“The decision to have children has always struck me as an essentially selfish one: You choose, out of a desire for fulfillment or self-betterment or curiosity or boredom or baby-mania or peer pressure, to bring a new human into this world. And it has never seemed more selfish than today. From a global perspective, having a child in a developed nation is among the most environmentally unsound decisions you can make… On the individual level, as fires rage and hurricanes form, as water grows scarce and fields lie fallow, it’s hard not to wonder: What kind of future can we offer a child?
“And yet. On some level we still believe that a baby, our baby, will bring the world, our world, so much more than his carbon footprint. On another, we believe, like so many before us, that a baby can be the only balm after a loss. That it will transform me from a bereaved sister to something new and alien: a mother.”
“Giving Birth in the End Times,” Emily Holleman, The Cut, Oct 4, 2021
More than at any time in history, having a baby in 2021 is a choice. Science has given us birth control and the “day after” pill. Medicine has given us both elective abortion and neo-natal intensive care. Technology has given us in vitro fertilization and amniocentesis. Unplanned pregnancies and unplanned births still happen, but in the West they have become much less common.
Thus, the US Census found that the fertility rate – the average number of children a childbearing woman will have in her lifetime – dropped to 1.64 in 2020, the lowest number ever recorded. Women are choosing to have fewer children and more women are delaying pregnancy, or even foregoing it altogether. (“Why is the US Birth Rate Declining?” https://www.prb.org/resources/why-is-the-u-s-birth-rate-declining/)
As Ms. Holleman points out in her essay, many women are concerned, even afraid, to bring a child into these scary times. Our country has been assaulted by COVID, the economy has been shaken, Washington is in its usual state of confusion and impotency, carbon emissions may be spelling doom for the entire planet.
And who knows what’s beyond the horizon?
But the fact is that childbearing women in present-day America have very little to fear when compared to other parts of the world, not to mention other eras in history. For example, Black women enslaved in the American South were forbidden to marry and often saw their children sold off when they became old enough to have value as laborers. Those mothers would have given anything to raise children in a time such as this, carbon footprints be damned.
Still, Holleman raises an important question: Why have children at all? And she answers her own question by saying that women like herself choose childbearing because it satisfies various personal interests: “fulfillment or self-betterment or curiosity or boredom or baby-mania or peer pressure.” Her own motivation seems to be that a baby may serve as a “balm” after the loss of a dear sister.
If Holleman’s perspective is as widespread as I think it is, many young women today view having a child as a means to an end, the end having more to do with meeting some very personal and existential need which has little or nothing to do with the child itself.
We live in a narcissistic age, so it makes sense that the calculus women go through before having a child has become increasingly self-referential. Having a child is, or should be, a lifelong commitment to the care and nurture of another human being, so it’s wise to enter that decision carefully. Yet, what sort of a life will a child have if it owes its existence to a mother’s desire for fulfillment?
I blame secularism for making childbearing an increasingly utilitarian activity – it has become a means to achieving something that scratches an itch or satisfies a whim. When ego rules our daily decision-making processes and moral choices, it only makes sense that we will choose to do those things, believe those things, follow those roads that put our self-interests first.
Yet what all parents discover, and good parents embrace, is that children teach us how look past self-interest to something more noble. Parents discover how to be tender towards the vulnerable, how to care for the needs of a human being that is completely dependent on our nurture and protection. In fact, good parents are forced to be dependable people, which often means hushing our many I-me yearnings while we put another human being first. And that makes us better human beings.
I believe in God, specifically the God of the Bible, a God who created life, men and women, sex, procreation, and the entire process of child-bearing and -rearing. And what I’ve gleaned from this Christian faith is that having children can make us into the sort of human beings that live life with an outward focus on others rather than an inward focus on satisfying our own desires. Children have the power to make us completed human beings.
It’s significant that God refers to himself as a Father, that he calls Jesus his Son, and that he calls all of the human race his children. He uses this metaphor because it communicates powerfully about his heart, his priorities, his intentions.
Having and raising a child is perhaps the only human activity that requires us to set aside self-interest and fully commit to living for the benefit of another human being.
And in doing so, a father and mother learn what true love really is: Love is serving someone else, caring for someone else, sacrificing myself for someone else. In the ideal, love does this without expecting any benefit in return. Except, there is a benefit: Parents who learn to love like this become the sort of human beings that God intended us to be.
Fame doesn’t make us real. Nor does money, or success, or even the experience of childbirth. We start to become real the moment we set aside our own wants and needs and begin walking up and down the hallway in the dark with a weeping baby in our arms.
Jesus said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:13 (NLT) What he meant was that the heart of love is other-focused. Love looks for ways to serve others, care for others, provide for others, protect others.
“Why have children” is a modern question. It’s the wrong question. The right question is this: Am I willing to become the sort of human being a child needs in a parent? Am I willing to set aside all of my hopes and desires and expectations in order to love a child unconditionally and selflessly?
Having children is an opportunity to learn to love generously and selflessly, just as God loves us.