The parenting problem the government can't fix

As America’s birth rate continues its years-long descent, it’s getting harder to ignore that the U.S. is a difficult place to raise children. Some argue we need to provide parents with more material support, such as paid parental leave, child care, or cash allowances if we want people to have more babies, while skeptics note that those policies haven’t increased fertility much in other countries. I’m a strong proponent of robust family policies, but I’ll admit that they might not be enough to convince me to have another child — because it’s not just the financial or professional toll of parenting that worries me.

There is a cultural weight dangling from the yoke of modern American parenthood — one that is probably beyond the government to alleviate. The very same logic of self-sufficiency that rationalizes our anemic family policies — “Don’t have kids if you can’t afford them” — underpins our social expectations for children, and by extension, parents. It echoes in the grumbling about unruly kids disturbing the tranquility of public life and the censure of incompetent parents unwilling or unable to manage them…

The only alternative is for parents to avoid public life altogether. To be honest, that’s exactly what I did for a while, especially after giving birth to my second child. Now nearly three, she is by nature loud and tumbly and destructive — preternaturally disposed to seek out the limits and possibilities of her surroundings, whether it’s an artfully stacked set of porcelain coffee mugs at a cafe or the bellowing acoustics of a train station platform.