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Children's Blessings and Burdens Overspill the Family
Your stories of how other people's children shaped your life
Welcome to new subscribers! Every Monday, I post a short reflection or essay, and, on Thursday, I share a roundup of reader comments on a recent post. This week’s roundup is drawn from “It's Not Just Parents Who Benefit from Child Allowances.” My essay this week was on “Abortion as Women's Entrance Fee to Society.”
And remember, Other Feminisms is free to all readers, but paid subscribers make it possible for me to turn down freelance work to work on this project.
A few weeks ago, I responded to complaints that parents shouldn’t be subsidized by non-parents. Children are a common good, and the benefit of supporting them isn’t limited to their immediate family.
To begin with, each of us begins as a child, and thus everyone benefits from support for children, whether you go on to be a parent or not. Then there are more economic arguments about requiring children to be future workers to power social security benefits (true, but a little bloodless and far from the best case).
I asked you to tell me your stories of seeing the blessings of children overspill their immediate families, and you responded.
Having children in your life is a way of trying out the idea of being a parent. Children become a lived reality, rather than a blurry threat. Hope found that her goddaughter helped her imagine herself as a mother, and her boyfriend as a father:
Spending time with my goddaughter and her brother (now 3 and 4, respectively) showed me that I did actually want children! On a slightly different note, my boyfriend and I have spent time with his cousin's girls (all about the same age) and watching him interact with those little girls is one of the things that helped me fall in love with him. I can so clearly imagine what a good father he'll be someday. My life would be a lot less rich and lovely without these children in it!
Seeing how my husband cared for his younger siblings gave me a similar joy in thinking about what he would be like as a tender father.
Jordan wrote about her experience receiving and offering this example to others:
We are blessed with a larger extended family, so the "cousins" they are growing up alongside are their second cousins. It was my aunt who normalized breastfeeding for me when I was eleven and my cousin was a baby. And now I normalize it for my younger cousins at family holidays, for the ones who won't have littler siblings of their own. I scare my aunts by letting the 7 year old watch my baby alone and saying "you're in charge" of the room (in a house with adults nearby). I want their children to be able to feel responsible and capable of caring for babies so that they feel more equipped than I did when our first was born.
Magdalen asked about whether a fertility gap exists for men:
This is maybe a bit nitpicky, but I kind of chafe at presentations of the fertility gap when phrased in terms of "women want more children than they are having," because it ignores fathers and perhaps implicitly depreciates their preferences. It also leaves open two fairly distinct scenarios: one is that women on average want more children than their male partners, and the other is that the average couple mutually wants more children than they are likely to have.
It’s a good question, and I haven’t found a good answer! For one thing, measuring how many children men have relative to how many they want is tricky. Men are more likely than women to not be involved in raising their children or even to not know that their children exist.
I’d be interested if people have seen good reporting on this. In general, I think men are less expected to long to be fathers and then have fewer spaces to talk about their desire for fatherhood.
Claire and her husband were bound to another family by a less-than-legal housing arrangement:
We sublet a basement apartment from dear friends of ours who had an almost 2 year old. Having her around almost every day was a delight—she would bring us our mail just before dinner, follow my husband around as he cooked dinner and I visited with her mother, and was generally thrilled to have the attention of four adults. Then after they moved out, I still watched her younger sister (who was 4 months younger than my son) four mornings a week while my friend worked. It’s part of the reason I’m so much in favor of policies that accommodate and promote childcare pluralism and “family, friend, and neighbor care” (as HHS calls it)—these sustained, communal caregiving relationships are so good for everyone involved.
In many places, zoning makes this kind of arrangement illegal, even though it’s a wonderful way for families to begin their lives.
Wesley Hill, a celibate gay man, has written about his own experience of being incorporated into a family through the ties of godparenthood:
During the announcements, Aidan introduced himself to the congregation and then pointed to our pew. “This is my family,” he said. He asked Mel and Felicity to stand up and said, “Mel is my wife, and Felicity is my daughter.” And then he indicated that I should stand too. “And this is our friend Wes. We live in Christian community. Wes shares our home and is Felicity’s godfather.”
When I told another friend about what Aidan did, he replied that it was “a public declaration that ‘We all belong together.’” Precisely.
Kathryn wrote about her surprise at how her children were received by her extended family (I have slightly compressed her original comment):
When I got pregnant, I knew that our parents would be excited to have a grandchild, but I had no idea how our siblings or our close single friends would feel about our kid, since most of them are either not in a life stage where they interact with kids often or have explicitly said they don’t want to have kids themselves.
So it’s been incredibly cool and heartwarming to see our siblings become enthusiastic aunts and uncles who clamor for baby photos in the family group chat and visit us just to spend time with our son. Even my close friends who don’t want to have kids are so happy to be part of my son’s life.
It made me realize how much the cultural idea of kids as a burden or an inconvenience had impacted me without my being aware of it. I had pictured the response to us having a kid to be similar to the response a friend or family member might make to us getting really into hiking or Marvel movies—acceptance of a lifestyle choice and willingness to accommodate our new enthusiasm, but with a heavy side helping of bemused tolerance.
It’s been a delightful surprise to discover that our son’s has a place in an already-existing community of love, without having had to earn it. Understanding this has made me more willing to share the hard parts of parenting with my family and friends and ask for things I need.
Her comment leaves me with such a mix of joy and sorrow. She’s right that it’s easy to assume that children are a problem or a provocation. That expectation can leave parents isolated, assuming it’s wrong to ask for help unless they can’t go on without it.
And it leaves aunts, uncles, godparents, and single friends more isolated, too. They might find they delight in being needed, but aren’t asked.
Your comments and stories are a reminder that a child is never a purely private matter, relevant only to its parents… or to a woman and her doctor. We are all entangled with each other, and our burdens and blessings are meant to be shared.