Sunday, March 2, 2008

Reason, Unreason, and Reproduction

Now that the dust has settled from the latest skirmish in the Mommy Wars (Mothers vs. Non-mothers Edition), I've taken a closer look at the article in Reason magazine that set it off. In it, author Ronald Bailey argues that educated women are not just limiting their family size but forgoing motherhood altogether because children tend not to make people happy. Sometimes Reason has smart and interesting stuff; that's where I learned, for instance, that the TSA is tracking the books people schlep in their baggage. But the fuss over Bailey's piece was just so not worth it. The magazine may be called Reason, but this article is rife with unreason.

Bailey starts off in an eminently sensible vein:
I doubt that the "demographic winter" [i.e., the drop in birthrates below replacement level] portends economic collapse or social deterioration, but let us set that aside for this column, and instead ask why people are choosing to have fewer children?
Agreed, the demographic winter really is a non-issue. If anything, unless the earth's population stabilizes, we'll hit a point of economic and environment unsustainability – assuming we haven't already.

Why are people having fewer kids? Great question. Historically, Bailey is correct in saying that birthrates fall as women's educational and occupational options grow. This is a good thing not just for women but also for their children, who are more likely to enjoy good nutrition and education – and to simply survive – in smaller families.

This is not a new trend. France led the way already in the 1800s, well before the rest of the West, but by the eve of World War I, all of the industrialized countries were noting declines in their birthrates. This spawned panic that women weren't doing their duties. It may seem quaint today, but at the time plenty of people in the U.S. were dead serious (so to speak) about "race suicide" among non-immigrant whites. (Um, actually that might not be as antiquated a view as I'd like to think.) Germans were convinced that the more-fecund Poles would overrun them; such fears were one factor that spurred them to preemptively overrun the Poles.

So history teaches us that there are good reasons to keep a cool head about population fluctuations.

I also have no beef with Bailey's contention that not every human being is biologically driven to spawn. I have good friends who've chosen consciously and happily not to have babies. I could have taken either path, myself. I know I would've built a satisfying life if I'd never had kids, because I did just that for 36 years. All-encompassing biological determinism is silly and belied by the facts.

But does that mean there's no innate drive to reproduce? This is where Bailey's argument starts to crumble, because the opposite extreme of biological determinism is equally silly. Unlike in the past, the financial costs of bearing and rearing children outstrip any financial benefit parents may derive from them. Raising kids is expensive, particularly when you factor in the lost earning potential of whichever parent assumes primarily caretaking responsibilities. (Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood is still the best analysis I know of this problem – highly recommended.) The emotional rewards are not a sure bet, either, but more on that in a moment.

And yet, despite the unfavorable cost-benefit calculation, people keep having kids. In many cases, by choice. Is this all a result of ideology? It's true we still live in a culture where busybodies feel free to ask young women when they'll finally start having babies, where women are still presumed incomplete without children. But there are lots of enlightened women who feel quite free to tell the busybodies to buzz off, yet choose to have babies anyway. Are we all victims of maternalist false consciousness? If so, then I'm completed deluded about my own motives. If there were no biological drive whatsoever to reproduce, I would've stuck with my comfy life of reading and writing and hanging out in cafes.

There's also a major difference between choosing small families and choosing to forgo children altogether. Bailey conflates the two. The experience of most Western nations shows that given reasonably free choice, a minority of women will choose to be childfree, but most will have at least a child or two.

Bailey's most striking example – Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, where he says 30 percent of women are childless – betrays complete cluelessness about the cultural context. I lived in Germany for ten years. I know some of these women. Some are perfectly happy with their decision to remain childfree. Others will say that they just never met the right partner. Many felt they had to choose between motherhood and a career. This last group comprises mostly educated women who have options; working-class women usually have a child or two, and they usually continue working out of necessity.

Germany has lots of good daycares and family-friendly work policies, so you wouldn't think educated women face stark choices. But some employers are hostile to working mothers, in part because the law requires employers to hold a new mother's job for three years. Unsurprisingly, women of childbearing age face discrimination in hiring. Some employers assume they'll just get pregnant and bug out for three years. Another problem is that many schools let out early in the afternoon, leaving parents with major childcare hassles. The daycare network actually functions better for preschoolers. Probably the biggest obstacle of all, though, is the image of the Rabenmutter – the bad mother who heartlessly abandons her children to the care of strangers. This image is still so potent that some women seem to feel that unless they can do it "right," they shouldn't have children at all.

Finally, Bailey's argument suffers from a confusion of categories when he claims that children don't make their parents happy. But happiness is not the same thing as satisfaction. That's particularly true in the short term.

You'd have to be lobotomized to find every aspect of day-to-day childcare immediately rewarding. I'm tense and unhappy when my two boys go into auto-squabble mode. I sometimes wish for a mute button when their demands on my attention just won't stop. Some aspects of routine childcare can be boring, especially the extra housekeeping work. I crave more privacy than I get. I'm grateful for the Tiger's part-time daycare and the Bear's school (apart from the 11 snow days we've had this winter!) because without some time apart from my kids, I get depleted, crabby, and frustrated.

But what work – what relationship – is never stressful, or boring, or tiring? Just because I don't find parenting blissful 24/7 doesn't make it a hollow or foolhardy enterprise, as Bailey implies. On the contrary, it's intensely satisfying. And here the long view matters, not just the moment. The kids grow, they learn, they give back love, they make us laugh. They say startlingly weird and wonderful things in the midst of all their chatter. They let us see the world through their eyes, which can be funny or amazing or even enlightening. That's not just ideology speaking. At the end of the day, most days, my experience says yes, my life is more complicated and harder than it was before kids, but it's also richer. That doesn't mean parenting is the only path to fulfillment, only that we should respect each others' choices without assuming those on the other path are deluded.

Of course, it helps that we're having a pretty good morning. The kids just finished singing a hilarious out-of-season version of "Jingle Bells" in four-part disharmony with the neighbor girls. And now they're outdoors, romping on the swings and holding an Animal Club meeting on this first mild day, this blessed harbinger of spring.

Childproof cat from I Can Has Cheezburger?


figleaf said...

Matthew Yglesias made a good generational point (gee, why would that interest me?) that whereas *having and raising* children might make one less happy than one might otherwise be, over the *long run* the satisfaction of having, especially, *grown* children is quite high. Given the intensity of loneliness often reported in old age, the lifetime cost/benefit of having is probably not properly measured.

That's *still* not to say one should or must have children, nor is it to say the childless are assured of loneliness not, obviously, that having children insures against it. Just that culture-of-youth bias probably influences most considerations.

Cool, cool, topic, Sungold.

Sungold said...

Now, figleaf, you're hardly the only "old" parent here. One of the things I like about living where I do is that half of the parents at the elementary school are roughly my age, forties and beyond. The other half are young enough that I could be a grandma, but I try not to do that math.

I think Yglesias is right. Having very young children was tough for me, but it's getting easier. I'm prepared to duck and cover once they hit adolescence. But no less an authority than my own mother says it's *wonderful* to have grown children - and none of us gave her much grief when we were younger, so it's not just that she's relieved to have us out of her house.

If that's true, though, then people like you and I massively miscalculated, because the ratio of tough years : easy years is not in our favor. :-)

Glad you like the topic. As always, you've made me think. Thanks!