Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Adulthood Argument

Instapundit, Althouse, McArdle, and other sites touching on a wide range of topics occasionally link to “relationship” sites; that is, women’s sites that have much discussion of sexual dilemmas, relationship advice, gender roles, personal fulfillment, and careers. The commenting level is not high, but the opinion pieces themselves aren’t bad. I sometimes click through to other posts listed in the sidebar. One topic that seems to recur is the complaints that single women have against those married with children, specifically, that they are regarded as not fully adult because they don’t have kids. They counter-accuse that they know lots of irresponsible parents, and mothers become entirely kid-focused, unable to talk about other subjects for long.

It would be tempting to dismiss most of this as over-sensitivity, reading more into stray comments than is intended, but the comments usually do include some young mothers who make broad statements that come pretty close to the complaint, plus a few who are quite open and adamant that single women just don’t know how immature they are, but will “get it” when they grow up and have children themselves.

Let me assure you that men never argue about this when they are alone, but I’ll have a go at it anyway.

Do I have to pull this car over? If you kids don’t stop fighting back there, someone’s asking for a swat on the behind. (Spanking young women? Yeah, I don’t think I’ll pursue that analogy any further.)

The immediate problem is that people quickly personalise generalisations about their groups. For example, whenever characteristics of children raised without fathers is discussed, single moms seem to immediately think You are saying bad things about me and my children. My children are wonderful. I’m a good Mom. I know rotten kids from intact families. Whenever churchgoers, or gays, or Asians, or engineers are discussed as a group, representatives of those groups conclude So that’s what you think of me, eh? If the original speaker is not very careful to note that he is talking about tendencies, possibilities, rough guides, then he deserves whatever flames come back at him.

Yet we all have been present when even exquisite care not to offend is not enough. People either have a chip on their shoulder and want to be offended or they are unable to extricate their emotional alarm-bells from the intellectual part of the discussion.

So. What about the question itself? Does parenting make one into an adult? Or more precisely, Is parenting a necessary part of being fully adult? Well hmm, Jesus wasn’t a parent, unless you want to dart into theological territory of being a parent to the world. So, Paul, then. Paul wasn’t a parent. We can look around and find lots of folks who seem to fully qualify as grownups who never had kids, throughout many ages.

OTOH, all societies until very recently have regarded parenting as the main, if not almost the only, entry into adulthood. It’s not smart to discard the collective cross-cultural wisdom of many generations.

OTOOH, it is not the magical nature of having a kid around the house, but the first-and-last-lines-of-defense aspect that prompts responsibility. It is taking responsibility that defines the adult, and there are other places in life where one has to be responsible. Work is one. Home ownership another. Care of individuals other than children, owning a business, serving in the military – all these provide opportunity to learn or demonstrate adulthood. Parenting is no guarrantee of maturity? Neither are any of the others.

OTOOO…(Too many other hands, so that I would eventually be writing OTOOOOOOH, or OT6OH. Implied sufficient other hands.)

The 24/7 nature of parenting is pretty unusual, however – the others seldom or never have that. You can let down, go be an irresponsible jerk in another state 3 nights a week or two weeks straight, and still be counted responsible. Parenting doesn’t give you that flexibility – that is, unless you find some way to stick your spouse with the 24/7 part, at which point parenting is no more grownupogenic than the others.

This is all fairly obvious, enough that it should not need to be said. Why are we still arguing about it?

I suspect that the emotional issues around feeling underappreciated and devalued drive the continued discussion. What I do is valuable and I don’t get enough credit. True. Welcome to adulthood.


karrde said...


Still single (and childless, if you have to ask).

In the middle of Spring, I acquired a house. Shortly afterwards I acquired a puppy.

The house can be left in a certain state for a week or two. The puppy can't. (And he requires constant reinforcement of training...one session doesn't settle it permanently into his habits.)

These two things have changed my habits and priorities. Don't know if they're part of any adulthoodness-causing force. But I do find myself with a little more patience, and a little less self-focus.

Donna B. said...

karrde... funny that you should bring up puppies. They are almost as demanding as a human infant. The main difference is that the period of 24/7 demand is shorter.

But eventually children grow up enough to the point where they can be left for a week or two like the house. Not so ever with a dog who remains dependent on you for the rest of his life. We could leave our adult dog for a maximum of 48 hours without making arrangements for someone else to feed and care for him. But we don't even do that.

One of the things that I remember as a mother of babies many years ago was a bit of resentment of their father because he was not tied to the 24/7 responsibility like I was. This has changed.

My grandchildren have fathers who are involved 24/7 in a way that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were not.

Of course that's a generalization. I remember one great-uncle who raised his five children alone after his wife died giving birth to the youngest. He didn't marry again or have the help of a housekeeper.

Nor did he depend on his older children to care for the younger ones any more than a woman would have in those days. What he did differently was to set up a temporary space in the fields where he could periodically check on all his children. He might actually have provided more supervision than the average woman did in those times.

Donna B. said...

On one of those other hands, I don't think a childless person can realize the extent to which a parent experiences their heart beating outside their body.

I can't say that that feeling correlates with adulthood and responsibility, but I do know that it changes the way one looks at everything.

Single parents have no problem understanding this, but childless adults often do, no matter how mature they may be otherwise.

People who feel no urge to parent, those who express a desire to not have children... frankly I don't quite understand them, but I wholly support their desire to be child-free and I want them to have vasectomies or to get their tubes tied. I can't support a decision to be child-free when it's made after a baby has been made. That, to me, is the epitome of NOT being an adult.

terri said...

So many things to comment on in this one piece...I don't know where to start! ;-)

People not being able to separate themselves from a general comment or observation. If I get into an unexpected, heated argument with someone, which usually only happens online, this problem is usually at the heart of it. All of a sudden a conversation isn't a conversation, it's a rabid attack.

I used to frequent a popular hub of women bloggers and figured out pretty quickly it wasn't for me because, in general, they cared too much about everything and were personally invested in every opinion, idea, and theory that they had. Criticize the idea and one was criticizing the person by proxy. Things would go downhill pretty quickly after that.

This relates to young women and parenting in an amplified way. Young mothers are so bombarded by ideas of "doing it right" from their doctors, mothers, their peers, books, etc....that they become obsessively wrapped up in their parenting choices.

I have been there. It's not fun when you think you are going to screw up your kid if you potty-train them the "wrong" way. My sister-in-law had a pediatrician tell her not pressure her daughter to use the toilet because she would somehow emotionally damage her child....who was already over 3 years old.

Completely ridiculous thing to say, but the veneer of authority completely cowed my sister-in-law for a while.

All that to say that many young mothers are very emotionally invested in what they are doing and insulting their choices is like telling them they have an ugly, bratty child.

I think the point about adulthood=taking responsibility for oneself and others is true. I would add that a closely related trait is the ability to weigh the consequences of one's actions and to be able to realize how the choices we make today will impact our future.

Maybe that's why parenting gets acquainted with adulthood, because parenting is not about simply caring for children on a daily basis but about trying to make a self-sufficient, productive, responsible human being....something which is best done with an eye on the future.

Maybe adulthood=working for something larger and more permanent than oneself whether that is through a person's work, ministry, family, or hobbies, like coaching a sport, or teaching an instrument.

Adulthood=caring about something other than oneself.

Texan99 said...

This hits home for me, because I am childless. Not by choice, you could say, but you could also say we'd more likely have succeeded in having children if we'd started trying earlier, and of course we could have adopted.

There will always be a kind of adult responsibility I don't reach. All I can do is be as responsible a citizen as I know how to be. I suspect that part of what's adultogenic about having kids is giving up the idea that you're still a kid and that your parents (or some parent-proxy like the Nanny State) are still supposed to be taking care of you. I can do that part.

Anna said...

I am also getting up there and have no children. I am ok with it but my parents definitely subscribe to the idea that you aren't an adult until you are married with children. Never mind that I have now held down a private sector job longer than all of them... combined. My dad still tries to pour me a glass of milk at meals and I have not drunk milk for at least 10 years. It is annoying so I have started to be annoying about my desires to be treated like an adult. Now we just annoy each other so much that we don't hang out.

Being considered still a "child" if one is childless is definitely a cultural bad idea that does exist and causes a fair amount of damage to relationships across the board.

The other annoying thing is that my younger siblings have no such desire to be treated like an adult as I have, and so are content to mooch for as long as the parents will let them (indefinitely).

Sam L. said...

Changing to line of comments (Now For Something Almost Completely Different): The third iteration is OTGH--On The Gripping Hand.

See Larry Niven's "The Mote In God's Eye."

LordSomber said...

The immediate problem is that people quickly personalise generalisations about their groups.

Very true. In fact, I've even seen an acronym that jokes about some women's defensiveness: NAWALT
("Not all women are like that!")