Monday, March 28, 2005


Children as Unlikely Events

I just purchased airplane tickets for two adults and two 2-year-olds. The cost is the same -- once children turn two, they require full-price tickets on many airlines. Perhaps at two they begin to ding the airline hostess button too often, or eat more peanuts, or carry on their two allowed suitcases plus carry-on plus purse. This makes for very expensive travel.

And when it comes to boarding, children are on their own. Airlines have eliminated early boarding for passengers with small children. They did this, they said, in response to customer feedback. Did all those parents and full-fare-paying children call the airlines, irate, and say: "Stop boarding us first!" So those who bring carseats have to board with child, carseat, their carryon & purse, child's carryon & purse, and install the carseat and child, along with the throngs of customers. Of course who boards first is a function of money and the market. (Children may be boarded first informally, through the discrete kindness of airline staff.)

Flexible spending plans are one treat the government throws to the middle and upper classes. What parents can do is transfer part of their tax burden to low-wage childcare workers -- parents declare childcare expense, but also report the tax information (social security number) of the providers. However this is no free ride.

As with medical plans, one has to estimate how much one will spend. That amount is taken out of a paycheck. So that one must first pay twice -- when it is taken out of the paycheck and then to the provider -- before getting reimbursed. For that risk, the reward is that a reduced paycheck (pre-tax) reduce one's taxes: so the middle class can reduce their taxable income by up to $5000 a year per earner. Why can't one just declare how much one spent on daycare on the tax form itself, and not have it reduced beforehand, twice? If you overestimate how much you will spend, at least until now, you have forfeited the amount of overage in return for reducing your taxable income. It is a middle-class gamble. (Unlike healthcare, it is difficult to overestimate how much one will spend in childcare, however.)

There are public playgrounds for beautiful days. But what about the many cold and rainy or scorchingly hot days? If the public is entitled to outdoor playgrounds, why not indoor ones? Most local recreation centers have activities for older children and adults (particularly men), not for young children. One is left going to the Gymboree, the commercial establishements where children can roll around in plastic balls and get stoked up on sugary drinks and fatty carbohydrates for a $20 afternoon.

This is privatized childrearing. Children are seen as a personal choice, an unikely event that need not be structured into commercial or state institutions. At a local foodstore, there is a sign warning parents not to leave their children alone in a car for even a second! Yet most of their shopping carts cannot hold a child and they have none that hold two! Parents end up negotiating brief legal transgressings as they dash back and forth, negotiating caring for children with legal requirements and the specific infrastructure of shopping carts, entrances, bathrooms, cars, etc. Provincetown shops put water and jars of biscuits out for doggies but can't accomodate a single stroller. The only break for parents of small children comes unintentionally from the Americans with Disabilities Act and institution's palpable fear of litigation. Because the U.S. government says that institutions must allow disabled people access to labor and consumer markets, there are ramps, wide doors, and automatic door openers that help parents. Parking, however? Forget about it. So you have to risk your child's life navigating a chaotic parking lot of frenetic drivers and stray shopping carts. You aren't the legal risk. Once a legal category of persons is created, it becomes real and entitled to provisions.

Given the lack of sustainable communities, where so many people cannot afford to live where they grew up (I grew up in Chelsea, NYC -- forgetaboutit), most of us live at some distance from our families of origin and the worlds of our youth. The age-old system of collective participation in childrearing has been eroded by the conditions of industrialized and post-industrial life. The state may underwrite health care and education but the day-to-day care? No. This loss is replaced either by parents' labor (often mothers') or by paid assistance. Depending on the labor markets where you live, this paid assistance may be women of color and may be immigrants (documented or not). I haven't lived in those labor markets, which means I have employed white women. The employers of women of color are criticized for participating in racist and sexist global structures. Yet most of us are implicated in these systems -we rely on the carcinogenic labor of those who work in dry cleaners, the underpaid work of food preparation, and other hard labor that supplements the gendered labor of social reproduction.

Radical Queers mourn their comrades' turn to reproduction, seeing it as an abandonment of what is truly radical and political, because it is not sexual and it seems to embed participants in the American lifestyle. They forget the old feminist lessons about the political economy of raising children, which is one of the key frontiers of capitalist privatization vs. democratic socialism. The parents of children absorb most of the cost of young children, aided by whatever resources their immediate world is able or willing to share with them. (Which is often considerable.) And they engage local and international labor markets, as do we all. But despite the fact that we all were children, and that we rely on people having more children, our world is not designed to accomodate the basic elements of rearing children.


Blogger Sfrajett said...

Glad I stumbled on your blog, Ara. It's been a while, eh? I'll link your blog to my site for sure.

Best, Jaime (Hovey)

6:06 PM  

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