Parentism: a poorly recognized yet dangerous form of discrimination
When my husband and I decided to have our first daughter, we made a pact to keep our lifestyle from deviating too much from what we had dreamed it to be. Our relationship had sprung from adventure and was fueled by seeking out novelty, the unorthodox, staying away from the rut. We wanted our daughter to be raised in the same spirit.
We were lucky to give birth to a very collaborative daughter: she turned out to be a decent sleeper and an easy-going baby overall. So we stuck to our plan. In what depended on us, we did very well. We travelled almost as much as before, went out of our way to discover new places, enjoyed our favorite outdoor activities as we pleased, continued to have a passionate relationship despite some unexpected interruptions here and there.
What we weren´t prepared for and what caught us by surprise was a dramatic change in our circle of friends. All of a sudden, we got branded with the ‘parents’ label. And it stuck. The people we knew just assumed we were not up for the challenge of maintaining our social life or engaging in activities we once enjoyed together. It wasn’t a direct rejection; rather we slowly got excluded from the social life one un-invite at a time. It was as though my husband and I had all of a sudden ceased to exist as our previous selves and morphed into something alien, which others could only contemplate from a distance. Even the sense of admiration and awe we felt toward our family was projected from afar by those that were once our close friends.
It took a while to understand what had happened. We examined our own actions repeatedly to understand if there was somewhere different about our own behavior. After a long period of auto-examination and conversations with other fellow new parents (who by default became our only friends), I came to the painful conclusion that our society boasts with yet another form of discrimination that hasn’t been classified or cautioned against, but that has real and detrimental effects on the life of those that are affected by it.
Similar to other forms of categorizations and discrimination we develop to deal with the complexity of our social life, ´parentism´ emerges as a way of simplifying our interactions with people that are different from ´us ´, stereotyping them into others´. We infuse these stereotypes with qualities that are normally attributable to parents: a bit boring, sleep-deprived, overly-worried beings, whose primary interests boil down to potty-training and baby food preparation, and who are happy to be stuck at home taking care of their child. OK, admittedly, some of these things do happen to the best of us and some parents inadvertently fall pray to a vicious cycle of existence that allows little room for anything other than child rearing. But are all parents doomed?
Some of the more frequent behaviors attributable to parents have now become stereotypical, creating a way for non-parents to reduce the reality unknown to them into predictable patterns of behavior, helping them manage expectations about future. ´Oh, my friend Charlie just had a baby, so I better stop expecting too much of him, and give him some space to deal with his new reality´. Yet, just as the well-known stigmas, such as sexism and racism, can be damaging, ‘parentism’ can have detrimental effects for the stereotyped.
The sudden disappearance of friends can be disheartening, only exacerbating the complexity of the world one faces as a new parent. Moreover, it contributes to the development of self-consciousness. Has being a mom really morphed me into someone I wasn’t before? Apparently, I was still the same person. Within a couple of months of giving birth, I was back at my original weight (admittedly my abs suffered a bit), freed myself from the hormonal ups and downs, and was ready to reintegrate socially, enjoy life, go out, talk to people about things other than pampers. My husband supported me 100%, ready to watch the baby at a message´s notice. Yet the invitations never came… The day when one of my close friends invited my vising sister to join her at a nightclub without even a hint of an invitation reserved for me, I realized things were not changing.
Luckily for me, I quickly redirected my frustration to look for new friends and professional discoveries. Yet it made me wonder about the implications of this accepted treatment. New parents require special attention and an extra dose of social support, reminders of how things were pre-parenting, and frequent distractions to keep sanity in check. When we treat those members of the society differently with an uninvolved aloofness, we reinforce the difficulties they face as new parents, rather than helping them recover from them quickly and resiliently. And as with other forms of discrimination, we exacerbate the chasm between us, by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The less we reach out to parents, the more disconnected and anti-social they become and that gives us a false confirmation: ´´See, I was right!´´.
Maybe things would be different if we, as individuals and a society as a whole persisted with our engagement with parents, trying to avoid this tendency to ´give space´ to those of our friends who happen to have become parents and stop making assumptions about their lifestyle, extracurricular activities, or sex lives. We might be surprised to find out that sometimes having kids actually makes one much more eager to take full advantage of life. Once we stop underestimating patents´ desire and need to engage in non-parenting activities, we´ll be surprised to find out that they most likely won’t bore us with conversions about latest breastfeeding techniques, but could in fact make us blush with a topic single friends might not dare bring up.
As a society, we are quick to assume we know the ´other´, prefer those that are more like us, and enclose ourselves further and further into our bubbles. While this might be a safe and easy way of dealing with reality, it´s one that deprives us from learning and from enriching our experience with insights from those that might have a different point of view. Today, as our society faces a dark era of discord, dichotomy, and radicalization, let us try to refrain from alienating yet another group of people and embrace those that are facing a not-so-easy task of raising new members of our society, while struggling to maintain their own sense of identity and self-esteem.