The motherhood debate, about which I seem to be posting a lot lately, is in part about the choices women make, but more fundamentally about the value we place on children. That value is, literally, impossible to quantify. Any objective measure we choose will prove children to be a horrible burden: on one’s time, privacy, flexibility of life and work, even the ability to enjoy a good night’s sleep.
Children rob parents of their youth and their freedom. What’s the payoff? In the old days, it was free labor, but we have unthinkingly placed a lot of legal barriers to that option. In these enlightened times, count yourself lucky if your kids will mow the lawn.
The night my first-born was brought home from the hospital, he did not sleep. I remember walking him for hours in the dark of night while thinking, “I should be hating this. So why am I so happy?”
The need to breed is a Darwinian imperative. We are surely selected for it. The love of children may be the way this imperative is experienced: which is to say this feeling, like all feelings, has ancient biological roots. Because we are human, we demand reasons for the way we behave, but the reasons are all subjective.
We love children precisely for the burdens: because we are human, we demand something larger than ourselves to live for, and the life of one’s children feels much more important than one’s own. If we have faith in some far future, our children are a link to it. If we have pride in a way of life, our children are the hope of its continuance. If we believe in a cosmic order, our children may be a necessary part of that order, innocent worshippers at the altar of God.
If we believe in none of these things, then it’s more than likely we won’t have children. A WaPo piece by Robert Samuelson, “Behind the Birth Dearth,” explores a development that is attracting ever more attention: the refusal of the populations of the rich countries — those which have the most to live for — to reproduce themselves.
First, some facts. On average, women must have two children for a society to replace itself. The number of children per woman is called the “total fertility rate,” or TFR. Here are the estimated 2005 TFRs for some major countries: Germany, 1.4; Greece, 1.3; Italy, 1.3; Japan, 1.4; Spain, 1.3; and Russia, 1.3.
Consequences can be predicted, though these are chancier. By 2050, the population of Russia will decline from 147 to 111 million, that of Germany from 84 to 73 million, that of Japan from 127 to under 100 million. Pretty much every rich country — “developed” is the euphemism normally used — is facing a steep, unprecedented, and inexplicable decline in population.
All except one: the United States. Why are we an exception? The truth is, nobody knows. Childbearing decisions are private. What goes into any single choice is a mystery, and aggregating mysteries is unlikely to lead to enlightenment. That said, the fact remains that we in the U.S. believe in many things that the Europeans and Japanese seem to have lost faith in.
American fertility is roughly at the replacement rate, 2.1 children per woman. Nor does the U.S. rate merely reflect, as some think, a higher rate among Hispanic Americans. The fertility rate is 1.9 for non-Hispanic whites and about 2 for African Americans, reports demographer Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. What explains the American exception? Eberstadt cites three differences with Europe and most other advanced countries: greater optimism, greater patriotism and stronger religious values. There’s some supporting evidence. A survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asked respondents in 33 countries to react to this statement: “I would rather be a citizen of [my country] than of any other.” Among Americans, 75 percent “strongly” agreed; among Germans, French and Spanish, comparable responses were 21 percent, 34 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
It may be that contempt for one’s way of life is a rational posture. An unwillingness to bear children certainly is — particularly for women, who bear most of the burdens. But the rational approach leads to extinction. To love pleasure or comfort or freedom more than children means, in the end, the literal death of all human pleasure and comfort and freedom.
Forgive me if I find the love of death more irrational than the love of children, even when the latter keep us awake at night.