Do we need to have more babies?

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.

15 thoughts on “Do we need to have more babies?

  1. Sarah Spaetzle says:

    Hi there,
    Interesting and thought-provoking post.
    One issue with a decreasing birth rate is that there will be fewer young people to support a large ageing population. This means a lot of money needs to be provided by a smaller number of wage earners. Higher taxes, more strain on working population to support an economically unproductive population. It’s all very well saying it’s our individual decision to decide not to have children but all our individual decisions add up to a large impact on society as a whole. The few children we do have may experience a decreased quality of life.
    I’m not saying it isn’t our individual decision. I myself have not contributed to maintaining or increasing the population rate, though I’d like to have children in the future. All I’m saying is that economically we need to maintain a certain birth rate so that the children of the foreseeable future don’t have a huge burden placed on them in looking after our generation.

    • Caitlin says:

      That’s true, and that’s an angle I didn’t consider! What about unemployment rates though, because we do have such a sizable population? Just because we have X number of people doesn’t mean all of them are contributing, so is less necessarily worse? I’m no expert, but I feel like if more people are receiving benefits for low income or unemployment, that’s a drain on the economy anyway, so would it be made better or worse by having fewer people in the population? (Also, I am not anti-welfare/benefits at all, I have been on benefits twice in my life and I think they are a great resource that helped me get back on my feet). I’m interested in learning more about this, thank you for reminding me of a very important topic to consider!

  2. quinndelv says:

    Douthat is ridiculous. Easy to say all these things when you’re a man. His opinions are saturated with male privilege. And having children being a component to a successful marriage? How eyeroll worthy. I wonder if he’d say the same thing to infertile people.

    Even if a woman has all the time and money in the world, she has no obligation to breed.

  3. Rachel W. says:

    Being a good parent has to do with the individual. Not their age. Not if they live with their parents. Having an awesome career isn’t going to make you a better parent. Being a good parent is about being actively involved with your child. Listening to them and spending time with them. I had my daughter at 17. She’s 14 now. I’ve sacrificed plenty over the years for her. We live with my parents. That sacrificed the hell out of my pride. But it is more important to me for her to have a stable home with more than one adult to turn to and learn from than for me to be all “lookie i have my own place, aren’t I awesome?”

    Multi-generational homes are not somehow bad places to raise a child. What is wrong with living with grandparents and parents? And maybe even an aunt and/or uncle? And a cousin? And a great-grandparent? If the adults involved are loving and supportive people, why is such a situation bad or wrong? I rather see multiple generations living under one roof that is stable, warm, and loving, than see a single parent or even a couple who are parents struggling to raise a child in crappy living conditions where they never know if there will be heat or food or even a roof over their heads from one day to the next.

    • Caitlin says:

      Rachel, I apologize. You’re right, I did paint that as a bad situation. Not all living situations like that are “bad” for the child – in fact, like you said, when they are loving and supportive, they can be great. What I meant was more along the lines of the child’s parent still being entirely dependent on their own parents, or taking advantage of their parents’ hospitality in a bad way. If everyone is on board, then living in a multi-generational household can be a great thing and an amazing resource and place for the child to grow up. However, I’ve seen a lot of instances where the children’s parents take advantage of the grandparents to continue going out to party and continue “being young,” when they should be prioritizing their children.

      You are completely right that the most important thing for a child is a stable home, whether or not that includes just their parents, or grandparents, or aunts and uncles, etc. I am in total agreement there.

      I fully acknowledge that young parents, single parents, etc. can be good parents — I know that parenting comes down the individual. I think that one of the most important parts of being a parent is to sacrifice for your child, and to put the safety and security of your child above your own personal desires, because once you have a child, your world needs to be about preparing that kid for the rest of their lives. I appreciate that you have sacrificed for your daughter, and I am sure that she is growing into a lovely young woman after your example (although 14 might be a tough age! My mother nearly killed me at 14, I suspect). I hope this follow-up comment has helped me explain what I meant better, and I do apologize for not fully exploring my thoughts on the matter in my original post.

      • Rachel W. says:

        I admit to being overly sensitive on the whole topic of teen parents and also living with your parents after you have a child. I know that not all young parents actually parent and often take advantage of the grandparents. But I know, currently, of one situation where two grandchildren are being raised by their maternal grandparents because the mother picked her boyfriend and drugs over her children. And this when she is in her 30s, wasn’t a teen mom, and was once a successful attorney. So, yea, it really isn’t just teen parents who dump their children on the grandparents.

        Ah. I’m told 14 is suppose to be a rough age. I know I was a right pain in the arse when I was 14 – so moody I don’t know how my parents loved me through it. Haha. But my daughter is just…mellow. I’m like “you do realize you are supposed to be moody and rebellious and stuff, right?” And she is like “Why, mom? I’m happy.” So, yea. We hang out and discuss anime and manga and sexuality and religion and clothes and stereotypes. I think she is a lovely young woman (though she says she’s not ready to grow up and would rather be 10 again).

        Thank you for more fully explaining your thoughts on the matter. Also to be clear, I don’t recommend having a child at 17. I am not an advocate of teen pregnancy. Parenthood is freakin hard and should not be undertaken lightly.

      • Caitlin says:

        Thanks for writing back to me! I am glad your daughter is so mellow🙂 and I didn’t think you were advocating teen pregnancy, but it is refreshing to see someone who was a teen mom step up and do what’s best for her child. I applaud you!

  4. livingsimplyfree says:

    There are so many issues which go into the need to control population. First there is the aging population that needs workers to support the elderly through Social Security and medical insurance. To that I would say that Social Security needs to be revamped, no not the plans I hear about coming out of Congress or Presidents. When Social Security was formed it was only to support the elderly. Now children of deceased or disabled parents, and disabled individuals all collect. There is no family income basis for these payments. I personally know people who are receiving government money for having ADHD, they just need to learn to work with their limitations and find the right job. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it hasn’t been a blessing to some families to have this help, but too many are receiving who shouldn’t be.

    Next, we worry about population to support the “growth” of the economy. The economy can’t continue to grow forever, although some economists do believe this. At some time the available resources will make this impossible. Those of us who are living without debt, and avoid the consumerist culture are also reducing the need to grow the population.

    In past generations, the multi-generational home was a common fixture in many areas. When you have multiple generations sharing the same home (even if there are designated areas for each generation) you save money, have in home childcare available. Families are stronger, children are less liable to be getting into trouble on the scale we see today and there would be less need for the government to support the elderly for instance.

    Caitlin, I applaud you for thinking about where you want your life to be before having children. When you are ready you will be a wonderful mom.

  5. Drop that Debt says:

    Great post. I plan on having 1 or 2 as well, someday when I am in a better financial position. (And am married probably too). I do not think it’s necessary since so many other nations are immigrating to Canada and they have plenty of children so our population is still keeping up. Unless something happens with that, we are in no danger of running out of people😛

  6. bemusedfox says:

    I agree with all of your points, but wanted to add a couple things.
    First though there is a quote that I believe is apropos, though I dont remember it verbatim : “it blows my mind that you need a license to vote drink smoke and drive but any yahoo can have a child.”
    On the topic of population, first people are living way longer now so more people. Second we are eradicating our natural predators diseases and some wild animals (admittedly most if not all animals don’t eat humans for the most part) so more people. To me it seems that our population is growing not declining. That is not to say that I approve of any sort of population control beyond making sure everybody has complete information about having kids vs not having them.
    As a side note on the job market, there really aren’t enough jobs and some of the elderly who want/need to keep working can’t because there is an ageism bias.

    • Caitlin says:

      Very true about the age bias (which is ridiculous). Our society has a lot of issues when you really think about it. Too much prejudice and bias all around.

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