Five years ago, on a quiet, leisurely Thursday night, my husband and I sat at the dining room table with a yellow notepad, discussing when we should start having kids.
"See, here's how it works," he said, drawing a graph. "With a dog, you put in a medium amount of work, and you get a medium amount of reward. If you were to, say, purchase a lion, you'd put in a lot of work, but you'd get pretty much no reward - and you might even get eaten. Horrible deal." He paused, drawing a straight line that hit each point directly between the axes. "See? With a kid, you put in a ton of work, but you also get a huge reward for years to come. It's a great deal!"
That was three kids ago, and I can assure you that the "ton of work" part is true. The "huge reward," happily, is also true. Children are a source of great joy, and, as a bonus, often hilarious. This is especially useful to remember when the preschooler gives you pinkeye, the toddler flushes your contact lenses down the toilet, and the baby cooks up a habit of happily, inexplicably, all-out yodeling at 4:30 each morning.
What's strange about our dining room child-planning summit, from a historical perspective, is that we considered it at all. "A few generations ago, people weren't stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy," wrote Jennifer Senior in her much-discussed parenting treatise, "All Joy and No Fun," which ran in New York magazine in 2010. "Having children was simply what you did."
But not, apparently, anymore. Around the globe, fertility rates are plummeting. Countries like Japan and Russia teeter on self-imposed fertility cliffs, facing dramatic population shrinkage and the potential collapse of their welfare states. Europe, with stagnant birth rates, isn't far behind -- and, contrary to popular opinion, neither is America, according to Weekly Standard writer Jonathan V. Last. His new book, What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster, documents a remarkable demographic shift: the global baby un-boom.
Last has good timing. A new Pew report shows the traditionally robust American birthrate falling to record lows. Recent data from the Census Bureau and other studies suggest that the world's population, once a source of widespread hand-wringing, could stop growing within our lifetimes. Meanwhile, in its latest annual report, Planned Parenthood cited a record number of abortions: 333,964 in 2011 alone.
The magic fertility number, if you want the population to remain stable, is 2.1 children per woman. Today, the U.S. fertility rate perches at 2.01. Compared to countries like Poland (1.32), Germany (1.36), and Singapore (1.11), that might seem impressive. But as Last points out in What to Expect, America's buoyant fertility may be a statistical mirage.
Break the numbers down demographically, and the trends seem less promising. For college-educated women, for instance, the fertility rate is roughly 1.6. As education goes up, fertility shrinks. Hispanic women, meanwhile, pull far more than their own weight, with an average rate of 2.73. The problem? Their fertility numbers are falling fast as well, and continue to plummet as immigrant women assimilate into the larger U.S. culture.
For certain environmentalists, misanthropes, and frustrated motorists in Los Angeles, less people on the planet might sound appealing. But as Last argues, "Very Bad Things" have historically accompanied depopulation, including disease, war, and economic disaster. In the case of the United States and Western Europe, the latter seems to be the most pressing. In the case of our other global neighbors (China, Iran, or Russia, for instance), the second-to-last may loom equally large.
When people, particularly males, start talking about how other people should have more babies, certain ladies start freaking out. In December, when Ross Douthat published a New York Times column titled "More Babies, Please," shrieking erupted in various corners of the Internet. "Douthat," wrote one outraged Slate.com commentator, "is clearly irritated at his countrymen and especially his countrywomen for their persnickety desire to enjoy life rather than see it as a dutiful trudge to the grave."
Upon reading this, I must admit, I laughed out loud. Perhaps it was because, just moments before, my toddler had taken a giant mouthful of applesauce, coyly turned my way, and sneezed. But perhaps it was also because, in its own way, laced between the paragraphs of hysteria (Overpopulation! Climate change! Women chained barefoot in the kitchen!), this snippet of Internet hyperbole really said it all. What does it mean to "enjoy life"? What is our purpose? Why do we have kids, anyway?
Not so long ago, people had children for simple economic and religious reasons. Some people had children just because everyone else was doing it, or, most obviously, because they lacked reliable birth control. Today, "a thousand evolutions in modern life" -- Last cites education, delayed marriage, the Pill, urbanization, abortion, modern capitalism, insane parenting costs, secularization, and even car seat laws -- have shifted our view of children. For some, Last notes, having children is almost an "act of consumption." For others, it's an "act of self-actualization." For many, it's simply a lifestyle choice. The individual, in short, reigns.
But as we've seen, those reasons aren't enough to inspire multiple babies, probably because having kids isn't exactly a trip to the Four Seasons Bora Bora. It's not even a trip to the grungy Super 8 off the local highway -- there, at least, you can sleep in. To have kids primarily as a "lifestyle choice," in fact, would border on insane, considering it's a lifestyle largely devoid of "me time," leisurely breakfasts, spur-of-the-moment plans that don't involve going to Target, and, as my dad liked to hopelessly request when I was a kid, "peace and quiet."
The best arguments for having children, unfortunately, run opposed to modern, secular American culture. Good reasons to have kids tend to be about delayed gratification, prioritizing family, putting others first, transmitting serious values and beliefs, focusing on something larger than yourself, and understanding the difference between joy and fun. Perhaps this is why, as Last notes, "American pets now outnumber American children by more than four to one." It's also why, if American fertility continues to slide -- and, as the author notes, that's still an "if" at this point -- there's little the government can do.
What to Expect When No One's Expecting discusses potential policy solutions to the global fertility drought. Many are vague, and few are convincing. When it comes to pro-natalist government policy, welfare-state support for parents seems to work a bit; outright bribery, as recently attempted in Singapore, does not. But the main driver of faltering global fertility -- and the reason Last's book is so interesting -- is based on culture, not policy.
The good news is that culture can be engaged and changed. The bad news is that change can be plodding. America still has time to adjust its priorities in terms of marriage, community, and family. Other countries, having already jumped off the fertility cliff, may not have that luxury. Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Chicago. www.heatherwilhelm.com