It infuriates me the number of times I’ve heard people express in public discourse that parenting is ‘a lifestyle choice’. The implication is, of course, that parents have no right to expect consideration, adjustments or support from society as a whole and that non-parents have no obligation to make financial contributions, through taxes, to support parents directly or indirectly. It infuriates me further how few times I’ve heard a position so obviously ludicrous pass unquestioned. Parenting is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’…
A mere ‘lifestyle choice’ is an action or a series of actions that you make for personal reasons and – here’s the crucial bit – a mere ‘lifestyle choice’ makes no contribution to society as a whole. In liberal democracies we generally hold that people should be free to make whatever ‘lifestyle choices’ they wish, so long as their choices don’t harm others. We also don’t usually see ‘lifestyle choices’ as warranting public support. But parenting is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’… Yes, the decision to become a parent is a deeply personal one and yes, it changes your lifestyle. The actions taken as a parent, everyday, are taken for deeply personal reasons. But, parenting makes an enormous contribution to society as a whole.
Compare parenting to surfing and providing healthcare, for example. Surfing is a lifestyle choice. Imagine I had a magical wand and I instantly removed all desire to surf from the entire population of the world at once. People just stopped turning up at beaches to surf. What would happen? Some specific businesses would collapse (i.e. businesses that make or sell surfboards) but pretty much life would just go on. In contrast, imagine what would happen if I instantly removed all desire to provide healthcare from the entire population of the world. All currently registered nurses and doctors instantly resigned and refused to work, all nursing and medical students dropped out and no one lined up to replace them. Our hospitals would instantly be in chaos! Our governments would declare an international health emergency overnight and untold numbers of people would die. Choosing to become a nurse or doctor is not a mere ‘lifestyle choice’. Of course, people choose to become a nurse or a doctor for personal reasons, that choose impacts on their lifestyle and many doctors and nurses find their work deeply fulfilling and rewarding. But the fact that some people make that choice benefits us all. Society as a whole has a stake in some of us becoming nurses and doctors. Further, society as a whole has a stake in doctors and nurses having the resources and support that they need to practise with professionalism, the latest scientific knowledge and care. Now imagine if I instantly removed all desire to parent from the entire population of the world. Existing children were abandoned and people simply stopped reproducing. What would happen? Society would be in utter chaos. If we managed to survive the initial chaos, our economies would collapse. With no new children born, as the population aged, one by one each and every business would lose their customers and their workforce. Our species would, quite literally, die out. If our economies, our societies, our very survival as a species depends upon a segment of the population making the choice to be parents, and putting their time and effort into parenting for many years, how can that be called a mere ‘lifestyle choice’? Not only that but parenting quality impacts greatly upon the kind of society we live in. How well the average parent parents changes the next generation for better or worse, for all of us. It changes everything from crime rates, to rates of divorce, from the intelligence of the population, to the capacity for compassion. And we all must live in the world that parents are creating. Parenting makes an enormous contribution to the economy and to society. And that means that providing societal support for parenting is both sensible and just. Ensuring that parents have the resources and support to parent well benefits us all. We all have a stake in it.
Apply it to your life: I think that by parenting you are making a great contribution to our society and I think that entitles you to the support that you need to parent well. Importantly, I don’t think this support is charity, I think justice demands it and I think we all benefit from societal investment in parenting. What do you think?