Published on November 24th, 2021 | by Aya de Leon0
“Experts” Getting Nervous as Parents of the Future Threaten to Strike
Our society and economy routinely exploits the labor of parenting, mostly done by women, by making it unpaid, low-status, and invisible. It’s not framed as labor, it’s framed as “love,” the “natural way of things,” just a part of “the cycle of life.”
On November 21, 2021 the Seattle Times reported that experts were worried about the future of the economy due to an increase in adults who were deciding not to become parents. I often think about parenting as a labor issue, but this month, I am particularly tuned in to thinking about justice for workers.
On November 17, 2021, my lecturers’ union—UC AFT Local 1474—had an unprecedented victory. We won the best contract for contingent faculty in the nation. I teach at UC Berkeley. As women and people of color have begun doing much of this work, the wages have dropped and the conditions have become much more precarious. Our union demanded a fair contract, we organized, threatened to strike, and the university met our demands. And it was with that union perspective that I received the news about adults refusing to parent. The labor implications were clear to me: the future parents of the US were threatening to strike.
The cultural pressure to have children is heavy and continuous because the economy desperately needs this work to be done to prepare workers to play their roles in the economy. We parents think of it as our job to raise good citizens who will make a contribution—literally hundreds of thousands of unpaid hours of labor and financial investment—so that our kids can grow up and keep the economy going. Corporations and the owning class profit by extracting this labor from parents—mostly women—without having to compensate us or invest in the conditions of our work.
Even before the pandemic, millennials could see that the system wasn’t working. People who had done everything right, excelled in high school and successfully completed college, couldn’t get stable jobs doing interesting work with decent pay. They were saddled with debt and scrambling to pay exorbitant rents. They were having trouble making ends meet, but everyone seemed to be profiting off them: commercial lenders, increasingly corporate institutions of higher ed, landlords, and corporate bosses. None of their own hard work seemed to be paying off.
I am a GenXer. The feminists of my generation came of age wanting and expecting to have it all. And like many of my cohort, I delayed parenting until my early 40s, when my career and finances had me merging into an onramp to the middle class. Becoming a mother is the number one change that plummets women into poverty. I was determined to build a life and career that could survive the exploitative conditions of motherhood. In the event that my partner left, I still wanted to be in a position to continue to write and thrive. So I waited til the last possible minute to become a mom. I worked hard to set my life up and I was fortunate. When the pandemic came, my partner and I were both able to work from home, and I had a broad network of community that included an outdoor school so I had childcare during the lockdown. In these brutal times, I learned that the conditions of my parenting were really quite privileged. Moms became homeschooling teachers, left the workforce, carried huge care burdens and generally took hits in all areas of life.
But even before the pandemic, millennials had become disenchanted with the system. More of them really understand via experience that the economy is based on exploiting them as workers. I am not surprised that they are less likely to want to become parents. Millennials are smart. They can see that once people have kids, strike is impossible.
In 2017, in connection with the International Women’s Strike, various activists were calling for women to withhold our labor in A Day Without a Woman. Many of us moms were upset. We agreed with the demands, but we couldn’t strike from our care work. Parents can’t withhold this labor without harming our children. Of course, we could demand that dads do the work for a day. But that is much easier said than done.
There are many different kinds of families, and not all have a mom and a dad. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of families in the US have married parents, although not necessarily heterosexual. Unfortunately, the gender gap in hetero couples is that dads are less willing to be exploited under these labor conditions. Consciously or unconsciously, they willingly throw moms under the parenting exploitation bus on a daily basis. If moms can’t get dads to support the feminist notion that they should carry half the labor of parenting on an ongoing basis for the good of the kids, it is unrealistic to expect most dads to do for a strike to make a feminist point.
In the intimate labor battle that is heterosexual domestic partnership, striking is an extremely difficult proposition for mothers. Last year, I wrote about it here: “Pandemic Reveal: Heterosexual Motherhood is a Hostage Situation.” Even before the pandemic, books like Katrina Alcorn’s Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, and Darcy Lockman’s All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership document these heterosexual parenting dynamics with both anecdotes and statistics. Dads know they can underperform, because moms will step in to protect the kids from harm. But a new generation of women is saying no to the whole package.
My generation thought that we could be different from our mothers. We were smarter, more feminist. We wouldn’t fall into the traps they did when we became mothers. But we fell into the biggest trap of all, underestimating the impact of patriarchy and blaming women for their own condition. Meanwhile, millennials have watched us march into motherhood with our pink kitty hats and our highfalutin ideas, only to emerge exhausted and haggard, covered with applesauce and resentful as hell of the men we thought were feminist enough to do everything differently from their dads. The millennials watched us and learned: once you have the kid, the leverage is there to coerce you to consent to having your labor exploited. Especially for mothers—the deep body experience of connection: the time you carried them in your womb, the experience of birth, the bonding of breastfeeding. The feeling in your heart that you’d never want this human to come to harm. All that the love you feel for your children, all those survival instincts are weaponized against you in patriarchy and capitalism to accept working conditions that are unsafe, unfair, uncompensated, unacknowledged, and dehumanizing—for both paid labor as well as unpaid domestic and parenting labor.
In toxic heterosexual relationships, this love is further weaponized because dads hold keys to harm and traumatize children by acts of commission and omission, by their presence and absence. Moms may feel pressure to placate dads to protect children. Which is why abusive men sabotage birth control and attack abortion rights.
To have a child with a man is to tether yourself to him literally FOREVER. In patriarchy, it offers a man a massive pretext for rights to police and control a woman’s choices for nearly two decades of her life. Even if the couple breaks up, she may need government permission to move out of state. This dynamic was brilliantly chronicled in the book and TV adaptation MAID, in which a young woman required massive amounts of support to leave an abusive relationship because she and the abuser had a young child together.
But a new generation of women—and men—look at the mythology of parenting/family with skepticism: so much love! the kids are so cute! whee! fun! But they aren’t taken in by the Hallmark card anymore. Not in pandemic, climate emergency, economic crises, and rising fascism. They’re threatening to strike.
A new generation is able to debunk the myth thanks to feminist advances in changing the culture and a new level of honesty available via social media. Mothers are publicly telling the truth about parenting realities: unending labor! deep isolation! loss of identity! being marginalized and undervalued! abandon your dreams! exploitation! you’re on your own! emotional breakdown! no safety net!
Social media and youth empowerment also means young folks are publicly telling the truth about their experience, especially in the pandemic and climate crisis: anxiety! depression! horror at the state of the world! Young people are also expressing rage that they are the ones demanding climate justice and saving the future. These youth movements are busting the mythology of parenting as an opportunity to be adored by cute little people. Instead, we have to figure out how to protect our children from a predatory economy in a crumbling society. We have to navigate rising mental health crises, including an ongoing vulnerability to climate-related disaster with chronic climate anxiety. The reality of parenting in a pandemic means that at any moment, you could literally become the only person your child sees and touches IRL for a year. These conditions would give anyone pause.
Up until now, the economy could reliably expect a certain percentage of people to have children. The labor of raising the next generation is needed to create workers to keep the economy going. Experts are worried because the people the economy is counting on as “future parents” are rejecting these working conditions. Many women responded to my twitter thread about this by saying that they would love to have kids, but that they simply refuse to parent in the current economic, cultural, and political climate.
So if “experts” want to address declining birth rates, let’s get going on transforming the economy, supporting care labor, creating a robust safety net, making dignified work for all, and addressing the climate crisis at scale. If we want people to get excited to take on the work of parenting, let’s create the world that people would be proud to bring children into.