Christians and even some non-Christian philosophers regularly strive to ‘remember death,’ but few of us seem willing to remember our birth. Only a few paragraphs into Augustine’s Confessions, he recalls the grace of God given to him by his own birth and the nurture of his mother Monica. For Augustine, birth into the material world full of perils and change – into time –ultimately participates in the mercy of the eternal and unchanging God:
For all I want to tell you, Lord, is that I do not know where I came from when I was born into this life which leads to death – or should I say, this death which leads to life? This much is hidden from me. But, although I do not remember it all myself, I know that when I came into the world all the comforts which your mercy provides were there ready for me. This I was told by my parents, the father who begat me and the mother who conceived me, the two from whose bodies you formed me in the limits of time. So it was that I was given the comfort of woman’s milk.
God, for Augustine, is ultimately the mystery from which we came and to which we are travelling in life and death through union with Christ. In this tender reflection, breastmilk, the very sustenance of newborn life, ultimately comes from God, the source of all good:
But neither my mother nor my nurses filled their breasts of their own accord, for it was you who used them, as your law prescribes, to give me infant’s food and a share of the riches which you distribute even among the very humblest of all created things. It was also by your gift that I did not wish for more than you gave, and that my nurses gladly passed on to me what you gave to them. They did this because they loved me in the way that you had ordained, and their love made them anxious to give to me what they had received in plenty from you. For it was to their own good that what was good for me should come to me from them; though, of course, it did not come to me from them but, through them, from you, because you, my God are the source of all good and everywhere you preserve me (2 Sam. 23:5). All this I have learned since then, because all the gifts you have given to me, both spiritual and material, proclaim the truth of it. But in those days all I knew was how to suck, and how to lie still when my body sensed comfort or cry when it felt pain.
It is good for babies to spend time with their mother and father. An extensive body of scientific research has documented the manifold physical, social, emotional, and others benefits that babies and their parents receive from skin-to-skin bodily proximity to one another shortly after birth. Neuroscientific research has documented key ways that the brains of new fathers are transformed by simply spending time with their babies. Yet, in the United States of America, the good of parents being able to spend time caring for and bonding with their newborns is not valued for long. Granting fathers and mothers an extended period of several months to care for their newborn and for women to recover from the vast physical and emotional toll of pregnancy, labor, and delivery, is only a financial possibility for the very wealthy. After only a few hours or weeks, new mothers and new fathers in America take their days- or weeks-old newborn to a childcare facility, return to work, and clock-in.
Many parents today would like to be full-time caregivers for their children, maybe not forever, but at least while their children are in the tender newborn stage. Yet, many families cannot afford to do so on a single-income. Consequently, parents are forced to take their newborn baby, infant, or toddler to a childcare facility. Here a person, whom they do not know, looks after their child along with multiple other babies at once. In the best case scenario, in the cleanest and most well-trained and adequately staffed facility with the most hardworking and attentive workers, utterly defenseless and vulnerable people who are only a few weeks old are subject to the divided attention of a professional. Often, the facilities working parents can afford are not a best case scenario; they are either astronomically expensive, or under-staffed and offer paltry nurture for the needs of little children. In nightmare scenarios, these facilities propagate harm, abuse, and neglect against the children entrusted to their care. But even if a childcare facility is ideal and its professional caregivers are truly wonderful people, they do not and cannot love any child the way a father or mother loves their own child.
Thus, where families would prefer to have one parent stay at home, but who cannot afford to live on a single income, a parent who would like to be home nurturing their child must work a job they do not want to have in order to afford expensive childcare they do not want for their child.
Currently, workers in the United States are guaranteed 0 weeks of paid parental leave. In Great Britain parents get 39 weeks, in Sweden 68 weeks, Estonians get 82 weeks or more, but ours are subject to the whims and fortunes of our employers that are often only a month or so but we are guaranteed none. So, in effect, the standard way that newborns only a few days or weeks old are socialized into our common life is to spend the majority of their waking hours away from their fathers and mothers. This represents a seismic shift in the history of human child development.
Sadly, Paid Family Leave policy is often quickly dismissed as too socialistic for conservatives, while some liberals express outright contempt towards people who desire to work by caring for their offspring rather than produce and consume now. But there are strong reasons for both persuasions to reconsider why public funding for assisting families is worthwhile.
Recently, some conservatives who value traditional family structures have recognized that a one-parent income is nonfeasible for many Americans today. Some liberal advocates for public childcare have argued that professional childcare facilities are better suited for raising children than parents in their own homes; if conservatives disagree and wish to empower parents to care for their own children, then they need to back policies that will make this materially possible. In 1908, reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote in his The Christian Family:
Marriage establishes a bond first of all between husband and wife, so that they may help and support one another in all things belonging to temporal and eternal life. But in the second place, another purpose is to propagate the human race and to expand the kingdom of God. With the institution of marriage, therefore, God immediately pronounced the blessing of fruitfulness. God created human beings from the beginning as man and woman, so that they might multiply and in this way fill the earth and subdue it. Sexual difference and sexual relations therefore rest in God’s arrangement and are acceptable to him.
God’s appointed means for human reproduction is the covenantal union between a man and a woman. A Christian imagination will not regard fathers and mothers primarily as producers and consumers who serve the economy, but cultivators of a home, one little hospitable haven in which children can be loved amidst our often heartless world. There is something metaphysically irreplaceable about the family, and we do not know the civilizational ramifications of outsourcing the care for newborns from the home to professional care centers.
But even if social conservatives might be sympathetic to such claims, fiscal hawks will likely oppose any kind of public policy to support such families. Making responsible life choices, or trying to follow the so-called ‘success sequence’ of waiting to get married and finishing college before having children, certainly have their place. But a lack of individual responsibility can only explain so much, as social and economic trends have led families to increasingly struggle financially to afford to spend time together without living in or barely above poverty. For example, the average family premiums for employer-based health insurance increased 47% over the last decade, widely outpacing both wage growth (37%) and inflation rates (23%).
Why are the expenses of public assistance for Paid Family Leave worthwhile? Raising children is not merely one more activity alongside other lifestyle options that liberal subjects can choose for themselves. Bearing and raising children is a contribution to the future of one’s society for many reasons, from all that this child will achieve to committing to socialize one’s child into the pursuit of the good, the beautiful, and the true. This contribution can only be undertaken while relatively young in life; for obvious biological reasons, people tend to have children when they are younger rather than 65. The reason why public assistance for families is worthwhile is because the enormous expenses of labor and delivery, childcare, and healthcare must be undertaken while income is at the lowest of a parent’s lifetime that can be recouped by higher earnings later in life. A flood of huge medical expenses and one-time costs meet young parents, which they can more than cover across their lifetimes but not necessarily at the moment.
Progressives, critical for many reasons of traditional family structures, should want a strong social safety net for everyone, both working parents via childcare, & stay-at-home parents. Rightly so, various waves of feminist thought since the 20th century have criticized ways that traditional family structures could be experienced by women as less than dignifying, historically inhibiting women from cultivating and contributing their gifts outside the home, and at times consigning women to undesired pregnancies and an experience of the home as a kind of confinement.
Moreover, the legalization of same-sex marriage and increasing use of in-vitro fertilization in the United States over the last few decades further complicates the extent to which it is considered not only acceptable but good for the union of men and women to bring forth offspring and for both parents to have an extended period of time with their newborn rather than immediately returning to a two-earner household. Nonetheless, roughly half of American women still desire to be homemakers, and there has been a slight increase in recent years in the number of men who are stay-at-home fathers. Many men and women find the prospect of two full-time careers in one household incompatible with being able to spend adequate time together as a family, and desire to have one parent stay home to attend to their children, especially in the earliest weeks of their lives.
Nonetheless, the less-progressive policies suggested by centrist Democrats prove especially punitive towards the very poorest families. As Matt Bruenig notes in the Atlantic, after an initial plan for twelve weeks of guaranteed parental leave was reduced to zero and then increased up to four, the means-testing of the current proposal excludes the highest benefit from those who need it most, further disadvantaging the very poorest children as a particular cruelty: “Despite worthy intentions, it will drive up costs for many middle-class families while providing no benefit at all to the poorest and most vulnerable children. If lawmakers do not fix these design problems, they could wreak havoc on many of the families they are trying to help.”
One reason why means-tested trapezoid programs with a phase-in/phase-out benefit structure depending upon parental income are so draconian is because Paid Leave public policies benefit children, none of whom chose their parents or the circumstances into which they were born. That is not even to broach the subject of what paltry paid family leave policies communicate about the worth of women, not least when women routinely encounter serious long-term health consequences from pregnancy and childbirth; as Bess Kalb recently writes in the New York Times, she would likely be dead if she had not been privileged to have had extended time off after she had a placenta-related complication a full six weeks after giving birth.
Popular, memed-discourse related to the Women’s March and more over the last few years might lead one to conclude that the Democrats are the party of the feminist cause, and that is probably true to some extent. But for all of the symbolic identity politics of the last few years, an emphatic refusal to materially support women and their children with paid leave policy is a catastrophic failure. Currently, congressional democrats are pushing to require women to register for the military draft, despite denying women time with and support for their newborn children. As Elizabeth Bruenig observes, the kind of equality for women which Democrats seem interested in promoting is arguably an aggressively anti-feminist form of equality, with little interest in supporting women qua women.
Improving America’s Paid Family Leave deficiencies will doubtless prove expensive. However, we can either choose to undertake those costs as worthwhile, or suffer the unsalvageable losses and negative societal consequences of mothers returning to work too early after childbirth, fathers returning to work rather than spending precious time with their newborn children and caring for their family, and children bonding and receiving attention from their parents. Too few people are seriously inquiring what our current system costs of our humanity, that we continue to regard zero or even a measly four weeks of paid family leave as acceptable. It is a vast, human cost indeed.
When the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he was received at Mary’s breast, and nurtured in Joseph’s house. According to Matthew, this baby who has been born is himself “Immanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). According to Luke, Jesus’s family was together with him. Shepherds visited his family and saw Jesus in the manager after his birth in Bethlehem; they reported to Mary and Joseph that angels had been revealed to them, proclaiming glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will towards humanity. Then, after eight days, Jesus’ family had him circumcised, and later consecrated at the temple. We are told “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; 51). Families belong together.