“When I gave birth, I had postnatal preeclampsia, and I was in the hospital for a week after on a magnesium drip, and it really kicked my butt,” said Meghan McCain on The View on Monday, kicking off a story of what sounds like a difficult postpartum experience. “I had to have my husband and my mother-in-law help me shower and eat and take care of Liberty [her new baby], and it was deeply humbling,” McCain said. She explained to her four co-hosts that she had had an epiphany on the matter of universal paid family leave. “I think this is really a dark spot for our country,” she said, proposing that The View should “make this our initiative in 2021.”
McCain’s co-hosts met her proposal with measured approval, tempered by annoyance. Sara Haines pointed out that a policy of universal family leave should apply to men, as well—something McCain didn’t seem ready to embrace. (“We should start with the mother and go on to the father,” she said, arguing that “conservatives” would have a hard time with the idea of financing such a program and would need to be brought along slowly.) Whoopi Goldberg, seeming to barely hide her irritation, said (correctly): “We’ve been fighting for this for years, begging, screaming, as far back as I can remember! … We’ve been talking about this for 20 years. This was one of Hillary Clinton’s big, big things—paid leave.” And Joy Behar certainly wasn’t giving out any cookies. When it came to a lack of paid leave, she told McCain, “It’s your party, not mine!” standing in the way.
On Twitter, many, many people pointed out that this kind of tale of late-breaking personal conversion to a leftish social policy was so Republican it hurt. Think Rob Portman and same-sex marriage, Jim Brady and gun control, Jared Kushner and criminal justice reform. “This is what essentially defines modern conservatism: A social problem doesn’t exist until it happens to me personally,” one Twitterer said. “The need for personal experience is deeply rooted in power and privilege, and it is beyond frustrating,” said another.
I don’t disagree with these diagnoses. Obviously, there’s a pattern here, in which people in the GOP expect accolades for basic human decency they’ve arrived at only after they feel the pain. But I think there’s something missing in our perennial annoyance at these conversion stories. Empathy is (as Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post on Tuesday in response to the McCain flap) “a muscle,” and recent events in my own life have shown me that personal experience can be politically transformative in unpredictable ways. I’m not sure what’s to be gained by denying this mystery of human existence; in fact, I think there may be something to be won by taking it seriously.
I believed in the idea of paid leave before becoming a parent, but after having a baby and spending three (paid—thank you, Slate) months recovering from an emergency C-section, figuring out cribs and swaddles and pumps, I really felt its absence for other people as the outrage it is. New parenthood is a somatic experience, like suffering through a disease; I found it difficult to explain what my own “fourth trimester” was like to anyone, even other mothers. For me, the hormones and lack of sleep made my body alternately heavy and light as air; my mind, usually fairly even in temper, was hopeful one hour and full of despair the next. This was a relatively normal postpartum period—no serious medical complications, for me or my child; no real experience of depression or anxiety—and yet it taught me just how little I had understood, before having a child, about what having one would be like.
Other things about parenting have changed the urgency of my politics. Seeing how drastically the moments of stress in our adult lives can throw off the dynamic between us and our child has made me linger over coverage of studies of pandemic family life that are currently showing how children’s behavior regresses like clockwork when parents have been stressed by unemployment, uncertainty, and grief. Trying to hide your own anxiety from your child is emotionally difficult and, in the end, impossible; seeing how they can deteriorate along with you is incredibly painful. Sure, if asked by some opinion pollster in 2015, I would have said, “Of course, households with children should be provided a cushion of money from the government, so that their parents have a fighting chance of insulating them from stress as they grow up.” But now, with almost four years of day-to-day interactions with a child under my belt, and having seen how a bad night of sleep or a pressing adult problem in my life instantly translates into a wild and uncertain mood for her, I say it with feeling.
This is the biggest life change I’ve ever undergone, the one thing that’s happened to me that’s changed my perceptions the most, and yet that change feels too banal to express in words. Parenting, after all, “changes your life,” “makes you a different person”—all those clichés everyone delivers at baby showers. Of course, once you become a parent you won’t want to watch the Georgie scene in the new It, or read this (very good) story, or read this one either. You won’t even be able to read about, say, the history of infectious disease with the same detached curiosity. The fact that these exact shifts in feeling also happened to me is not exactly something that bears very much explication, even if my feelings of fear, sympathy, and outrage now get so strong when I read stories like these that it shocks me.
What interests me, as a political matter—since we’re talking about political commitments—is that it’s not entirely clear how parenthood’s sharpened emotional state changes your actions in the world. In the 20th century United States, some mothers, moved by their tender feelings toward their children, tapped into their maternal status to argue against nuclear testing; other mothers used their same experience as a prod to nudge society to the right. Vulnerability does all kinds of interesting things to people’s minds.
As psychologist Jamil Zaki wrote in the Atlantic in 2015 in an exploration of the effects of parenthood on empathy, “scientists know almost nothing about how having children—among the most titanic and most common life changes—affects empathy.” But Zaki did point out that empathy, “often construed as a fixed trait,” “expands and contracts with life events.” People who have experienced significant life traumas, he explains more thoroughly in his book on the topic, seem to undergo a lifelong expansion of their ability to care and their desire to act on that caring. Moreover, Zaki’s “hunch,” he writes, is that people who believe that empathy is not a fixed human quantity will find more of it inside themselves. “People are most likely to run out of it,” he writes, “when they believe they have only so much to give.” Given that idea, it seems a bit counterproductive to scold these Johnny-come-latelies who arrive at the paid-leave party 40 years after it began.
None of this should be read as an apology for the classic Republican “father of daughters,” or daughter of fathers, newly awakened to something that seems very obvious to the rest of us. Yes, the dependence on personal experience to arrive at good policy recommendations is just as morally suspect, and annoying, as everyone says. Yet the greater intensity of political commitment to children’s causes that I’ve felt after becoming a parent, and the expansion of sympathy I feel toward other people’s family lives, has me wondering if it’s quite fair to dismiss these types of conversions so completely. People’s life experiences do change their minds about the world. The question is, what more could we do to transform these new feelings of vulnerability into care for others?