Wednesday 18 September 2019

Katie Byrne: 'Parents believe childless people are oblivious to life's pressures'

Mary Lou McDonald has hinted at something many mums and dads secretly believe but are afraid to say, writes Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Katie Byrne. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

It can be difficult to converse with one of my friends - a father of four - when I call him.

"Hold on a sec," he says, before he picks up a crying child, scolds another for eating Sudocrem, catches one of them trying to flush his car keys down the toilet and then discovers an entire carton of eggs cracked on the kitchen floor.

The chaos continues for the duration of the call, which isn't so much a conversation as it is a live report from the frontlines of parenting.

There are bangs and shrieks and cries before it at last concludes with my friend taking the position of a Vietnam veteran and opining that childless women like me wouldn't understand, man, because we weren't there!

"You have no idea. NO idea!" he hollers as a naked child skips by him with a jar of Nutella.

"Just you wait! Running around town in your sunglasses and booking holidays. You haven't a clue!"

Criticism: Mary Lou McDonald has been slammed for implying Taoiseach Leo Varadkar didn’t understand childcare issues. Photo: Tom Burke
Criticism: Mary Lou McDonald has been slammed for implying Taoiseach Leo Varadkar didn’t understand childcare issues. Photo: Tom Burke

I thought of my friend when Mary Lou McDonald implied, in rather more PC terms, that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar could not understand the childcare issues faced by families because he was not himself a father.

"For the record of the Dail," she said, "I am actually raising two young children. While I regard that as something of a personal endeavour, it also puts me, like so many others, in a position to understand that all of the cant and empty rhetoric about balancing the books is not worth a fig to struggling families."

Whether you agree or disagree with McDonald, you'd at least have to give her credit for speaking her mind. She voiced an opinion that is shared by many parents but which is rarely articulated for fear of reproach.

Most parents, if they are entirely honest, believe that childless people are oblivious to the real pressures of life, just as they believe that only a fellow parent can understand their woes.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Mark Condren
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Mark Condren

They might not be as vocal as my friend but there is often an insinuation that childless people haven't even taken the time to contemplate the plight of modern parents because we're too busy booking pedicures and enjoying extra-long sleep-ins.

They think we are blissfully unaware of the crèche fees and the school bills and the cost of buggies because we're busy totting up the cost of our next spa break.

How would we know what it's like to have chicken pox decimate your entire monthly budget?

How could we understand the exhaustion of working two jobs: one in the office, and one at home - when we took the life epidural?

They forget that the childless-by-choices brigade has thought deeply about these challenges - maybe even more so than these parents did when they themselves were childless.

They've asked themselves if they could cope with the relentless chore of night feeds and nappy changes. They've glanced across at families of small children on airplanes and thought, 'Could I?'

They've imagined what it would feel like to worry about another human being for the rest of their life.

Childless-by-choice people aren't oblivious to the challenges of parenting. On the contrary, they are acutely aware of the pressure - that's why they opted out.

European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee described McDonald's comments as "ridiculous", before adding that "It's the same as saying if you're not a farmer you can't understand agriculture."

This isn't entirely true either. There is no experience like personal experience and even the most empathetic childless person could never truly understand the deep, instinctual need that a parent has to take care of his child.

What childless people do understand, however, is that this drive can sometimes lead parents to be blinkered by cognitive biases, blinded by guilt and preoccupied by perceived advantages.

And childless parents aren't the only target. Parents of two children think "just you wait" when their friend has their first child; parents of three children think their friend with just two children has it easy.

McDonald isn't the first politician to admit to the parenting bias.

Andrea Leadsom famously said that she made a better candidate than Theresa May because she was a mother.

There's no doubt that the perspective of parenting gives a politician an advantage when it comes to understanding their electorate, but perhaps we should discuss the disadvantages in the same breath. Granted, May and Varadkar may never truly grasp the pressure of being physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually responsible for another human being, but Leadsom will never be able to consider the issues facing parents from a objective point-of-view. Non-parents may not know their way around nappy but they have a unique perspective - and it shouldn't be overlooked.

Likewise, we ought to think about the life experience that the childless, but not by choice, brigade can bring to the table. It's a little insensitive of McDonald to glorify parenthood when so many people have a similar "personal endeavour", as she puts it, but for whatever reason are unable to make it happen.

They keep putting one foot in front of the other, even as the thing that they want most moves further and further out of their reach.

McDonald says she is in a unique position to understand family struggles, but it's worth thinking about those who are struggling to have a family, as well as those who struggle to understand why anyone would want one.

Irish Independent

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