My first year with my first born daughter has been an occasion for both personal joy and melancholy public reflection. Governments, both state and federal, created an obstacle course for raising our child. And for many other children the natural obstacles have been exacerbated by bad social norms, most particularly norms against rendering judgments about how people’s living arrangements affect children.
To begin on a happy note, however, the first year has reminded me once again of the transcendence of individual genius. The classics of children’s literature are antic marvels of cheer and cleverness. Reading the best of them allows for adult pleasures as well, because like all great works they offer different line readings and different interpretations. For instance, if one gives Sam the resonant voice of God, Green Eggs and Ham becomes a parable of reconciling man to God’s creation.
But the government has been a constant frustration, making it difficult for a working couple to comply with its laws while also providing personal care for their child. Hiring a nanny requires one to calculate social security, withholding, buy unemployment and workman’s compensation insurance, and obey various federal and state regulations. Quite apart from the absurd nature of some these laws, their intricacy defeated this lawyer from doing the compliance work himself and required the additional expense of hiring an outside service. No wonder the agencies referring nannies all told me that very few of their clients even attempt to follow the law. In this context, complexity makes the law self-defeating.
And some of the rules are ridiculous. Illinois workmen’s compensation charged us almost $1,000 for such insurance, as if being a nanny entailed a serious risk of injury. And although we were staying in Illinois for only 15 weeks, it imposed a yearly fee, refusing to rebate most of what we paid. Regulations about overtime made it too expensive to use our daytime nanny (who knew our child almost as well as we did) to baby sit for the occasional evening. The government thus discourages parents and nannies, even those, like ours, who were earning multiples of the minimum wage, from making deals that make both of them, not to mention a child, better off.
It will not come as news that the first year of parenting is a challenge. It tested my wife and me as we have been never been tested before. But it also constantly reminded me of the plight of the third of all children who live in single-parent households, because it became obvious why children raised in such households are not likely to do as well as those with two parents. Even with two people, we struggled to give our daughter all the attention she needed. And while advanced thinkers suggest that my wife’s and my own attention should be interchangeable for some reason our daughter has not yet accepted modern gender theory and demanded at times her mother’s unique comfort.
The rise of single-parent households has many causes, but one of them has been that so many of people in our society are unwilling to support norms that criticize out-of-wedlock birth and divorces by parents with children. I have argued that the lack of sound judgmentalism is in part related to the crowding out of private welfare associations by the state. But whatever the causes, my experience of the first year makes me even surer that it creates massive social tragedy. A free society flourishes only when it embraces private norms of strict personal responsibility in family life.