As if back-to-school season and the High Holidays weren’t enough to command our attention and energies, here in New York we’re anticipating mayoral primary elections (slated for September 10). Last week’s campaign developments, as noted in Kate Taylor’s “Trailside” column in The New York Times, included the following: “Two Democratic front-runners, Bill de Blasio and Christine C. Quinn, on Wednesday got into an ugly dispute over whether Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, had suggested that Ms. Quinn could not understand the problems of parents because she did not have children herself.”
Of course, there’s more to the story — including corrections to the Maureen Dowd column, also for The Times, in which McCray’s comments appeared. Regardless of McCray’s original remarks or intent, the situation spotlighted something familiar to some of us who don’t have children: the claim that we simply don’t understand the lives of parents. More important for The Sisterhood’s purposes, it has provided an occasion to counter that claim: In truth, some of us are childless (or childfree, or however you choose to describe the situation) at least in part because we understand the lives of — and the pressures faced by — contemporary parents.
We understand quite well.
I’ll admit that, as a little girl, I never envisioned a future that didn’t include children of my own. But I also never expected to remain single, nor did I count on a host of other personal circumstances that made becoming a parent even riskier than it normally can be. And I’m not much of a risk-taker to begin with.
What I’ve absorbed from a variety of sources over time is this: Even in the most auspicious of circumstances — two parents who are committed to each other and their offspring; everyone in the family enjoying good health; and steady, plentiful income — parenting is the most daunting of responsibilities. And things change. Couples separate (people also die); health deteriorates; jobs are lost. It’s one thing to manage those life-altering circumstances for yourself. The stakes intensify exponentially when you are a parent.
More than once, I’ve been surprised to hear new parents remark, with some astonishment, that they had no idea how hard the job would be. No idea that sleep would become the most precious of elusive commodities. No idea how much day care or preschool cost. Why have I, sans enfant, seemed much more clued in to these realities?
I don’t believe that I possess any special gifts of insight or awareness. I simply pay attention to what other people tell me, to what I witness and what I read. I understand that parenting brings unquantifiable joy and meaning to many people’s lives; I’ve experienced some of those blessings in my roles as aunt and cousin and family friend. But I’m also aware that as a daughter — and to most outward appearances a “good child” — I have caused my parents pain I don’t think I could endure. And as a sister/cousin/friend/fellow citizen, I see up close and personal, nearly every day, the range of challenges, big and small, that today’s parents face.
I’m still not sure whom I’ll vote for on September 10. I can’t say that Christine Quinn can count on my vote. But she can depend on this: I won’t assume that she doesn’t understand parents’ lives because she isn’t a parent herself. In that, I hope that I’m far from alone.