If Families Are First, What About the Rest of Us?
We so often hear "Families First," yet the slogan leaves out many.
Posted October 1, 2020
Every time I hear the slogan “Family First” I cringe. It implies that the rest of us—women and men without children—come in second, at best.
Nature flaunts its fecundity every spring, when we celebrate parenthood—mothers in May, dads in June. And all year long, especially in election years, our culture touts Family First.
Hold on a second. Even if some of us tried to have kids and were unsuccessful, we can’t win? Runners up if we refused to go it alone or refuse to settle for an unsatisfactory mate with whom to procreate? Second is the best we can hope for if we knew parenting wasn’t a good match for our genetics, our temperaments, or our realities?
I smell the language of exclusion. Well-wrought slogans are catchalls as well as catchy. Everyone’s invited in. Just Do It. Got Milk? Have It Your Way.
But Family First is exclusive to parents and their progeny. It arose as a political slogan aimed at couples with children, who make up a larger, more homogenous voting bloc than the rest of us.
In his "Speaking Politics" feature of the Christian Science Monitor, Chuck McCutcheon attributes the slogan to Democrats as a means of one-upping the conservative’s prolific reference to “family values.” We seem to like standing on other people’s shoulders to claim the better view.
“Beyond identifying with the concerns of people with kids,” notes McCutcheon, “‘families first’ is enduringly popular because it lets voters fill in the blanks for themselves on what should come second – corporations, the wealthy, or some other less-deserving demographic.”
A 2016 study by Annalucia Bays of Virginia Commonwealth University found that childless women—those who wanted kids but didn’t have them—most often elicit feelings of pity from others. These women are patted on the forearm and looked at askance if they expose their lack.
Childfree women—those who chose not to have children—most often elicit envy and disdain. Such freedoms they enjoy, yet how self-centered and shallow they seem!
Mothers, on the other hand, are regarded with approval and admiration. These stereotypes have endured since first studied in the late 1970s.
Being found wanting in the family way affects men, too. It’s different than for women, sure, but guys also have skin in the game. We titter about the children they may unknowingly have sired, and that’s simply insensitive.
Men themselves can not become fathers as a result of low sperm counts from a variety of causes. Or they may find themselves unpartnered or choose for myriad reasons against fatherhood.
Many men choose to stay partnered with women they love who couldn’t or wouldn’t procreate. If these men were to speak up, I wonder if we’d pity them, too. Or maybe we’d admire them for standing by their women and laud them for acknowledging their support.
Awarding first place to one demographic of our population by definition means others are marginalized. Yet every time we break ourselves into wedges of us and them, we distance ourselves from each other. What’s gained are some pretty flimsy bragging rights that exclude those outside the mainstream.
Keeping hold of those rights may prove challenging. As hopeful grandparents-to-be ardently press their progeny for new fruit on the family tree, not every wish will be granted. For many elders, dogged focus on the next generation’s fecundity will, for all the aforementioned reasons, prove futile.
Young people worried about what’s in store for tomorrow’s families may end up opting out due to financial uncertainty, partnership concerns, or competing priorities. Family lineages will shrink, some reach their endpoint.
At the nexus of childbearing and climate change, young adult Birth Strikers straddle the divide between the procreating and the unchilded. They look to the future and see a world distinctly inhospitable to their as yet unconceived progeny.
So Birth Strikers have vowed not to have children unless climate change is addressed post haste and in earnest by nations around the globe. Not because they don’t want them or think others shouldn’t have them, but because they dread the future their children would have to endure.
This hard-edged ultimatum calls the Family First slogan’s bluff. It’s also a radical play, a prenatal double-down for those committed to the cause.
The superior exclusivity of Family First is insensitive, politically short-sighted, and unsustainable. We are not in a race. There is no first place to be won.