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Why No One Can Hear Parents Screaming
Do you read this newsletter every week? Do you value the labor that goes into it? Have you become a paid subscriber? Think about it! Many of the people who read this newsletter the most are people who haven’t gone over to paid — and I get it, I really do, I’m constantly saying I’m going to pay for things and take weeks to actually do it. But maybe today is your day.
Every corner I turn on the internet, I see another version: a parent plaintively and persuasively writing about this suffocating moment. In Romper, “Omicron Means Parents Are Doing It All Again, Except This Time Dead Inside.” In Slate, “The Agony of Parents of Children Under 5.” In the New York Times, “I See Signs of Despair From Parents of Kids Under 5.” In Insider, “There’s No More Sympathy For Working Parents with Quarantined Kids.” In The 19th, “When Kids Under Five Get Covid, Parents Are Screwed.”
It’s a tragic chorus, in part because there’d be no need (or, at the very least, far less need) to write these pieces if people felt others were thinking and managing and policy-making with the needs of parents — particularly parents of kids under 5 — in mind. But they’re not. They’re also not thinking, just generally, about people whose health conditions put them at incredibly high risk of serious Covid effects, otherwise there wouldn’t be a need to testify, as thousands did last week, that #mydisabledlifeisworthy. Or the need for dozens of articles in newspapers all over the country on the devastating impact of the end of the child tax credit, which still hasn’t been renewed.
Part of the problem is that at this point in the pandemic, everyone is tired. Many of us are currently the least generous or thoughtful version of ourselves. But an even bigger part of the problem is a generalized lack of empathy: we struggle to make space for the experiences of anyone who is not us and/or part of our close intimate circle. I spent far less time considering the ramifications of various policies and postures on disabled people, for example, until a member of my close family became disabled. I’m not proud of this, but it’s not uncommon. Many of us don’t know about the contours of another person’s struggles and successes until we’re forced to.
There’s a saying that fiction is the great empathy machine, and I think that’s ostensibly true: you become briefly intimate and immersed with a different way of occupying the world, often in a different place and/or time than your own. But that empathy is limited — and often mistaken for actual intimacy. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t read fiction written by people with different identities and experiences than our own. But it’s not enough. I’ve seen well-intentioned bourgeois white ladies use their reading histories as rhetorical forcefields to incredibly toxic effect.
Novels, even memoirs, are still consumed at a distance. They can encourage you to think outside of your own experience, but they are not the same as actually knowing people — which is what really creates empathy.
And how do you come to know people? If you read this newsletter with any regularity, you know I’m going to say community. And as I also always say: community is hard, particularly in this moment. But it can also arrive in unexpected ways.
Take the example of Michael, whose story I’m sharing with his permission. Michael graduated from college last year. At the moment, he lives with his parents outside of Seattle. He has a job that takes up a solid percent of most days, but it’s not necessarily a job that he wants for the rest of his life. He’s doing what a lot of people do in their early 20s: trying to figure things out. But he also spends a fair amount of time in the Culture Study Discord, where, because of what I write about now and what I’ve written about in the past, most (not all, but most) people are in their 30s and 40s. (There are also much-cherished members in other age ranges, and I hope there will soon be more of them, but a glorified set of chat rooms does attract a certain set). Over the last nine months, it’s become clear to me that Michael is curious and interested about pretty much everything — from unlearning the ethos of careerism to which Elliott Smith album he should start with (the answer is X/O).
Everyone in this Discord is a “stranger on the internet,” but there’s something about a quasi-anonymous space that breeds intimacy. (Or, if it’s Twitter, real toxic shit). In this particular community, you get to know people and experiences that, without significant effort, might not be part of your everyday orbit. In Michael’s case, that means a lot of parents. More specifically: parents of young children. It has broadened his understanding of the way the pandemic is affecting people on a daily basis, in a way that even his parents — whose kids are grown — don’t seem to understand.
Hundreds of thousands of people in their early 20s are already parents or close friends with someone who is, so this isn’t necessarily radical. But I think back to my own experience in the years after college: I knew a few parents of young children because I was caring for those children as a nanny. But all of my friends were my age. At that point, anyone just a few years older or younger felt in some way unrelatable. My circle was large, in the way those first years after high school or college often are, but it was also so experientially small. And I do think my capacity for empathy suffered tremendously.
Life’s inertia and various gravitational pulls and necessities can make it easy to continue down that path. You hang out with people who have made similar decisions as you, whether in terms of parenting or education or lifestyle or where you can afford or want to live. Again, this makes a sort of sense: we gravitate toward those who affirm our own life decisions simply by mirroring them back at us.
But anyone who’s observed a NextDoor conversation of supposedly like-minded people in the same general income bracket knows that this sort of insular echo chamber is also a recipe for abject toxicity. It foments the worst sort of self-righteousness, and, perhaps ironically, a rancid form of individualism. Asking for help, or otherwise evidencing a need or vulnerability, signals a deviation from the norm — and should be ignored or erased. It’s alarming, really, just how swiftly conformity breeds a bloodless form of self-reliance.
Sociologists and political scientists (most famously, Robert Putnam) have demonstrated that the collectivism that structured mid-century life in the United States was borne, at least in part, from forced co-mingling — through the war effort, both at home and abroad, but also in religious organizations and hundreds of other societies, organizations, and groups. Some of those groups were still incredibly segregated, and in his most recent book, The Upswing, Putnam makes a convincing case that those divisions were the cracks in the foundation of that collectivist period. But many others were integrated in other important ways when it came to class, vocation, age, politics — and, depending on the area and the decade, race.
It’s worth noting here that even though people often spent significant time with people unlike them, there were still suffocating limitations on acceptable ways to be and act in society. As I wrote last week, we can look to the past as proof that a different way of doing things is possible without wanting to exactly replicate that past and its exclusions. In the United States, mainstream politics were not as ideological or polarized as they are now; people did not have what political scientist Liliana Mason calls “super-identities” — in which race, religious choices, and location aligned to almost pre-determine your politics — the way we do now.
Just to be clear: I am not advocating that anyone should feel obligated to hang out with people who don’t believe in their full personhood and rights. But spending time with people who are older and younger than you, who have made different life decisions than you, who work in different industries and have different education levels and different experiences? That makes you think broader and better. It makes others’ struggles vivid and, on some level, knowable — even if they aren’t your own. They can solidify the abstract.
I don’t mean this in a tourism sense; I am not advocating for anyone to spend a night unhoused in an urban area just to evidence their progressive bonafides. But you can aspire to putting yourself in situations that aren’t filled with other people like you. Cultivating that sort of empathy becomes a groove, a pattern, a way of trying to navigate the world: instead of reflexively rejecting things that don’t replicate your own experience, you lean towards them with curiosity.
I’m often asked how and why I spend so much time thinking and writing about parenthood, when I’ve chosen not to be a parent myself. The first part of that answer is that I’m angry, every day, that we’ve chosen to make our current society so hostile to parents (and mothers in particular) that the prospect of becoming one felt like willfully choosing to enter a losing war.
But the second — and arguably more important part of that answer — is that I spend a lot of time listening, really listening, to parents. I do this because many of my best friends in the world are parents, but I also do it because parents are part of my community, and are a part of pretty much all communities, and their experiences matter.
Frankly, none of this should be hard. Parents make up a majority of our society; it should be incredibly easy to cultivate empathy for them. But we have effectively siloed ourselves (even the parents amongst us!) in a way that makes the rockets of exasperation bounce off the walls, going nowhere. They make a huge racket that only those also in the silo can hear.
Those articles I linked to at the top of this piece? You know who’s reading them? Other parents who feel the same way. The writing is amazing. But that doesn’t mean others are listening, and that includes other parents. Parents who can work from home don’t hear teachers who are also parents who don’t hear parents in healthcare who don’t hear disabled parents — the list goes on.
Again: I get it. The impulse to huddle in the silo is borne of terror and exhaustion. But we’re also failing to cultivate the sort of connections that can actually ease that terror and exhaustion.
There are so many people who want to be helpful right now — to parents, yes, but also to elders, and to those suffering or struggling in other ways. But we don’t have straightforward ways of doing so, other than clicking the occasional donation button. A community, done right, can match wants and needs; the various collaborations between preschools and retirement homes are an incredibly vivid manifestation of this sort of pairing. But how do we teach people to reach out — and also how to feel secure in asking for the help they need? I try hard to put in the extra effort to help my friends with kids, but how do I also communicate that sometimes I need them to tell me, in very straightforward ways, the specific ways they need help?
Some of this work requires cultivating a willingness to be generous and flexible with our time and patience for others. But some of it requires a willingness on the part of others to shed the very real shackles of self-reliance. It is not a sign of weakness or of failure to ask for help. It is a commitment to the very concept of the collective. We talk a lot about this on the Discord in our conversations about Mutual Aid (which, in the past quarter, distributed over $10,000 dollars in assistance). It doesn’t matter, in the moment, if you are contributing or benefitting from the aid of others. What matters, truly, is your participation to the community.
Here’s the part of the newsletter where people say I like this idea, but how do I make it happen, and I say something like it’s hard but it’s important and you say okay but I’m tired and everyone’s busy or terrified to go outside of their homes and I say but hey, again, have you thought about the Culture Study Discord.
Listen, like every space, it’s imperfect: there’s principles we try and sometimes fail to cultivate, different privileged positions (of whiteness, of straightness, of middle-class-ness, of able-bodied-ness and cisnormativity) that are in need of constant decentering. Here’s our dynamic document of guiding principles, which I’m mostly sharing because it shows that cultivating community, particularly online, takes actual work.
Maybe you think it’s corny? Great, think that! But it’s also been a consistent source of comfort, aid, and support for a lot of people, connecting with others who are and are not like them. It might not be for you. But it might also be for you.
Does internet community replace offline community? No. Does that mean it’s not also community? Of course not. But as for cultivating it offline — that, too, is possible.
You can be less precious about joining things and whether they need to cater to you. You can make commitments and stick with them. If parenting is consuming more and more of your time, you can imagine ways to model the importance of being part of a community as part of “good” parenting. You can reach out to the people you know and offer concrete things (“I am going to the store and I am going to buy you some groceries and put them on your doorstep, what do you need right now”) and those in need can reach out with similarly specific requests (“I really need a few hours of relief from the kids, can you come over and we’ll have a drink after?”)
And while I know parents are tired, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this work also requires reaching out to friends who don’t have kids, who aren’t working for pay, who don’t have a partner for whatever reason, who aren’t part of a dominant and written-about part of society and asking: what do you need right now?
This sort of empathy-building can also mean placing yourself in situations outside of your comfort zone or pre-determined skill level. You don’t have to be a teacher to lead a weekly discussion group with English Language Learners; you don’t have to be a social worker to take a weekly shift at the food bank; you don’t have to be a health care worker to be an escort at an abortion clinic; you don’t need to be a grant writer to write successful grants for organizations in desperate need of them. Just ask my mom (I am very proud of her!) a retired math teacher turned very successful grant writer in this act of her life. You just need to be willing.
In the end, that’s the trick. How do you learn to care about other people? You be with them. That doesn’t mean that you necessarily end up becoming their best friends. But their lives become meaningful to you; their existences comes to matter. This is the magic trick. This is what empathy does. It invests us in the welfare of one another. And that — that’s how we hear each other, long before the need to start screaming for help.
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