Is late capitalism killing procreation?
Don’t even think of calling me a “fur baby.”
Anna Louie Sussman, a truly excellent journalist, wrote a compelling piece for the New York Times op/ed section this past weekend about why American women aren’t having as many babies as we say we want. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but the general gist is this: The actual family size of American women is smaller than what those women say is their ideal family size. Women are having fewer children than they say they want, or not having children at all. What’s driving that gap? Global capitalism, which, Sussman writes, “has generated shocking wealth for some, and precarity for many more.”
These economic conditions generate social conditions inimical to starting families: Our workweeks are longer and our wages lower, leaving us less time and money to meet, court and fall in love. Our increasingly winner-take-all economies require that children get intensive parenting and costly educations, creating rising anxiety around what sort of life a would-be parent might provide. A lifetime of messaging directs us toward other pursuits instead: education, work, travel.
She’s right, certainly, that economic and class insecurity drives smaller families. It’s not actually true that lower-income people have fewer children that average — across all social classes people are having fewer children than they used to, but lower-income families are not having fewer than middle-class families — but it does seem to be true that, in the United States, those struggling to stay in the middle or upper-middle classes are having fewer. I don’t have kids, but I certainly see my own values reflected in that decision: If resources are constrained, you bring fewer children into the world so you can invest more in each of them. That puts less strain on the family, and gives each child a better chance of success.
That clearly isn’t a universal view. In much of my reporting on women’s rights and family planning, I’ve spent time in communities living even more economically precarious lives who have made a totally different calculus: Because each child is another shot at prosperity in an economy where prosperity seems to be doled out at random and as a result of luck, having more children is the rational decision. This requires a belief that much of what happens in life is up to fate, or in God’s hands — again, a totally rational conclusion when you’re living in poverty, your opportunities are systematically stymied by forces outside of your control or even view, and you’ve never seen any evidence in your own life that there’s a connection between effort and outcome.
In the United States, where our cultural ethos dictates that success is a result of hard work, this theory that each additional child is basically a new roll of the dice doesn’t quite compute. Instead, at least in the majority of the country — and I would say especially in the upper-middle-class enclaves of the college-educated — the model of investing more in each individual child (and only having as many children as you can invest in) rules. As our country becomes increasingly economically stratified and as college has shifted from the realm of the wealthiest white men to a near necessity for a living-wage job, the rich have invested ever more in positioning their children to succeed. The professional and middle classes have followed. That means enormous financial investments in each child; it means enormous investments of time and effort, too. Latchkey kids pushed outside in the summer to play until the sun goes down? Among the highly-educated, that’s a thing of the past.
Anna rightly points to this model of extreme parental investment as a barrier to people having as many children as they desire. Maybe you think three sounds like fun, but when you crunch the numbers — the cost of renting a home in an expensive city with enough bedrooms, nannies, childcare, pre-k, tutors and summer camp, music lessons and sports fees, enriching family vacations, college tuition — it just doesn’t add up.
Policy change could help here, she suggests. Maybe parents would have an additional child (or more) if the U.S. was more like Scandinavia, with its broad health care coverage, generous parental leave, and universal childcare. I think that’s probably right for some families.
But as Scandinavian countries themselves demonstrate, even feminist and family-friendly social policies don’t add up to a baby boom. And I’m not convinced that, en masse, women aren’t actually having as many kids as they want.
The “how many kids do you want” surveys are complicated to assess. It's not that women are lying about how many kids they desire, it's that life is more complex than the answer to that question allows. If someone asked me in a survey, "how much money would you need to make to feel comfortable?" I would name a number that is higher than I make now — and that is frankly about what I would be making had I continued working as a lawyer at a law firm. That was an option for me — and to some degree it remains an option — but I didn't take it. I’m not lying about how much money I feel I would need to feel financially stable, and neither did social forces conspired to push me out of a higher-earning career. The answer is both simpler and more subtle: there were things I valued much more than a paycheck of that particular size.
I think the question of “How many kids do you want?” is similar. In a bubble, maybe you say you want three (or two or six or whatever). But then you look at the impact on the many other things you enjoy doing — whether that's your work, or the ability to travel, or the ability eat dinners out, or time and intimacy with your partner — and you make a choice to have fewer. That's how everything in life works, isn't it? It doesn’t necessarily mean that women are systematically not getting what they want (although some certainly aren’t). It means that what women want may shift as they get different things.
We also know that what people think will make them happy is really, really inaccurate. People don't always know exactly what they want, and so they try something, and often what they thought they wanted changes.
If you had asked college freshman Jill how many kids I wanted, I would have said two. If you ask me now, I have no idea — and as the window is closing on my ability to have children without significant medical interventions, I'm looking less at things like paid parental leave (I’m a freelancer, lol on that) and more at things like how I would have to cede so much of what brings me the greatest pleasure in my life if I invited a child into it (a flexible schedule, a job I love, lots of travel, robust friendships, lots of quiet time with my partner, the basic ability to do what I want to do when I want to do it). For highly educated women in urban areas, one side effect of pushing childrearing back to complete our educations / find a suitable partner / be in a solid place professionally is that our lives become ever richer and more interesting. For the child-agnostic among us, there is a sense (and a fear) that having a child would curtail a lot of what makes us the happiest and most fulfilled.
Women have more opportunities than ever before, and more space to find meaning outside of (or in addition to) childrearing. People want lives that feel purposeful; that's pretty universal. For men, that sense of purpose has long come in provision, and sometimes in adventure or power-seeking or world-changing or creating; children were part of that, but not a man's primary responsibility, and so it was easier to want and have them. For women, that sense of purpose has long come in childrearing. Now that the luckiest among us are finding purpose in so many other places — jobs, activism, adventure, education, creating — the need for children to fill that purpose gap has decreased. Children can be an addition to a full life, but for an increasing number of women, children are not definitional to a full life. I think that's a good thing.
The assumption that children complete a family continues to run very, very deep. I'm not sure it's ideal. There are a lot of ways to be a whole and complete person in the world, and to foster life-altering and profoundly valuable relationships. For a lot of people, parenthood is one of those ways, and there’s no doubt that enabling people to parent safely, sustainably and well should be one role of government. But social policies set up to support parents (and let’s be honest, to support women in particular, who continue to do the bulk of the world’s parenting) can’t have as their ends a fertility bump. For one, it’s a silly and often racist goal. But perhaps more importantly, it’s not one that’s going to be reached by policy alone. And I’m not sure it’s a goal we should aspire to as a culture.
It is a sign of progress that so many more women are finding purpose in addition to parenthood, or outside of it entirely. It will be even better when women can live a life without children and never have their morality or generosity questioned, and when women can also choose to bring children into a world that sees parenthood as valuable and worthy of robust support, but not the whole of human experience.
p.s. Two more spots just opened up in a writing workshop + yoga retreat I’m teaching this February in Costa Rica. Email me for more info if you’re interested.