There are many adjectives that could be applied to Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times, but ‘broody’ is not one of them:
“There is nothing like that moment when you cradle a friend’s newborn baby, gaze into its helpless eyes and realise, with a pang, that you would rather be almost anywhere else.”
However, living in the “Age of the Child” he finds that escape routes are in short supply:
“The tent of identity politics was never pitched wide enough to cover people who forswear parenthood. There is no childfree ‘community’, lobby or discourse to speak of. The childless are political unpersons – not persecuted but not noticed either…”
By way of evidence, he points to the tax and benefits system:
“Child benefit, subsidised childcare and the like constitute a prodigious transfer of money from non-parents to parents. Every other redistribution – from rich to poor, native to immigrant, young to old, region to region – is viciously contested. It is the stuff of politics. But not this, the silent subvention.”
But hang on, isn’t the stereotypical image of the undeserving welfare recipient the single mum or the deadbeat dad (not to mention their overlapping broods of carelessly acquired children)? As for political priorities, it is hard to discern a bias to breeders in the policies of the current government. After all, it was child benefit that was capped and frozen, while the state pension was protected with a ‘triple lock’. Then there’s the various freebies that the state provides to all pensioners, no matter how well-off – again these were protected while cuts were being made elsewhere.
It is true that more resources are going into child care – but in such a way as to discriminate against parents who stay at home with their children. A society that regards full-time motherhood as a waste of human resources can hardly be described as child-centred.
Ganesh argues that a bias against child-free lifestyles can also be discerned within the cultural sphere. He cites various literary examples, but makes no mention of a popular culture in which fathers are routinely portrayed as blithering idiots, while the cool and heroic figures of fiction are usually childless or, at least, untroubled by the duties of fatherhood.
A few years ago there was a car advert featuring a suave playboy type behind the wheel with a beautiful woman by his side. The twist was that the lovers were revealed to be mum and dad on a date night – the message being ‘buy our car and you too can have an exciting lifestyle, despite being a parent.’
The advert touches a raw nerve because modernity offers so many enticing alternatives to family life. Why go through the hard slog of parenthood when you could just enjoy yourself:
“The distinguishing thing about being human is that we have other reasons to live than the bleak circularity of continuing our species. We aim for more than the Darwinian minimum. Art, travel, cuisine, sport, sex that signifies nothing but its own pleasure, conversation with friends that works towards no practical purpose. We live for the ludic. It is easier to partake in most of these things without the constraints of family.”
In a society that regards the individual pursuit of happiness as the highest good, the decision to go child-free must, Ganesh argues, receive as much respect as the alternative. He describes this as the “unfinished business of liberalism”:
“Deeply conservative societies can shun the decadently childfree and be consistent. Liberal societies – and faithless, consumerist Britain more than most – simply cannot.”
It’s a compelling case, and it might even be right were it not for two things:
The first is that while the “business of liberalism” may be unfinished, it is well underway. We have overturned the moral foundations of our society so that its members may “live for the ludic.” We have set aside the age-old equations between sex and marriage and procreation. And behind a facade of tolerance, the abortion mills turn daily to ensure that every child is a ‘wanted child.’
The second problem is that all societies, no matter how liberal, must reproduce or die. Across the western world, birthrates have fallen below replacement level. Forget 2.4 children, in countries like Germany and Italy it’s more like 1.4 children – a recipe for demographic collapse.
Childlessness isn’t always a choice, nor does it necessarily imply an attitude of radical selfishness. Nevertheless those of us who don’t have kids owe literally everything to those who do.
Far from resenting parents for whatever special esteem they may still receive, they deserve our profound gratitude.