that Carrie Bradshaw’s shoes got ruined because of kids, but the fallacy of false equivalence is in overdrive here. Choosing to have a pet or choosing not to have kids or choosing to have kids are all choices, but they’re not choices that are remotely equal. Relatively speaking, someone could give a pet away, or permanently ask someone else to watch it. Obviously, if that’s not an emotional option, I would never judge anyone for having a pet. Because that’s what this comes down to. Judgment.

Whenever I teach memoir writing (which I’ve been doing for nine years) I give my students one very important rule when discussing someone else’s writing: We’re not here to workshop life choices, we’re here to talk about the writing. The reason I have this rule? Well, in one memoir class in NYC, in about 2012, I had a student workshopping an essay about having a bad apartment; you know, Sex and the City problems. But, several other people in the workshop were offended by the essay because they asked: “Why didn’t you just move?”

This, of course, is not the point of a writing workshop. Why someone did or did not choose to live their life the way they did is not actually anyone’s business. And, honestly, that same principle applies elsewhere. If a childless worker thinks that parents “chose” to have kids, and therefore are both reaping the benefits and the consequences, they are, at least, semantically, correct. Most parents did choose to have children. But, pretending like one knows anything about that choice is like me pretending to know anything about any choice any person makes, ever. Choices are complicated, and unlike a choice to watch one movie over another, or order an iced chai versus a mocha, the choice to have a child, and care for it, for the rest of your life, is a choice that creates a myriad of other new choices which the would-be parent can never see coming.

When I was low-key anti-parent, I too had a hard time picturing a world in which I would become a parent. But now that I am one, I don’t know if I view it as a choice. For one thing, it wasn’t a decision I made alone. For another thing, just because you want to have a child, that doesn’t mean you’ll get one. Should people who have miscarriages be silenced because they chose to try to have a child? I mean, they knew what they were getting into, right? You already see the problem with this. Whether having biological children or adopting children, we’re not dealing with a simple “choice” the way these angry people are talking about it. We’re just dealing with life.

As many have pointed out, the problem with workers not feeling like they’re getting enough time off hardly has anything to do with parents getting an extra bonus ability because they have kids. Instead, it’s a problem with the way childcare exists in general, and the unfair demands put on all workers, regardless of the choices they make in their private lives. The problem isn’t that Facebook was favoring parents, the problem is that Facebook apparently was creating a working environment where people couldn’t take time off if they needed to.

But, the larger reality is a little bit simpler. Many companies, and many jobs, don’t even have this kind of debate, because the debate is kind of non-existent. If parents lose their jobs, it can devastate their families. But if those careers don’t allow parents to be with their children in a meaningful way, for most parents, those careers aren’t worth it. Because the one choice parents make every single day, is the one you never understand until you have a kid. And it’s simple: You’d be willing to give up everything for your child. I think even Carrie would get that.

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