Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Is our culture anti-baby?

Is our culture anti-baby?
UK columnist Madeleine Bunting argues that one of the main reasons why birth rates are declining is a culture that is incompatible with parenthood.

The subtitle of the article says it all: "In a society that values consumption, choice and independence above all, it's a wonder that we have as many babies as we do."

Here is the most salient section of the article:
Pregnancy sabotages three characteristics highly valued by our culture.

First, independence: pregnancy heralds at least one relationship of
dependence, and there is often greater dependence on partners, mothers and,
eventually, childminders and the like. But you've spent much of the previous 10
years attempting to eradicate any hint of dependence, either of your own or of
others on you. Secondly, pregnancy is about a long-term commitment, and having avoided all such (including probably to your partner), you are, at the very
least, uneasy about it. Finally, the big bump in your stomach spells out one
thing for sure - a huge constraint on many choices, and choice has been integral
to your sense of a life worth living.

In other words, the self we are encouraged to develop through much of our education system and early adulthood is of no use whatsoever to a new parent. What use is that sassy, independent, self-assertive, knowing-what-youwant-and-how-to-get-it type when you fast forward five years to the emotional labour of helping a child develop selfconfidence? Once there's a baby in the cot, you
need steadiness, loyalty, endurance, patience, sensitivity and even self-denial
- all the characteristics that you've spent the previous decade trashing as dull
or, even worse, for losers. Forget trying to work out your own feelings - you'll
be too busy trying to work out those of your children; ditto self-confidence and
self-expression.

Motherhood hits most women like a car crash: they have absolutely no idea
of what is coming. Nothing in our culture recognises, let alone encourages, the
characteristics you will need once a bawling infant has been tenderly placed in
your arms. So the debate about the baby gap is about far more than tweaking parental leave; it's about what a culture values and promotes. And it matters not just because of that falling birthrate, but because of how women stumble towards their own private insights into the importance of mothering - to which they cling in the face of not just zero endorsement from wider society but
active contempt.

The painful paradox is that while women have liberated themselves from
being defined by their biology - the fate of the girl in many African and Asian
societies who is not truly a woman until she has given birth - mothers have
ended up relegated to the status of constant abject failure in a culture driven by consumerism and workaholism. There is no kudos in being a mum, only in being other things - such as thin, or the boss - despite being a mum. Motherhood is a form of handicap.

While I'm not a mother, I can tell you that parenting requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice. Just this morning, I calculated that our monthly expenses are about 10X what they were when my wife and I were just a single couple living on our own, mostly due to our two bundles of joy.

And that's just the money. Let's not forget that all the time and energy that used to be devoted to parties, socializing, eating out, sports, shopping, and all the other consumer activities of our society, are redirected towards diaper-changing, feeding, and sorting through a vertigo-inducing amount of advice from every source imaginable.

I'm not sure if I agree with everything stated in the column, but I think she's 100% correct that our culture has swung against parenthood, and that is a fact that should disturb all of us. Ultimately, man is like any other animal, and the decline of birthrates below replacement levels, if maintained indefinitely, will lead to our extinction.

13 comments:

HD Goddess In Training said...

As one half of a couple that can't have kids,
I find just the opposite is true.
It is a baby society.
I get asked at least once a day why we don't have kids.
Seriously.
And there's no short or winning answer to that question either.

MJ said...

This is an interesting article -- it has a lot of good points. However, your previous poster has a good point too -- having children is still a highly enforced social norm, no matter how much we are individually poorly prepared for it.

But this is not a new phenomenon. The upper class of any society tends to reproduce less, when children are primarily an expense and an imposition rather than an economic benefit. Augustus had to harangue the Equestrian class in Rome to have more children.

The good news for the race (and the challenge for society) is that the lower classes continue to breed actively. All of the studies an hysterical articles on falling birth rates have a classist and racist tone to them. The trick is not for the current upperclass to breed its way to continued dominance, but to create enough opportunity and societal flattening for members of the lower classes to thrive and contribute.

Ben Casnocha said...

If the pendulum has swung, I missed it. Every time I tell people I don't like kids and don't plan on having kids -- but that I may change my mind -- I'm ridiculed.

Chris said...

I think that the commentary is quite right--we have a contradictory position on parenting.

On the one hand, we still have a lot of pressure to have children.

On the other hand, we have a lot of new pressures not to have children. Just look at how much people are deferring childbirth, with concommitant effects on birthrates.

MJ's point about upper and lower classes is interesting, but birthrates are declining for all groups. Yes, upper classes have always reproduced less (with notable exceptions), but on an absolute scale, birthrates have declined over time.

Part of this is the fact that being "lower class" today involves more luxury and a better life than being an ancient monarch.

That, and effective birth control. Just finished reading a biography of Mozart, whose finances were continually in a state of ruin thanks to his and his wife's fertility.

MJ said...

True, birthrates are declining, but with 6 billion people, do we need to worry? Isn't 3-4 billion a more sustainable population anyway?

Zoli Erdos said...

Ben, this is the first time I hear you say something I really don't like.. .but I am not ridiculing you.

Now, *I* will get ridiculed for saying this: you're far more mature than the average 18-year old. You're a star performer, and intellectually are definitely not 18. BUT ... BUT .. if there is one area, where you simply can't be wiser than your age is, that's your thoughts about kids and being a parent. It WILL come .. by the time your physical age reaches where you are mentally now :-))

Ben Casnocha said...

Zoli - I don't entirely understand your comment. You are 100% correct that my views may and probably will change...all our views change as we age.

But you seem to imply that, given time, it's a given that I will want to be a parent and like kids. Nothing is a given -- that why there are plenty of adults who are aren't parents. Or that it's not my place to express an opinion about kids (hence "I don't really like" instead of "I don't agree").

My opinion on kids is perfectly legitimate, if I may say so myself, and surely may also change. Just because I'm not an adult doesn't mean I can't have opinions about kids and parenting.

Zoli Erdos said...

Ben, I mixed two things and was not quite clear.

1.) Of course your opinion is legitim, and I don't mean to say you're not entitled to express your opinion like anyone else. If I came through as such, I apologize. Here's what I was trying to say: in business, science, sports ..etc you can and do get ahead of your age. I don't know what it is, but it's likely a mix of genes, mental / intellectual capacity, will, determination, hard work .. you name it. You stand out in anything that's performance related.

Parenting, the desire to have kids, or even liking kids is not performance-related, and it typically does not "wake up" in us at that age...which is why I hinted that an 18-year old not wanting kids means so very little for the future:-)

I think - although who am I to say it - that these are more or less facts, unlike:

2.) The "I really don't like" part was just my subjective opinion, I do love kids, and so far I liked everything you wrote, this is the first time I disagree with you.

TK said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
TK said...

I find it interesting that Chris writes about everything in his blog and most of the time there is almost no conversation.

But once he mentions "children" the conversation picks up!

I think that is really a commentary on the essence of the original posting. Having children is, in many ways, a social filter. I think in Western society grown ups fall into three groups : Those that have children and are very active in their lives, those that have children and are not active, and those without children. Which group you are in effects everything else in your life socially.

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