What do American parents care about today?
I am always interested in research about my fellow caregivers, so I just read a discussion of a new Pew Parents Study in a New York Times newsletter with interest. The study was summarized by opinion columnist Ross Douthat. My response here is not to the study itself, which you can find here, but to Douthat’s discussion of it—which focuses on what he calls “workism.” In fact, he has grimly titled his newsletter article “Is ‘Workism’ Dooming Civilization? Notes on the New Pew Parents Study.”
“When you ask [American parents] to give weight to professional aspirations versus personal ones, to compare the importance of their kids being ‘financially independent’ or happy in their work to their getting married or having kids, finances and jobs win out easily—and by an extraordinary margin, in fact. According to Pew, 88 percent of American parents rate financial success and professional happiness as either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important for their kids. Only about 20 percent give the same rating to eventual marriage and children.”
Douthat goes on to highlight “the general fertility decline” in the world and to decry the possibility that parents think “the essence of a valuable adulthood rests in work and money.” That’s the worldview he says is called “workism” by Derek Thompson.
Let me just say: This interpretation is myopic. The commentary above comes from a perspective completely outside the everyday struggles of today’s American parents. So let’s talk about the real question: Why do we, as parents, care so much about our children’s eventual jobs and work?
The answer is obvious: Because living in the US—as people, but especially as parents who are raising children—is incredibly expensive, and it’s only gotten worse in recent years. Naturally, if we want a good life for our children, given what we are experiencing, we want them to not just survive, but to be able to build a life without constant financial worry and precariousness, and that means finding decent jobs and work.
This has nothing to do with having bad values, or not caring about character, or our kids’ eventual happy family lives, etc. It’s just the reality on the ground!
I’ll paint you a picture of the financial concerns and risks plaguing parents—ones that I often think will be even tougher on our children as they grow into adulthood. Note: I will get to a few Stoic parent reflections at the end!
1. Childcare. Our kids’ lives start with sky-high childcare costs in the US. Where I live in California, it literally was going to cost me more to pay for my children’s full-time daycare than the income I would make from working full time. I pulled back on work during my kids’ younger years in order to try to balance both being a full-time mom and a part-time professional—working as a freelancer and consultant in evenings and during naptimes, and during part-time, part-day preschool, while actively parenting almost all of the time. I still did not make much income then, but I was fortunate my husband made more. This is a very difficult calculation for all the families I know! And many folks have to give up on work because of the cost of care, creating financial worries. (That’s not to even mention the dearth of paid parental leave nationally for new moms/dads caring for their infants!)
2. Education. Our elementary and secondary education systems have a range of problems, but here, let’s focus on higher education. For ambitious students who want to reap the rewards of the US’s top paid or most desirable jobs in many fields, our education system culminates in an insanely expensive college and/or grad student bill. Even public colleges are much more expensive than they used to be; I recently spoke with a man in his 70s who told me his family paid just a few hundred dollars for his whole education at the University of California. It’s mind blowing. A few students currently get free rides at universities for various reasons, and the competition for such benefits is fierce. But for most students, the education bills are so high that that virtually no one except the very wealthy can afford to pay. That means students and parents must shoulder loans, or students alone must take on loans; and someone will have to pay eventually. It creates decades of financial instability.
3. Health care. Health care is outrageously pricey in the US, and can cost a fortune even if you have a medical insurance plan. It is insanely costly (banktupingly so) is you don’t. People live in fear of getting really sick or needing surgery. Want mental health care? Hope you have a high paying job to afford to see a therapist. Many psychologists are not covered by insurance. The strain on parents supporting families with healthcare is high, especially if their children (or anyone in the family) has significant health needs.
4. Housing. In the US today, housing costs have gone through the roof. Rents are high; buying is prohibitive for many, scratching their “American dream” of home ownership. Alongside paying for other consumer goods that have risen in price with inflation, many families can’t afford their bills, and lots of parents have to hold down multiple jobs to make it work.
5. Lack of a safety net. There is little social safety net if folks fall off the path financially today. Can’t afford rent or mortgage for a couple months? We’ve all seen the tent cities in our major metropolitan areas. In today’s climate, we parents can imagine our kids struggling, without a home, if the worst happens. And that is mortifying. Community groups try to fill the gaps but the problems are huge. By the way, since adults are also struggling to save for retirement, we parents can’t necessarily keep supporting adult kids either—everyone is lacking a net to fall back on.
An important note on the safety net: During the pandemic, the American child tax credit was temporarily raised to provide relief to families with children. The child tax credit expansion increased payments to $3,000-3,600 per child for many. Some said this change was on track to cut child poverty in half in the US. But in late 2021, Congress failed to extend this legislation. The credit is now back down to $1,500-1,800, and poverty has increased again.
So….given all this, is it surprising that people want their children to grow up to get decent jobs and become financially stable? As parents we know how difficult it is to live without the income such jobs provide. We know how little tangible support there is for child rearing in general. Sure, we all love kids, but when it comes to the financial side—you’re on your own, folks! Maybe that’s why parents are hesitant to say that they insist that their kids to follow the same marriage/family path they did. (Or possibly, they also want their kids to choose their family lives for themselves! Again, independence and self-sufficiency!)
To dig a bit deeper, we need to ask ourselves: On a societal level, what is freedom in the US today? It means—in part—the kind of freedom of movement and action and respect of the body and mind that having financial stability can give us. If we want to be self-sufficient and able to make our own choices, and as free as possible from oppression by others, we need to gain a financial grounding for ourselves. That’s not my choice, that is just how our market-based society is structured. That is what American parents are facing—and that’s what parents want for their kids. (Unless we all decide to abandon being pro-social and become Greek Cynics like Diogenes and live in the street without even a cup to drink from, that is.)
Given everything I outlined above, blaming parents for instilling “workism” in children as Douthat does is unfair. Instead, how about asking how we can create real efforts to support parents and kids (with more than just words)? This doesn’t necessarily have to be government based—it’s possible see an upswell of support from private organizations. Could we look for ways to reduce the burdens on parents by putting funds towards preschool and childcare, by supporting tax credits that lift folks out of poverty, and by striving to make education more affordable at every level? Could we improve access to and costs of health care and mental health care (mental health representing parents’ highest concern in the Pew study, with four-in-ten U.S. parents with children younger than 18 say they are extremely or very worried that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point)? Could we find or build more housing for displaced families (which will be even more important if a recession sets in)?
In today’s world, and our current system, any good thing you want for your child comes with a price tag. And no matter how we feel about it, blaming parents and suggesting that financial independence should not be perceived as important really is not going to help.
One more thought is from a Stoic perspective. Stoics intend to become self-sufficient in all they do. That can include financial self-sufficiency, however you define it. It also relates to the question of our children’s ultimate success and happiness: In the end they are responsible for that. We’re trying to give them a proper foundation so that they can go out on their own, as humans, and find their own sense of human flourishing. Following a pro-social, clear-eyed, question-your-impressions Stoic approach, it would be short-sighted not to inform our kids about how the world around them works so that they can make their own choices for how they want to live. Ultimately, I hope my kids will find independence and self-sufficiency (not just financially but on every level!), as well as a sense of their own purpose and meaning, for themselves.
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What stressors are bothering you? What could you let go of in 2023?
One of my stressors is what other people think of me. I spend more time than I’d like to admit wondering about how others are judging me. All the people I encounter are potential judges, whether at home, work, with other parents, in my neighborhood, or in my online community—which is the entire world!
My Stoic practice is excellent for considering ways to defeat this way of thinking. Worldly “achievements” racked up to impress others have never mean much to Stoics, and what other people think is not at the top of the list of what we should care about.
This goes against decades of just the opposite way of thinking—cultivated by the society we live in. In particular, many women I know recognize that we have been trained by social pressures to think that we need to be universally liked and constantly seek approval for our behavior.
I would like to let go of this. If some people don’t like me, or don’t approve of me, why should I care?
I realize that as social creatures who evolved to live in groups with social hierarchies, humans may have an inherent fear of others’ judgments. But we can find inspiration for a different way of living by studying the ancient Greeks.
Above all, we should consider the Cynics, philosophers that Zeno learned from before he founded Stoicism, as a student of the Cynic Crates.
The Cynics deliberately exposed themselves to public embarrassment to rid themselves of the need to please others. They worked to inoculate themselves from others’ opinions regularly. The goal was not to focus energy on anything except the virtues and a return to what they saw as nature’s simple gifts.
The famous Greek Cynic Diogenes, who saw his society as corrupt and vicious, took to sleeping in the streets, in a large ceramic jar. He had no use for reputation, and he urinated and masturbated publicly. When Alexander the Great—the world’s most celebrated military leader at the time—came to visit him, he told him to move out of his rays of sun.
Later, when Zeno was studying philosophy with Crates (who had himself studied with Diogenes), the older man gave him a potful of lentil-soup to carry around. To top off the embarrassment, Crates then cracked the pot, causing Zeno’s legs to be covered with soup—sparking shame, of which Crates tried to “cure” him through this kind of “exposure therapy.” Zeno, it is said, ran away, but he must have learned from the experience nevertheless.
Can you imagine anyone you know acting this way? Granted, Plato called Diogenes “a Socrates gone mad.” Most of us could agree that there seems to be something extreme in his behavior, and certainly, no parent who needs to take responsibility for their child should attempt even half of this.
But the point remains. What if we didn’t put energy into how others judge or see us, but instead, into how we cultivate our character and live by the virtues that we put stock in?
Could we try our own sort of exposure therapy, to get ourselves more comfortable with others judging or disagreeing with us, or even disliking our ideas or behaviors? And with being more true to actions and intentions that reflect our core values?
It could mean setting more boundaries. Let’s say someone asks you to volunteer for organizing an event at your kids’ school. Here is a chance to practice saying no and seeing how you feel about it— can you tolerate that feeling of being less likable, less helpful?
Now let’s say your boss asks you to finish a big project by Monday—which would mean you’d have to work all weekend and miss time with your kids. Here’s a chance to ask for a reasonable extension rather than fear for your reputation. Could you request to get it done by Wednesday instead? You’re risking being seen as less than perfect, but you’ve given yourself the time you need.
And what if your child is asking you for a last-minute ride to go to a friend’s place, when you’ve already signed up to go to an exercise class at that time? How about asking them to try to arrange a carpool, if they are old enough, or to consider taking a bus or transport? Suggesting these ideas, if your child is old enough/responsible enough, does not make you a bad mom or dad.
And how about other people—people who maybe look at your appearance or your home or your job or your ideas with suspicion or event outright dislike. Do you know people like this? Does it bother you what they think? It could help to recall the Stoic phrase, “It seemed right to him/her.” People tend to believe their own pre-conceived notions. We can’t control what others think, and for the most part, we can’t change it.
As long as those folks aren’t causing me or others harm, can I tolerate their opprobrium without letting it bother me? Could I keep my head high while I imagine others whispering about me behind my back?
When I think of Diogenes’ outrageous behavior, Crates’ effort to teach with soup, and the (self) respect they cultivated by sticking to their principles, I start to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could.
What about you?
Please note: I've moved my ongoing blog/newsletter to The Stoic Mom Substack. Check it out and subscribe for free!
Happy New Year! Today, I’m taking a trip down memory lane to when my first child was born, and it’s reminding me about something that helped sustain me during those early days: new friendships that offered mutual support. It’s a side of parenting folks don’t talk about as much as childcare itself, but that definitely merits our attention. (Let’s not let ‘old acquaintance be forgot’!)
In the beginning, my mom friends and I always joked about how crazy it is that no one gives you a manual when you take home a newborn baby. As if a days-old infant is easier to handle than a microwave! On top of all the physical issues that come with giving birth to a newborn, new mothers also deal with a whole range of questions and concerns about how to keep their babies safe, fed, and rested.
And while some things about infant care feel intuitive, most of it is pretty confusing… and all of it is up for debate when you start reading books, magazines, and social media.
And on top of THAT, in our society, new parents and their newborns are often cut off from all they knew before. You have a baby and go on parental leave/stop working—and lose your work community (at least temporarily). You stop going out—and lose your local community (again, for a period). You stop seeing friends who don’t want to be around babies, and lose some of them for good. Your family may live far away, or may visit and then go away again.
So many reasons to feel that you’re isolated and alone with an infant needing round the clock care.
To counteract this isolation and sense of uncertainty, after my first child was born, I joined a moms’ club. And then I quickly joined a second one. (I would have been happy to be part of any parent or caregiver organization, but when my child was born—a child who is a teen now—mothers’ groups were what I could find locally.) In my small living room, I hosted about 10 other mothers and their infants, all spread out in a circle on their tummies on the carpet. We compared notes on how we were surviving with 24/7 care needs, how nursing was going (or not going) and how we were dealing with our own physical recovery.
The group I spent the most time with was Las Madres, a longstanding local moms’ club in my neck of the woods. I recall my first club meeting. I found myself with my infant in a carrier walking into a Las Madres meeting in another parent’s home, and seeing folks cradling their infants in various stages of wakefulness. I walked up to another mom holding a baby that looked about 3 months older than my little one. It turned out hers (a boy) was about 6 months old, and mine (a girl) was about 3 months old. We started to talk, and later formed part of a playgroup for our infants and then toddlers. The babies were too young to interact at first—parallel play or just playing with their own feet was the extent of it. Later on they started sharing toys. But really, the playdates were for the parents. That mom has since become one of my closest friends for the past 17 years.
The bonding among new parents extended to “Moms’ Night Out” evenings organized by club members at local inexpensive eateries or cafes. We’d leave our infants at home with another caregiver, and join the group chatting about anything and everything, but mostly about our babies. I looked around at the people at the table, realizing how unusual it was to be part of a social group with folks I had nothing in common with other than our babies were born around the same time. The group encompassed a cross-section of mothers with questions like my own. The bonding was real—we were in the trenches of new parenthood, and there for each other to talk about sleep patterns, breastfeeding tricks, fighting off infections, coping with returning to work, and more.
Today I look back on those days with nostalgia. I’m thankful for that time. I am not sure if the mothers’ clubs I was part of a number of years back are as vibrant today, now that social media has grown even more prevalent for answering our baby-related questions, and since the pandemic stifled so many social activities for a long period. But I hope they are, and that they encompass any new parent or caregiver who wants mutual support.
All this leads me to say that we owe it to ourselves to form these kinds of friendships if we can. As Stoics, we don’t rely on other people exclusively to get us through tough times—we do that for ourselves. But there is a very important value to making and keeping friends through difficult times. We seek to find those people who inspire us to become even better.
As Epictetus said, we should keep company with those who uplift us, and “whose presence calls forth your best.” The friends I made as a new mother did that, and the handful of folks I’ve kept ties with from that period have been there over the long haul—through medical challenges and house moves and changing jobs and shifting relationships and everything else.
Over the years, the questions about our kids change, and so do our lives as we move past infant care into many other phases. But the desire for this kind of friendship persists, and those who have been with us through the parenting journey occupy a special place.
As Seneca put it:
Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship, but when you have decided to admit her, welcome her with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with her as with yourself… Regard her as loyal, and you will make her loyal.
- Moral Letters, “On True and False Friendship,” adapted by me
Here’s to a new year of old friends—and new ones! Please feel free to share your parenting friendship stories in the comments, and wishing you a happy and healthy 2023!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.