Image by Ivy Sanders Schneider

Help Each Other Up the Hill

Lydia Kiesling

American economists are arguing about whether the economy is good or bad: if the numbers look good, but the people feel bad, who is correct? Family policies are one place where the numbers are undeniably bad — unaffordable childcare, horrible gun and traffic violence, intensifying mental health crises. But since the birth rate is also bad, it’s bad form to focus on these bummers, from a demographer’s perspective, lest we scare potential parents. I often find myself in the doomer camp, which I resent. I am a mother, and I love the small people my husband and I are raising. I don’t, however, feel that it’s ethical to make some obfuscatory pitch about this role to the next generation.

By now my demographic — educated elder millennials — has been largely deprogrammed of the having-it-all dogma we once imbibed like mother’s milk. “Work won’t love you back,” we know, whether we hear it as a defeatist platitude that lures (or forces) women out of the workplace, or as the powerful animating cry of a labor movement that has made huge gains in dark years. But there are other facts about labor, compensation, and power that have not yet risen to the level of either platitude or slogan. “The day care waiting list is 100 infants long.” “School gets out at 2:15 p.m.” “Many childcare workers are food insecure.” “The child and dependent care tax credit is the same now as it was in 2001.” 

I live in Portland, Oregon, where a sometimes fractious coalition including the DSA, labor unions, community groups, elected officials, and volunteers like me midwifed a universal preschool measure onto the 2020 ballot; it won by a large margin. It’s a phased program, with every three- and four-year-old eligible by 2030, paid for by a small tax on the highest incomes in the county. Only three years into its existence — three years in which nearly 1,400 more kids have attended tuition-free preschool than would have otherwise — a local newspaper published a cover story pointing out that not all of the money raised had been spent, that the rollout had been slow, that the entrenched capacity problems of creating new spots persisted (namely, a long-standing lack of facilities and workers). “What are they going to do with all that money?” became the leading complaint, voiced with all the suspicion that generally accompanies a tax hike. Portland’s version of a chamber of commerce is hard at work trying to prevent the program’s next scheduled tax increase and instead direct funds to “revitalize” Portland’s downtown — a euphemism for sweeping unhoused people from the streets.

In November, Portland public school teachers went on strike for the first time ever. Families were out in the streets, marching and bringing food to picket lines. United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, on the heels of his October contract victory, was tweeting about our school district. Bernie Sanders made a video. Nonetheless, by Thanksgiving, even supportive parent chat groups were aflame with competing budget analyses and innuendoes about the strike’s efficacy. The teachers settled their contract after nearly four weeks of negotiation and eleven days of missed school; they secured substantial raises, funds for upgrading decrepit buildings, and gestures toward smaller class sizes. But the local news stayed laser-focused on signs of infighting within the union, rather than on the fact that Oregon’s schools are underfunded by more than two billion dollars. Even in Portland, which has felt like a bright example of what collective action can do for parents and the people who teach and care for our children, success feels like pushing a massive boulder up a hill.

Parenting is also a lot like pushing a boulder up a hill, except lots of other people are doing it too, and everyone’s on a different part of the hill, and each boulder is a different size and shape. I watch other people struggle over whether to have a baby with the sort of patronizing smile that older people in turn direct at me as I thrash over my particular stage of parenting. “You’re not having a baby,” I want to tell them. “You’re going to have a person.” As if that’s a helpful intervention. A better approach would be to try to smooth the path as I go — take shifts with someone else’s boulder, coordinate our breaks, push in tandem, help each other up the hill. Maybe the moral here is that parenting is like political struggle: perplexing, grinding, necessary, and joyful work that is never truly finished. It’s also work you can’t do alone.

Lydia Kiesling is a novelist and culture writer. She is the author of The Golden State and Mobility.