Thursday, March 13, 2008

'Children are expensive'

Peter Robinson offers an explanation of the demographic death-spiral of Europe:
Children are expensive, and they require a sacrifice of time and interest by parents. ... Prof. Thornton says Europeans are not reproducing because “the dolce vita lifestyle does not include children.” A Europe that is drawn to instant pleasure has little interest in investing in either children or the future of the Europe.
That's a major point, and might be a sufficient explanation if the demographic decline was only an upper- and middle-class phenomenon, but it's not. Probably the most startling cultural shift in Europe over the past 40 years is the disappearance of large families among the working class, where big broods were once commonplace. (If you've seen Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, you may recall the hilarious image of the Yorkshire woman with so many children she doesn't even notice the birth of another.)

Childlessness may be relatively rare among working-class and poor women, but it is no longer common for such women to have four or more children, as was quite customary in the past. The fact that the birth rate has declined sharply even among the European poor (and the trends are similar in America, even if the decline has not been so drastic) indicates that Professor Thornton's dolce vita explanation is insufficient.

Many other factors might be cited. The use of oral contraceptives -- "The Pill" was viewed with some moral skepticism back in the '60s and '70s -- has now become widespread, even among women raised in Catholic homes, and condom use has also become much more common.

One factor in declining birth rates that is seldom discussed is increased practice of surgical sterilization. In the United States, tubal ligation -- surgery that renders a woman permanently infertile -- is now the most common method of contraception in America. (You can look it up.)

Understand that most of the women who undergo tubal ligation already have children, and the fact is that the OB-GYN community actually encourages such surgery once a woman has two children -- the "two and tie 'em" mentality.

When my wife was pregnant with our twin sons (we already had a daughter), her OB-GYN tried to pitch her this way: "You know, if you want to get your tubes tied, it's cheaper to do it at the time of delivery and your insurance will cover it. If you wait until later and do it as a separate procedure, it's more expensive." My wife managed to maintain her composure in the doctor's office, but by the time she got home, she was crying: "It was like he was telling me I'm not a good mother and I shouldn't have any more kids!"

I resisted the urge to do what I should have done, but I guess the headline "Journalist Beats Local Physician Into Coma" wouldn't have been so good for my career.

The fact that such "helpful" advice has become standard practice typifies the kind of culture shift that underlies the demographic changes that Peter Robinson and Professor Thornton seek to explain. Fifty years ago, most women would have recoiled with horror at the thought of undergoing surgery that would render them permanently infertile. But years of careful work by the obstetrics community have steadily increased the acceptance of this practice. Once most OB-GYNs became active agents of the population-control agenda, it was hard to find an "expert" voice to oppose that agenda.

Of course, it's not just about OB-GYNs and contraception. The culture shift is everywhere. Young people, especially, seem to just take it for granted now that the maximum number of children is two. And since almost no one nowadays has four or more children -- you should see people's faces when I tell them my wife and I have six -- the possibility of having that many kids strikes most young people as some kind of science-fiction fantasy, like flying to Mars. They can't even imagine it.

So while I think that the dolce vita factor -- the desire for leisure and luxury -- has some role in the demographic decline of Europe, I think this problem is deeper, wider and more generalized in the culture. It took a long time for this anti-family culture to take root, and if it is ever to be uprooted, that too will take a long time.

Oh, one more thing: Children are not expensive, not really. The notion that children are massively expensive is rooted in certain modern middle-class conceptions of what is necessary to childhood.

For example, many people think that it is absolutely essential that their children be raised in an owner-occupied single-family detached home in a "good neighborhood" with "good schools." When our oldest child was born in 1989, we lived in a small $300-a-month rental home, and then moved to a $275-a-month apartment. Our next address, in 1992, just before the twins were born, was a house we bought for less than $33,000 in a blue-collar neighborhood. Then in late 1997 we moved to the DC area, where we lived in a 3-bedroom apartment for five years as our next three children were born. Then in 2003 we moved into faculty housing on the campus of a Christian school.

So, no, children are not expensive. What is expensive are the material expectations of the suburban middle class -- and screw all that. I'd rather have six kids.

1 comment:

  1. When I was young, the "standard" joke when a family had a large family (meaning more than about 4 kids) was "is she sexy or are they Catholic?" So it seems to me that there _is_ a religious component to it, and the modern political thought is that religion is out, population growth is bad, but we need to replace the population, so two is the "right" number of kids.

    I don't watch soaps or some of the "adult" night shows like "Sex in the City" and its ilk, but my MIL used to watch soaps...and I've occasionally thought about what would happen to them if you could automatically populate the main characters with several children of various ages running around...!

    I also think that some of the problems with we're having with youth are due to inexperienced parenting - with small families, young parents don't have any experience themselves, no one teaches them how to raise children, and there aren't many extended families that can help. If you only have two children, you're just getting the experience you need and you quit!