Salvo 05.21.2021 10 minutes

Baby Bust

Empty baby cots

Declining American fertility signals a psychological cost for women.

Despite some hope that the pandemic might bring the country a baby boom, we had a bust. Total fertility in 2020 was the lowest rate on record since the government began tracking it in the 1930s, and total births were the lowest since 1979, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. Economic and health concerns weighed on the minds of those who chose not to have a child this past year. But the plummeting numbers fit with a multi-year trend: American women are simply having fewer children and are waiting much longer to marry than women just a generation ago.

As an increasingly typical 29-year-old woman told the New York Times, she’s putting off children because she’s “getting to live her life.” She’s “feeling a little bit selfish,” and “everybody in my friend group is saying, ‘When is the right time to let go of that selfishness?’” On Mother’s Day, the New York Times even chose to glamorize women who reject motherhood altogether, and feminist Jill Filipovic wrote that she would like to read more essays from women who regret having had children. Let there be no mistake about the cultural elite’s denigration of motherhood and children.

When a graduate student in a committed relationship asked me for advice about sequencing marriage, children, and career. I gave the advice I always give. “Marry him. Start your family, and keep doing good work, professional or otherwise, monetized or otherwise, when it makes sense for your family.”

The student was flummoxed. “But what about graduate school?” she asked. My advice was the same. She protested. “But what if I get married, have a baby, and it is too hard to work at the same time? To travel?” I told her my advice was the same.

There are too many variables, I explained, too many hypotheticals, and too much beyond your control to game it out. Prioritize what is most important to you given the real constraints of time and biology. Bearing children takes youth and nurturing them takes considerable time. I threw in my final provocative thought for good measure. “And if it comes to that, there is nothing wrong with putting your professional opportunities on hold for the sake of your family—temporarily or indefinitely.” She gasped, and said that nobody had ever told her that would be ok. She was emotional, thanked me, and we ended the call.

Nobody? Nobody had ever told her?

We can discuss national policies that provide tax breaks or other inducements for families to have more children, and there are some interesting new proposals out there that seek to promote greater financial relief and flexibility for families. But financial inducements alone will not solve this cultural, spiritual malady. There must be a shift, or at least a pressure release, for this group of women—those with the opportunities, educational and financial—who eschew or deemphasize motherhood, but who do not want to. By failing to give the advice I gave the student, simply and compellingly, even you who wring your hands over the cultural calamity happening all around us are complicit in applying the wrong kind of societal pressure.

There is a cultural dogma that tells little girls they will achieve their greatest worth through autonomy, power, and how optimally they maneuver to monetize their talents.  This dogma nurtures narcissism and rejects self-sacrifice as stupid and weak. The new dogma, which modern feminism has embraced, teaches young people to stamp out vulnerability and dependence, though vulnerability and dependence are immutable characteristics of our creative design and necessary for the sustainment and reproduction of human life.

This is most obviously manifested in the pregnant mother, whose preborn child is entirely dependent on her and utterly vulnerable, and who, while sustaining a growing life, is also vulnerable and dependent on others, most ideally her devoted husband and father of her child. This cultural dogma is so pervasive and so uncontested that it induces young women—not quite on board with the program—to cauterize their hearts and pursue a life unnatural to them, often leaving them frustrated, anxious, and bitter. In contrast, having a child turns a woman’s eyes off of herself and toward this tiny person—her person, created in her and nurtured by her.  And for the believer, motherhood also forces a woman’s eyes upward, in fervent prayer to God for the child’s happiness, wellness, and holiness. This kind of all-consuming love for another—for a child who can give nothing but himself—leads to willing personal sacrifice, and often suffering, while simultaneously wringing out deep joy and satisfaction. 

This raises another problem, one beyond a shortage of new citizens. What happens when all the mothers finally decide to “let go of that selfishness” to give birth to their first babies, only to put their babies in daycare because Americans have been convinced their monetized work or their public prestige is of utmost importance and the work of cultivating human beings with care is the job of professionally-trained state employees?

Because of the unique life-giving and sustaining qualities that women possess, it is good for both children and their mothers if the mother is present, physically and mentally, especially in her children’s earliest years. We know this through natural and divine law, and we can see that it is true observationally and as confirmed by psychologists. New York psychoanalyst Erica Komisar’s book Being There forcefully demonstrates that children need the complete presence of their mothers for their developmental and emotional health. She says, “Our denial of the very specific and special physical and emotional role of a mother to her child, particularly in our attempt to be modern, is not in the best interest of children and their needs.” She ascribes the devaluing of mothers to the declining mental health of American children.

Which brings us to the Biden administration’s plan for the government to add $225 billion for child-care. While many people have criticized the plan due to its cost, more people ought to make the important point that we all intuitively know, but are afraid of saying: data shows similar efforts have had deleterious effects on children. Subsidized institutional babysitting might be good for businesses by pulling more bodies into the workforce, but it is terrible for families. And the worse off families are, the lower the quality of life, which does not inspire the creation of more families, never mind cultivate a new generation of citizens invested in the security and vibrancy of their country.

Besides, most of the country does not think that more full-time care is ideal for their families. Despite campaigns pushed by feminists in institutions across the media and public education, 53% of married mothers prefer to have one full-time earner and one stay-at-home parent while raising children under the age of five. And women asymmetrically value flexibility in work to better meet their children’s needs.

Slate recently published a letter from a new father who wrote to express his disappointment that his wife wanted to quit her well-compensated job to stay with their first baby, a 10-month-old daughter. The husband whined, “I also just … don’t want a stay-at-home wife. I really admired my wife for her work ethic, and I want her to set a good example for our daughter, too. Seeing her give up like this is really disappointing. I gently asked her if she thought her change in attitude could be related to a possible mental health issue or postpartum depression, but she didn’t take that well. She says she only cares about our daughter and that’s where all her energy needs to go right now, and that if I love her, I will let her do this.” The patriarch demands a handmaid of Capitalism, and he shall have his way… what misery.

It does cause one to wonder: how many women grew up bombarded with the message that they must break those glass ceilings to “reach their potential” only to end up suffering through marriage to men who do not value their miraculous uniquely feminine ability to sustain the lives of and cultivate the character of their own children?

This is not healthy for women, children, or families. Sealing off the primary avenue for our happiness to be realized from one generation to the next is untenable for a republic whose foundation is a self-governing people free to pursue that happiness. What the country needs is less pressure to break glass ceilings and more honor for the forging of strong foundations that only lasting familial bonds can provide.  

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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