Russell and Duenes

More Babies, Please

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Ross_DouthatThus did Ross Douthat entitle his December 1 column in The New York Times. He claimed that “[i]t’s a near universal law that modernity reduces fertility.” Yet historically, says Douthat, American women have continued to have babies at a higher rate than many East Asian or European nations. However, this trend is “no longer a sure thing. American fertility plunged with the stock market in 2008, and it hasn’t recovered.” One of the reasons Douthat cites for this trend away from fertility is “a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage.” Further, “the retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion – a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.”

In last week’s The Week (Baby Bust: The Declining U.S. Birthrate), Jonathan Last chimed in, stating that “with the ‘waning of religion we’ve fallen victim to the ‘cult of the individual.'” Apparently, according to the article, “Americans are so focused on their own personal fulfillment that they can’t be bothered to raise a generation to replace them.”

Amanda Marcotte of Slate retorted, “Conservative men have always had an obsession with starting ’em young and keeping ’em knocked up, which protects a way of life these men have grown accustomed to: lotsa babymaking makes it difficult for women to compete with men economically, increasing female dependency on men while at the same time sticking it to liberals who worry about boring things like providing education and a clean environment to the children we do have.” Indeed, she writes: “Douthat is clearly irritated at his countrymen and especially his countrywomen for their persnickety desire to enjoy life rather than see it as a dutiful trudge to the grave. While I do enjoy a lecture on sacrifice from someone who will never push a baby out of his genitals and whose gender conveniently sidesteps the career setbacks associated with having children, I’m afraid that all the fun ended when I came to the phrase ‘privileges the present over the future.'” According to Marcotte, having fewer babies truly is looking out for the future because it means more resources for the fewer babies who are here and less global warming.

Jamelle Bouie also responded to Douthat: “In other words, if more women would bear and raise children, the United States might be able to preserve its dynamism…Not only is this contemptuous of women’s choices to a degree I find hard to comprehend; it betrays a hostility to the entire modern project of human flourishing at the cost of traditional obligations. The simple fact is that it’s only been in the last century that a substantial number of ordinary people have been been able to build decent lives free of severe hardship. If men and women are choosing to ’embrace the comforts and pleasures of modernity,’ it’s because they are far preferable to the pains and troubles of an earlier time, where happiness was a luxury for ordinary people…Countless men and women have fought and died to build a better world for ordinary people. There’s no sin in enjoying it.”

Douthat’s analysis may be somewhat reductionistic, for it is likely not the case that having fewer children is entirely rooted in Americans embracing “the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.” No doubt many Americans have chosen to have fewer children out of a realistic sense that they were not prepared to appropriately raise such children. Yet the responses to Douthat are quite insightful. He would have been criticized no matter what, simply because he is a man espousing these views. But the argument I find most interesting, and it is an argument that both Marcotte and Bouie make, is that somehow bearing and raising children is this dull drudgery, the escape from which “modernity” has made possible.

Marcotte seems to imply that young women who aspire to devote themselves primarily to becoming wives and mothers are opting for “a dutiful trudge to the grave.” The “desire to enjoy life,” must necessarily entail a woman’s achieving economic and social parity with men. Having babies is a kind of liability, which creates “female dependency on men.” Bouie echoes this theme, particularly with her assertion that a call for increased baby-making “betrays a hostility to the entire modern project of human flourishing at the cost of traditional obligations.” I see. Having babies is an “obligation,” that is, a punishment of sorts, a slavish duty, a life generally leading to “hardship,” if not “severe hardship.” Life in modernity, with all of its technological comforts and eases, and with fewer children around, is “far preferable to the pains and troubles of an earlier time.” Thus, having larger families should largely be seen as “pains and troubles.”

I would say that Marcotte’s and Bouie’s views are not merely consistent with “modern” secularism, as Jonathan Last seems to think, but are found among Christians as well. The cult of radical, individual autonomy has deeply infected us and has led us to worship at the temple of “modernity,” to count the blessing of having children as a curse and a hindrance. We have helped form a society where both husbands and wives must work in order to attain the modicum of economic comfort which we take as our birthright. We have too often contributed to the notion, often unstated, that being a “full time mom” is boring, dull, unimaginative, uncreative, demeaning to women’s abilities, and so forth. It is a path of life imposed on women, rather than one that any intelligent, competent woman would freely choose. Indeed, to choose it is to perpetuate a stereotype. We too have convinced ourselves that we’re doing the human race a favor by having fewer children. Yet I think we ought to examine some of our assumptions more carefully, and perhaps reconsider what God has to say about children, and mothering and fathering. We might still consider whether God’s words, “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth are subdue it,” are yet a blessing and not a curse. Further, we might consider what God has to say about masculinity and femininity, both, when it comes to having and raising children. We might reflect on whether the headlong pursuit of career attainment and accolade, the tit-for-tat comparison-making between men and women, and the constant striving for every comfort of modern economic prosperity are why God put us on this earth.



Written by Michael Duenes

December 17, 2012 at 5:18 am

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