02 April 2013

Le projet parental

Having children who have reached that milestone known in the English-speaking world as the 'teens' gives one plenty of opportunities to recall the personal reasons for having children in the first place.  I say this in jest, of course, but it is remarkable in the big picture that we can actually have personal reasons to parent.  Personal choice is a marker of contemporary parenthood.   Instead of following tradition and socially-prescribed expectations and roles as we have for centuries, we can now make private choices about parenting: whether or not to do it, when, and how.  As sociologist Judith Stacey (2011, Unhitched, NY University Press) so aptly puts it, the paths to parenthood today no longer appear "...natural, obligatory, or uniform as they used to, but have become voluntary [and] plural...."   In this way, parenthood is just one path we might choose to follow in adulthood, or it can even be thought of as a kind of life project that we may choose to undertake, un projet parental (a parental project), as it is referred to in some of the family law and reproductive technology literature in Quebec and France.  Thinking about parenthood as a chosen path or project though does not mean it is the same kind of choice for everyone, or that it is free and easy.  As before, some couples can just decide one night that they will make a baby and biology will cooperate, while for others, the project requires a great deal of personal intent, risk, and effort combined with external assistance.  In particular, for those who are involuntarily childless, such as the infertile, single adults, and homosexual couples, the parental project requires deliberate planning, money, persistence, and even creativity to navigate the biological, financial, legal and other barriers.

The supposedly free choices about parenthood are also constrained by social imperatives.  We may or may not need children for personal fulfillment, but our societies still need children in order to survive, and so societies, that is states, economic systems, and social institutions all still try to control and influence parenthood so that the broader social needs are met.  In this way, the parental project is much more of a joint one, where personal fulfillment is coupled with public needs: for example, we might make parenthood more attractive to some and control access to it for others.  This comes with the whiff of social engineering because entities other than the individuals intimately involved weigh in on who may or may not bear children.  China's one-child state policy is a vivid historical example, and we have plenty of lesser known examples, even in U.S. history.  In France, contemporary parenthood is tied to the need to sustain population growth, (see"Fertility: the crisis hits birth rates," Presseurop, Jan. 13, 2013), with the caveat that French children do have the right to have responsible parents (which is not the same as saying that adults have the right to have children as they choose.  See "Defining Parenthood" by Connie Cho, Yale Journal of Medicine and Law, vol. VII, issue 2, April 7, 2011.).  For most French adults, if they can bear children easily and they are not too young, then that seems to be enough to make them responsible in the state's eyes.  (For young French women the state offers excellent access to birth control and abortion is legal, thus discouraging childbearing until later adulthood.)  In return for their 'responsible parenthood,' French parents get generous social supports from the state, such as virtually universal non-parental childcare for young children (the famous crêches, or daycares), or cash benefits to mothers who stay home.  The former especially makes it possible for couples and particularly mothers, to continue working in the labor market while they bear and rear children.  However, for those who cannot take on le projet parental without some assistance, there is a bit more engineering going on in terms of who is given access and who is not.  The French offer tightly controlled assisted-reproductive technologies at low or no-cost, but only to some adults.  Certain categories of heterosexual couples (the most responsible ones, presumably?) have access to highly controlled procedures and resources, while single adults and homosexual adults are left out.  Some procedures remain illegal for all, like surrogacy.  Adoption too is tricky, particularly for gays and lesbians for whom it is illegal, (although this may or may not change soon, as France paves the way for gay marriage).  In the U.S., in contrast, the social engineering is less explicit (but should be no less controversial) because it is largely directed by the free market; the national government is relatively hands-off about childbearing, leaving matters like contraceptive access and the licensing of reproductive technologies and of adoption agencies to individual states and to private enterprise.  This means that in theory (but not in practice), anyone can choose to parent, so long as they have money to purchase services related to parenting and so long as services, technologies and resources are available in the marketplace. 
Clearly, while parenthood is more and more of a private choice, social (and biological) barriers persist.  As a parent of les ados (teenagers), I can see the attractions of trying to stay in control, of regulating the choices facing my kids, of deciding things for them.  They are still too young to evaluate and decide everything for themselves.  Yet, when they reach adulthood, I would hope for them, as I wish for others now, that they will have true opportunities to choose their paths freely and fully, whether these be to parenthood, to satisfying careers, or to simple, meaningful lives.  I'm pretty sure most parents would want the same for their own kids.

The results of my parental project as they grudgingly follow the path on a 'forced march,' or a Sunday family hike

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