Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Birth Rate Decline: Discussing The Parent Trap

Reading the stats on Birth Rates in Europe, Italy and Spain fair the worst, while Germany isn't doing much better, and then hearing today about the birthrates in the United States (which is much better than in Europe but still only at 2.08 versus 2.1 needed for economic replacement value) causes concern. One wonders why people aren't having more kids.

Answers given at One Hand Clapping via Instapundit refering to Glenn Reynold's own Post at TCS Daily--The Parent Trap to the precipitous decline since the 50s include:

  1. Economics: a) kids cost too much and there is not return on investment b) kids used to help out on the farm but now kids are in the city and not needed to support the family
  2. Social: a) parental prestige is in the crapper (parents are held in contempt in some social circles) b) women are viewed as morons for not using their education when opting to raise children c) divorce is more common so makes couples shy about having a kid d) a variation on that theme (more convincing in my opinion) is that adult children of divorce are wary of putting a child through that catastrophe e) feminism stigmitized motherhood f) Baby Boomers are selfish pigs
  3. Society: a) schools make parents perform like circus monkeys to "prove" their interest in their child's education b) parents are expected to "enrich" their child's life by providing extracurricular activities c) government regulations reduce parental authority while increasing parental responsibility thus punishing parents d) Americans are gluttonous consumers and more children takes from the fat little hands e) crime, or fear of crime, intereferes with childhood freedom forcing parents to do more e) separating sex from child birth with the Pill and other forms of birth control
  4. Religious: a) People just don't see it as their moral duty to have kids b) People don't worry that they'll be judged by their neighborhood Catholics (the Mormons still do this) as less spiritual for only producing one kid or two--must have at least three, preferably four to prove your commitment to the Church c) People don't practice their religious mandates at chastity and have sex before marriage using birth control
All these things contribute to a declining birthrate. I agree with Glenn when he says:

But Gibson's slogan unwittingly captures an important aspect of the problem, in the United States and other industrial societies, at least: We've taken a lot of the fun out of parenting. Or to echo Longman, the "social costs" of parenting continue to rise, and, more significantly, perhaps, the "social returns" continue to decline.

The "social costs" far outweigh the financial costs in my mind. I cannot tell you the internal torment I've endured trying to balance career and motherhood. Having worked all my adult life before parenthood, there is no way to quantify my unease about not contributing economically to my family. No, correct that, not fully supporting myself, and possibly, my children. My mom (an early Boomer) repeated as a mantra "make sure you can work--you never know what is going to happen." The unsaid words: Look at me, my relationship sucks and I'm stuck because my economic survival means staying married to this idiot, aka your dad. This mantra hit home hard. My parents had a crappy marriage and I never wanted to have to stay married to a jerk. So, I can support myself. Very nicely, thank you. But when we got pregnant with twins, when they came early and when I took one look at them and contemplated leaving them for a second (which I couldn't do anyway--no daycare would take a kid on oxygen and meds and weighing 4 1/2 pounds at five months old), I freaked out! Money be damned! I'll eat dirt so I can stay with this baby.

In our modest new home, a woman neighbor, not realizing I was a doctor, condescendingly told me that I "might enjoy hanging out with her nanny who was at home" while she, the neighbor, worked as an Electrical Engineer. "That would be nice," is all I said. One day, a piece of my mail got in her mailbox. She saw: Dr. Melissa Clouthier on the letter. When she brought it to me, she sheepishly said, "You're a doctor? I knew your husband is, but you're a doctor? Why don't you work?" I told her that we traded a bigger house, a new car, going out to dinner, etc. because we really valued the kids having me at home with them. "Well, I really like having two brand new Izuzus," she quickly retorted, half-heartedly, I thought. Three years and a nervous breakdown later, she stays home with her two kids.

More recently, when we decided to have another child, my pastor gave me pastorly advice: "Well, Melissa, just be careful about having lots of kids. It might not seem so now, but when they get older, the in-style shoes become very important." Whaaaat? First, aren't pastors supposed to be pro-big families? Second, when did three kids become a "big family"?

Add that weird comment, to weird family comments like, "Where is Little Toot going to sleep?" "Will you be using the guest bedroom for Little Toot's room?" NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I will not! Argh! Since when did it become a crime for children to share rooms? All they do is sleep there for heaven's sake. They have a playroom which is more than I had when I grew up. My kids would all love to sleep in the same room. They HATE sleeping alone. They get lonely. They want company. In fact, if they had their way, the kids would all sleep on sleeping bags in our bedroom ala Indians in a Tee Pee.

Here in Texas, a law was proposed about strapping everyone under the age of 40 into a car seat. The Hispanic population had a fit. They have big families and must shove people into the back seat, into the bed of their pick-up trucks etc. THANK GOD they prevailed! I'm sick of all the government rules like this.

Parental double-binds abound. For example: My Divine Diva decided that she didn't want to accompany me into Dilliards Dept Store for shoe shopping after we had spent the afternoon meeting her consumer needs. She threw a fit. Store patrons, "tsk, tsk'd" at my little brat. (She is normally well-mannered but was having a bad day.) Okay, I said to the Diva, "We'll go." We went to the parking lot, I looked around suspiciously and prayed security cameras didn't catch her well deserved spanking. (She has been spanked maybe three times in her life. But you know kids, they don't pick perfect places for "teaching moments" and if I hadn't dealt with her firmly then, every other public place would be free game for fit-throwing.) She also had shopping privileges reneged for a while. But you see? I was damned either way. People want children to be little adults, perfectly behaved (like all adults are, right?), and never a nuisance. People also don't want parents to discipline, or speak harshly, or even make a mean face to the rotten little tyke, either. So you see annoying parents indulging their future psychopath and you see annoying parents that act nigh unto abusive and downright crazy trying to contain rage and not beat the kid so they pinch, grab, pull and threaten which can be more dangerous and worse than an old-fashioned spanking on the back-drop of crystal clear boundaries.

A girlfriend of mine is 47 and has three children ranging from 7 to 16. Not one of her close childhood friends is married. A couple are gay. One is living with his girlfriend. The rest are single. She has no support and no girlfriends to hang around. She lives just north of New York City. All her friends jet set and don't ask her to join them anymore. (She couldn't anyway with such short notice.) All her friends live with perfect furniture, "pieces", antiques, sharp and dangerous-to-kid things. She is like some freak anomoly. She is well-educated and works full-time. And still, it is as if she isn't a REAL person in that circle. She lowered herself to have kids. Weird.

Where I live, on the other hand, should make all population decline-fearing people relax a bit. Conservative, Bible-loving Christians around here take the admonition to "Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth" very literally. The more fundamental Christians firmly believe that children are a blessing. They feel society is going down the toilet anyway, and don't give a Da Vinci Code what "worldly" people think. They travel in supportive circles. They are not uneducated hicks. The men and women are highly educated, economically-advantaged and "purpose-driven." These are the communities of people that make liberals shudder. They are independent, literate, they vote and they're breeding.

Case Study A:
In one of my kid's public school class, there are six kids in the best readers group. Here are some interesting observations: they all have very educated parents, they all have mothers at home by choice, they all have at least three children in the family--three of the kids come from families of four, they are all the best behaved, most attentive and best socialized children in the class. None of them are overweight or sickly. All the children in the big families of four were nursed for at least a year each (I did some stealth research) some, including mine, for longer. None of the children spent one day in Day Care. Most of the children went to some sort of Mother's Morning Out or Pre-School at the ages of three and four, some a little earlier. The mothers started their families in their mid-to-late twenties after education and working a while. None were teenage parents or married as teenagers.

Case Study B:
At the local Christian dance studio, the place teems with Home Schooled children. I have three friends with five, four and four children. The school is relatively racially diverse with Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Caucasians. The parents are all highly educated and economically well-off. Few of the moms work outside the home. None of the children were in Day Care. Most never went to a Mother's Morning Out program or even Pre-School. All of the moms nursed their kids for at least six months. These parents are VERY dedicated. They drive miles to join other families in sports and service activities. Home School ain't what it used to be. These families are busy, socially connected and educationally enriched. In this environment, it feels positively unAmerican to have only one or two kids. The ladies, while tired at times, look great and enjoy motherhood. The fathers are very involved, too. Many are self-employed entrepeneurs. They take risks, they are optimistic, hopeful, filled with faith--in God, country and family. They believe and live traditional values. They feel "lead by the Lord" to fill-in-the-blank. As a northerner (from Michigan) this kind of talk is a shock. These kind of families are not shocking, though. I grew up in a middle/working-class Catholic neighborhood. These families are normal. What passes for normal now, is not normal.

I'm having to be deprogrammed from my unhappy childhood years and years spent in undergrad and grad school in narcisstic California and New York. I aspire to be like these humble, happy Texas families. They are not angst-ridden, selfish nihilists wasting away their child-bearing years trying to find themselves. They are happy, committed, determined and bolstered by their faith. They love children. They don't view them as a drain on their investments. They view them as gifts from God.

My husband had a good comment about the belief systems involved with having fewer or more children. It is very difficult, he said, to have big families when you start out at 38 and through IVF or Clomid try to get pregnant. This comes, usually, after working for years, making your mark and finding that corporate life ain't everything. Women can self-soothingly excuse themselves from the 9-5 world--"I've done all I could. I now see that there is so much more." The child is a cherry on top of the narcisstic banana split. All the ambition, determination and drive can be focused on the baby as extension of mother and father. The baby is not it's own entity. Of course, not every woman or man can procreate exactly when they want to, either. Some find true love late in life and that prevents more children. My friend suffered this fate. What could she do short of adopting as a single mom?

It seems that many people who plough through their 20s and 30s, the time when parents a generation ago were having and raising their children, as a sort of trial and error experiment. Like this industry. Like this job. Like him. Like her. Don't like this role. Don't like this city. Don't like him. Don't like her. Okay this feels right. He feels right. I'm tired of the single life (NOT marriage is a better institution or the best way). I'm tired of my life lacking meaning (NOT faith and fellowship builds a great life and community). I'm tired of me being the only thing (NOT families and children add dimension and maturity to life). Getting married and having a family is the last resort after trying everything else and coming up wanting. Sometimes the kid thing is too late. A lot of money and regret spawns crazy behavior among the 40-something crowd.

Contrast this Scientific Method (Secular Humanistic) life view with the Christian life view where marriage and religious belief, church and God are the default positions--the backdrop upon which life is lived. Many Christians, myself included, find shows like Sex and the City funny, but not for the reasons the writers necessarily intended. These girls endure empty sex, STDs, abortions, betrayal, live-in loves, and hangovers. They enjoy fabulous shoes, clothes, jobs, apartments (ha! talk about artistic license--at their salaries their apartments are hardly realistic), museums, art openings, and trendy restaurants as if us old, pathetic married people don't enjoy these things either. We still do, but not as much or as often. It is the rare parent though, who would exchange her child's smile for a glimpse of a fabulous Van Gogh.

The married Christian couple and family, too, can enjoy all the fun things without enduring the garbage that these sexy, single people do. I never loved fabulous shoes or clothes. But I like fabulous architecture and art and museums and innovative food. I enjoy photography and literature. I enjoy my job outside the home. News flash! Even as a dumpy old mom, I can still see art and read a good book. My life did not suddenly become devoid of meaning once marriage and children entered my life.

Parenthood is portrayed as some sort of step down, some compromise with a fully-fleshed out, sophisticated life. Some parents secretly reveal this belief by making their child's childhood this sophisticated, overly-indulgent, adultified job. Dressed like a junior executive, serious as a heart-attack, the only child/children fulfill objectives (mostly their parents unfinished business agendas from their childhood) in hermetically sealed lives.

Western men and women must actively overcome the anti-marriage and anti-children bias' either through conviction of faith or personal conviction. Big families receive extra societal contempt. Wide-eyed people wonder at a woman being able to handle that many kids. Everyone thinks silently of Andrea Yates. Women are viewed as abused sell-outs. Men are portrayed as abusive, enslaving cretins filled with misogyny for doing that to a woman.

Is it any wonder people have only one or two kids or no children at all? Since having kids does drain the bank account, why suffer the social stigma on top of it? Not to mention parenting, as mentioned above, has been made into one big, complicated pain in the ass by those who know better than you and me. What a hassle! Why bother?

Smart men and women contribute to society through their meaningful work (not children--children are a drain on society). They travel. They are worldly, urbane, intelligent and self-sufficient. They buy a house on the beach or a pied a terre in New York or London or Paris. They wear Gucci and Prada and black sunglasses. They eat Sushi and drink at Martini Bars. They host dinner parties with artists and authors and business titans. They do Pilates and Yoga and work out with their personal trainers. They visit the Bilbau. They take adventure vacations. They drive their BMWs and Porches. They co-habitate. They have sexual experiences. They go to Symposia hosting the Dalai Lama. They are "spiritual not religious". They consult their past-life guides and astrologists. They confess to their Psychiatrist. They kvetch over their double lattes.

They do not have children. And they most certainly do not change poopy diapers. Most. Certainly. Do. Not.

And if, by some accident, a child does enter their life.... baby travels, wears Prada, eats Sushi, rides in a very expensive, well-made European uber stroller being pushed by a Botoxed, size 5, 45 year old new mom. Tres chic! Baby, the ultimate fashion statement. (The latest Harper's Bazaar demonstrates this sentiment quite overtly with a full spread on pregnant mom couture. The models hold babies or show off baby-filled bellies.)

Does America have a cultural divide? Um. Yeah. But the trends at the coasts and in Europe tend to predate the spread to middle America. We can hope that the anti-parent, anti-child trend doesn't reach Red State America, too, but if my experiences are an indication, it's already here even though a good bunch of people are bucking it.

Children represent hope in the future. They demonstrate a desire on the behalf of the populace to actively continue the culture--a culture good enough to bring a child into. While children now represent an economic loss, rather than gain (although I think this idea could be debated--kids can support parents in their elder years and still do directly and indirectly), a child can never be viewed in strictly economic terms--although I'm afraid many people view them just that way. This utilitarian belief system can be at odds with the Judeo-Christian belief system.

Americans, like Europeans, will have to decide if society is worth continuing and if they're willing to sacrifice some material gain for society's future. Choosing to have children demonstrates their answer to those questions.


vj said...

Melissa, what a wonderful post this is! I've been struggling to know what I should do in regards to my teaching. I've always been able to be home with my kids since I also did not want them in a Day Care. I was able to do my work at home till I put them in Pre-School. But, I really don't need to work anymore but continue to have this feeling of needing to contribute. I've always worked! However, I would like to me more available to help in their school, not be so tired in the evenings with my kids and when it's time to do homework, prepare my menus ahead of time, have more time to keep things more orderly at home, etc, etc, etc.

Working is a good way for me to stay plugged in. I get less depressed when I stay more active. Yet, I really want to slow down, have more time for reflection, writing, playing, etc. I have options: teach one class (two days - 12 hrs._) teach two classes - 4 days - 24 hours. That still is not a lot of hours. But it still keeps me away from home 4 days till after 3:00pm by the time I pick up my children.

When I get like this, I get really stuck and can't figure out the very best route to go. I've been offered two classes...should I or should I not, should I or should I not?????????????????????????? If you have an opinion, I would like to hear it. :-)

Anonymous said...

Great post Melissa!! Lump me into the educated, non-working but staying current in my profession, SAHM who cherishes each second (ok, maybe not EACH one--I could ditch the temper tantrums and poop) of her three pumpkins.

I am sure I will go back to work at some point---pumpkin #1 is thinking medical school :O) My social circles are alot like those you mentioned. I have friends in each camp. Most stop after two kids though--using the logic of 'one for each adult' huh?.

When we added a 3rd people did look at me funny. Personally I would love one more pumpkin to add to the patch. Maybe you can work on BIL when we visit????

Christy're said...

We don't have kids yet so I'm afraid I can't congratulate myself, but we are planning on having a minimum of 3 and adopting at least one. We love big families!!! We both grew up in families of only two kids and believe me, it was a bit weird. Lots of codependency on his side (sister's a nut) and competition between my brother and me. We'd rather have more kids so instead of the kids being able to split us apart in an argument, it'll be "us" and "them." :)

Unfortunately kids are incredibly expensive!!

SiouxziQzi said...

To put my post in context, I am 37, married, and have 2 young daughters (5 and 7). I have been a SAHM mom since my first was born.

However, I have *very* mixed feelings about your post. On the one hand, you are correctly describing and diagnosing the knee-jerk anti-child and equally anti-parent snobbery that exists out there. Frankly, it's ridiculous and poisonous.

You are also very correct about the pressure put on parents to "overdesign" their children's childhoods. Unfortunately, unless you pick your neighbors and community very carefully, you can get forced into this to some extent because there is so little "free-range" childhood activity left.

Now, here's where I'm going to disagree with you. I absolutely regret leaving the workforce and feel it was an absolute disaster for me personally, for my marriage, for our family's finances, and yes, even as a parent and my approach to my children.

We are now in a position where I absolutely need to work and given my 7 year absence from the tech field (and yes I "kept up" and freelanced), no one will touch me.

I have been socially isolated (and yes I tried joining mommy's groups and my next door neighbor was also a SAHM when the girls were babies) and frankly bored out of my mind.

I did not say that I didn't love my children, but 16 hours a day, 24/7 was far too unbalanced for me. My lack of income has forced my husband to work nights, weekends, overtime. We are still in terrible shape, and I am a yard saler and a freecycler and craigslister and once went 3 years without even a SuperCut.

I think it's a been a terrible mistake and I think if I had not been under the impression that the only good, loving mother was there 24/7, I would have better prepared myself for a career or type of work with some balance that I could have maintained.

Most people not married to doctors whether they "economize" or not, cannot make it. Even without the constant financial pressure, I am much happier and much more present with my children when I do work at least part-time to 3/4 time outside the home.

I think the reality is that the pipedreams of yesterday, like job-sharing, or flexible careers for women are just that... pipedreams.

The mommy wars need to end and if we really want to encourage families to have more kids, we need to encourage balance. The current options stink.