Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, published a piece earlier this month stating that our decreased birth rates are a serious issue. He mentions the current economic recession, the housing bust, decreased fertility rates among immigrant populations, and a cultural shift placing less importance on children as part of a successful marriage as factors contributing to the decline in birth rates.
He then states:
Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. 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.
He further states, in a follow-up post:
Is replacement-level fertility really so much to ask, morally speaking, of people graced with wealth and entertainments and diversions beyond the dreams of any previous generation? If conspicuous consumption is morally dubious when it substitutes for sacrifices on behalf of strangers, as most good progressives seem to think, why isn’t it morally dubious when it substitutes for the more intimate form of sacrifice that made all of our lives possible in the first place?
The article, written by Jeff Fecke, that first alerted me to Douthat’s column does a great job discussing the advances in maternal and infant health since the 15th century. It also discusses the fact that women are finally in charge of their own reproductive decisions and can decide when – or if – they want to have children. And if they choose not to have children, they can succeed in life just the same. Women are no longer expected to serve as a wife and mother as the end game, which is great. I love being able to have a career and decide when I am ready (or as ready as possible) to have children. And I hope to be able to stay home and raise them when I do, which is also my prerogative as a Modern Feminist Woman. Or whatever.
Fecke says, better than I could:
There are enough kids to keep humanity going, and that means that kids have become, at some level, a luxury item. People don’t buy luxury items when they can’t meet basic needs. As the economy recovers, more children will be born; indeed, there will likely be something of a baby boomlet, as pent-up demand for children is realized.
That said, there are still other factors limiting the number of children born. We as a society have done poorly with work/life balance. America requires no paid maternity or paternity leave, and the corporate culture frowns on people who prioritize family over work. Child care is prohibitively expensive in much of the country; in Minneapolis, full-time day care for a three-year-old averages $640 a week, or more than $33,000 a year. The median household income in the state is $57,000 per year. Needless to say, if you’re a parent working full-time, and you don’t structure your work schedule so you have days off, you are hoping to break even — and if you’re not really netting any income, you’re left choosing between staying home — which is great, but doesn’t advance your career — or working, despite not bringing in any net income — which keeps your career going, but denies you time with your kids, and doesn’t help your bottom-line. The alternative is to simply choose not to have kids, or to limit the kids you have.
If you want people to have more children, you have to make it easier for them to care for their children. In countries like France and Sweden, where the social safety net is robust, paid parental leave is required, and day care is subsidized, birth rates are higher than the western average. This is not rocket science; if a couple that is on the fence about having kids knows that they’ll get time to stay home with the children, and be able to afford child care when they go back to work, then they’re much more likely to decide in favor.
Quality vs. quantity
In response to Douthat’s call for increased birth rates, I really don’t see the necessity. I think lower birth rates are a good thing right now. Our planet cannot handle all the people living here, and growth does not necessarily spell success. Perhaps the luxury to delay or avoid having children is a blessing, not a curse.
The matter of procreating and increasing, maintaining, or decreasing our population over a few generations is a matter of quality over quantity. If we have the ability to provide a better life for our children, even if it means fewer children, they will lead better quality lives and provide better quality lives for children of their own. We are not in a cultural situation where we need to rapidly boost the population. We are fine with a little population decline (and maybe after a couple generations like this, everyone will be able to find a job!)
Children are expensive. They require care, food, clothing, housing, healthcare, education, and more. If you put the kids in daycare, that takes up a big portion of your income. If you stay home with them, that limits your income (depending on whether or not you can work from home) and might not be possible for a single parent. More children means less money per person to spend on food and clothing, so the quality of the food and clothing you buy may decrease so that you can afford to buy enough for everyone. More children means you need more space, so you may have to buy or rent a larger home to accommodate a growing family. More children means less money for healthcare, leading to higher stress levels as parents worry about needing to pay for children’s medical bills. More children means less to spend per child on educational costs, so without a lot of student loans and/or scholarships, they may not be able to attend their preferred college. More children very likely means more hours at work, which means less time you can spend with your family, which was the whole reason you had kids!
Bringing it back to minimalism
Children are not possessions, but they are (often) premeditated additions to your life. If you wanted to truly live as simply as humanly possible, you could go live alone in a cabin in the woods. That may not be personally fulfilling for you, however, and it’s always important to remember that minimalism is about having what you need for your life, without excess. If you want to have children and a family is a non-negotiable part of your life plan, then of course you should have children. But how many? How many children is enough for a minimalist? Once again, the answer is “however many you want.” Some people have one child and that is just right for them. Others have six children and that works for them. If you want children, that’s great! If you don’t, that’s also great! Do what makes you happy and what works for your life and your situation.
I hope to have one or two children, for personal sanity reasons, environmentalist reasons, and financial reasons. My personal vision for my children is to be able to:
- Cook and feed them nutritious foods
- Stay home to raise them, at least for the first five years of their lives
- Homeschool them or be able to afford to send them to a Montessori school or similar (just a dream; they may end up in public school… I turned out okay!)
- Help pay their tuition to a good college
- Clothe them with quality clothing and shoes
- Take care of their health
- Teach them, by example, how to be a good parent and a competent person (like my mom did for me, even though it took me 20 years to realize she was not my enemy)
This is not to say that people who can’t do the things I listed are bad parents or are decreasing the quality of life of their children. However, some children in this country (and all over the world) are suffering as a result of simply being one of too many mouths to feed. If people waited and planned and budgeted their time and finances before starting a family, they would be in a better position to provide for their kids.
Priorities and sacrifices
Consider unplanned pregnancies in teenagers and women in their early twenties. These women are often not established in a career or a position with the benefits of paid maternity leave. They may not have health insurance. They may still live with their parents. As a teenaged or early-20s parent, these women often don’t have the resources it takes to provide a quality life for their children, especially if they are single.
I am so intimidated by the costs of raising a child that I am taking as much time as I dare before I start a family, even though it is something I want very much. That said, I cannot tell you how much admiration I have for single parents and young parents that make it work to provide the best possible life for their children. My mother was a single parent for most of our lives and she totally rocked it, even if she did have to work three jobs sometimes to provide for us. My best friend, who is my age, is fortunate to be able to stay home and raise her two children while her fiance works to provide for their family. People can make it work, and when it does work, it’s awesome.
The problem exists when it doesn’t work. Spend ten minutes watching TV shows like Teen Mom to see that some people are not really equipped to handle raising a child, because they are not ready to make sacrifices. A key aspect of parenthood is sacrifice and prioritization. If you want to travel, or party, or date a bunch of people, it’s best to prioritize your future children and do all of those things before you start having kids, especially if you are not willing to sacrifice those desires for the benefit of the child. Kids change everything, and they need your attention and support from day one.
Some women find out the news that they will be mothers and commit to learning how to give their children the best life they possibly can. Others don’t, and it’s tragic — and avoidable. With incomplete (or absent) sex education, limited access to contraception, and the current assault on reproductive choice, a lot of young people find themselves with children they are not equipped to raise, emotionally, financially, or otherwise.
The decision to have a child (or two, or more, or none at all) is each person’s or each couple’s decision to make. We are no longer responsible for having as many babies as possible, because our population is saturated. We have more people than jobs in most places, and more people than homes in some as well. If our population takes a hit over a couple generations, I think that’s actually a good thing. In fact, the more we put off having children — the more we take advantage of that luxury and decadence of being able to wait — the better off our children will be, because we’re not prioritizing careers or our own lives over theirs, we are actually prioritizing them by waiting until we have the resources to give them the best life possible.