“The correlation of reckless breeding with defective and delinquent strains, has not, strangely enough, been subjected to close scientific scrutiny. This is a crying necessity of our day…” -Margaret Sanger
Mrs. Sanger would classify my wife and I as reckless breeders—seven kids, and not a whiff of birth control. “Bring ‘em on!” we said when we got married, and so God did—alleluia! And nary a defective nor delinquent strain in the lot. Scientific scrutiny be damned.
The funny thing is that reckless breeders are in short supply these days, and not because of scientific scrutiny nor its nefarious twin, draconian social policy (thankfully a thing of the past). As a nation, we’re sinking demographically, but instead of rearranging deck chairs, we’ve struck up the band and we’re throwing a party! Yeah! No babies! Whooo-hooo!
A stark example of this is the cover story on a recent Time Magazine, The Childfree Life. Here’s the tagline: “The American birthrate is at a record low.” Indeed, it’s startlingly low—2.0 babies per woman at last count. Keep in mind that the replacement rate is 2.1, and the rate’s trajectory is down, not up. Bottom line: We’re going the way of Europe and Japan, where grey is all the rage.
Shrinking fertility rates and aging populations are important for a number of reasons, as William McGurn points out in his review of Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting (2013). Among other things, fewer kids means fewer workers to make stuff and buy stuff, and fewer taxpayers as well. As more and more boomers start collecting government benefits, there are fewer and fewer employed taxpayers to foot the bill. Our weak economy only exacerbates all this.
McGurn also mentions a weakening of our national defense and a curtailing of innovation as the balance of our population tilts in the direction of the aged. But these are mere temporal concerns. Another problem has to do with our vision of what marriage and sex is for in the first place.
But don’t I know? It’s for fun, of course!
Of course. But not just for fun.
Back in 1982, The Roches had a song on their album Keep on Doing called “Sex is for Children.” I remember it being a collage of sounds and words that didn’t reveal a whole lot about the title’s meaning. But, as song titles go, it’s definitely provocative, isn’t it? And simply true. Physiologically, sex is oriented to the begetting of children, regardless of how enjoyable it is. In fact, when Margaret Sanger and her allies coined the phrase “birth control,” they were obviously taking the biology for granted—i.e., facilitating more sex with less births.
The dual meaning of sex—pleasure and procreation—is something the Church has always taken into account. Here’s how Pope Paul VI put it in Humanae Vitae:
[The] fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.
Yet, the Church goes much further than that—there’s no question that kids are the main point. Pope Pius XI said it pretty directly:
Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy when he says: “The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: ‘I wish,’ he says, ‘young girls to marry.’ And, as if someone said to him, ‘Why?,’ he immediately adds: ‘To bear children, to be mothers of families’.”
Terribly backward by today’s standards, I know, but even Margaret Sanger seemed to admit that motherhood had its good points. She wrote that the “potential mother can then be shown that maternity…may be the most effective avenue to self-development and self-realization.”
But how? What is it about having kids that seems to be so vital to self-development and self-realization? I think Lauren Sandler’s Time article gives us some clues, like when she quotes New Yorker Jenna Johnson, who is partnered and happily childless: “My plans—professionally, daily, long-term, even just for vacation—are free from all the contingencies that come with children.”
Contingencies. That’s a nice way of putting it. For us parents in real-time, it’s more like “constant chaos,” where every day is a matter of survival, and coming home at night is similar to a controlled crash landing.
So why do we do it? Love. Love begets love. And, in this case, it’s not an abstract begetting, but rather a fully incarnate, enfleshed love—one that cries and laughs and poops. The reality is that being entrusted with that incarnate crying and laughing and pooping love changes us. It makes us better men and women, husbands and wives, friends, neighbors, workers, humans! Or at least it should.
But it’s herculean, by all accounts. This is something that another childless woman featured the Time article seems to grasp. Even without kids, Leah’s life with her husband is “insane already.” She goes on: “I don’t feel we can do what we do and be great parents—and for me, the emphasis would be on being great parents.”
Exactly. Leah would be a great mom. I hope she gets the chance.