I’ve only been to Chick-fil-A once in my life, or maybe twice, and wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be experiencing, nor why I was supposed to be enthralled, so I want to go off the internet highway of today into the byway of yesterday—that NYTimes piece about why people aren’t having children any more. It is most interesting and you should probably read it, because the stats are dire, if not catastrophic.
Basically, it doesn’t matter whether you are China or Denmark or the US. Your child-bearing aged women are not having babies. The author, one Anna Sussman recounts her own fertility story, which includes the freezing of her eggs, as she hasn’t met anyone she wants to settle down with, and time’s trotting along by, as it does.
At 34, I finally underwent the procedure. Last year, I did another round. Ever since then, there’s a number I’ve been playing with as I’ve wondered about whether and when I will use those eggs. According to my back-of-the envelope calculations, I should have $200,000 saved before having a child.
She wonders about this number, and tries to wrap her mind around both her own privilege and her own economic fragility. Surely there’s a way to understand her own life and choices in light of the statistics and trends that carry each of us along down the river of chance and choice. Like this person, from Denmark, who woke up to her own predicament:
It wasn’t until she was 39 that she realized it might be time to start thinking seriously about a family. A routine visit to the gynecologist prompted an unexpected revelation: “If I become 50 or 60 and I don’t have kids, I know I’m going to hate myself the rest of my life,” said Ms. Foss, now the mother of a 9-year-old and 6-year-old via a sperm donor. Ms. Foss has joined the ranks of what Danes call “solomor,” or single mothers by choice, a cohort that has been growing since 2007, when the Danish government began covering IVF for single women.
That is a very interesting term—“single mother by choice.” And it is pretty amazing to me that the Danish government is so anxious for children to be born that they would financially invest in this path to that destination.
Sussman lays all the blame at the feet of capitalism. She writes,
Are all these options not precisely what capitalism promised us? We are told that equipped with the right schooling, work ethic and vision, we could have professional success and disposable income that we could use to become the most interesting, most cultured, most toned versions of ourselves. We learned that doing these things—learning, working, creating, traveling—was rewarding and important.
She interviews various young people—men and women—from far flung places, and discovers that almost everyone wants a career and the opportunity to travel more than they want a family and children. It’s time consuming and expensive to climb to the height of a profession, to experience all the chances and pleasures of this world. A spouse and child are a hinderance more than anything for the one who wants to set foot on every continent before middle age.
This isn’t new. What’s new is that so many people—young people—can live the life of Solomon. That is capitalism’s great gift, that money came into the hands of common people, that anyone could get some and buy whatever they wanted. Turns out that what ‘they,’ or rather what ‘we’ all want is to indulge and exalt ourselves. That’s not the fault of capitalism. That is the human soul always choosing itself over another.Sussman catches a glimpse of the truth, in one of those moments, like Caiaphas, where you say more than you know.
In this context, he said, having children may appear to be no more than a “quixotic lifestyle choice” absent other social cues reinforcing the idea that parenting connects people “to something uniquely dignified, worthwhile and transcendent.” Those cues are increasingly difficult to notice or promote in a secular world in which a capitalist ethos — extract, optimize, earn, achieve, grow — prevails. Where alternative value systems exist, however, babies can be plentiful. In the United States, for example, communities of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Mormons and Mennonites have birthrates higher than the national average.
She doesn’t explore why this might be so. She merely leaps to an impossible solution that no one has ever chosen, nor ever will, unless convinced by a greater idea, and, for the Christian, a Greater Person, that this world is not going to be eternally satisfying.
The first step is renouncing the individualism celebrated by capitalism and recognizing the interdependence that is essential for long-term survival. We depend on our water supply to be clean, and our rivers depend on us not to poison them. We ask our neighbors to watch our dogs or water our plants while we’re away, and offer our help in kind. We hire strangers to look after our children or aging parents, and trust in their compassion and competence. We pay taxes and hope those we elect spend that money to keep roads safe, schools open, and national parks protected.
The just-be-utterly-different-than-you-are remedy is never as effectual as we always think it will be. All the economic systems of the world do not heal the human soul of its selfishness. This is what I was groping towards last week, when I pointed out that the woman who considers having a child must first grapple with the reality that she herself is going to die one way or another. She can either die now, or die later. The death for the sake of the other is not some kind of magical, nor mystical, reincarnation as Sussman postulates here:
But as I reflected on the immaterial gifts I like to think I inherited from him, it became clear I craved genetic continuity, however fictitious and tenuous it might be. I recognized then something precious and inexplicable in this yearning, and glimpsed how devastating it might be to be unable to realize it. For the first time, I felt justified in my impulse to preserve some little piece of me that, in some way, contained a little piece of him, which one day might live again.
Rather, it is a death that participates in the divine work of the cross. It is really death. It is not you imparting something of yourself that lives on forever. Rather, it is letting another person go on ahead, letting another person have the strength and the glory that you yourself covet, perhaps even lust after. It does produce life, but it is not your own life, it is your own on-going death. The only life you can really hope for is the strange life of Christ, whose death was the only one powerful enough to undo the death that creeps up on us, pursuing us as we ascend one beguiling mountain after another.