Perhaps at some point in the past several months you’ve lain with your partner at night. The rain is picking up, and the thunder is loud. All around you there is the notion of danger and foreboding. “Can you imagine?” your partner says. “Bringing a child into this world?”
Surely this question has dogged people in economic fallout, or in a worldwide cataclysm. The Black Plague, the Great Depression, and other capitalized proper nouns we hear about in American and World History, and in such classes we thought that all moments could be weathered. And then you became an adult.
While at a birthday party for a friend turning thirty, I took stock of my friends and relations. The birthday boy in question has a spouse undergoing a clinical trial for cancer, so pregnancy has been postponed. Another friend has been resolutely quiet on the subject, wanting instead to retire early on passive income. The closest relation with a child is in their early thirties pursuing a medical degree and has the typical two children many of our parents had. Older and more independent siblings leading for younger and more “people oriented” but also more lost and bewildered ones. I have friends still in the dating process, and I have some, now married, living in Washington, choosing explicitly to forego children and advocating instead for travel. It seems everywhere I look, the majority of my social group has been outside of the typical biological cycle.
For my parents in the tail end of the baby boomers, having children by 30 was almost a certainty. In fact, mine had to try for four years before having me, and then four more years for my sister. To imagine starting a family in their early to mid-thirties was not unheard of, but it was definitely rare.
Now, the further we plow into this time, we are constantly faced with dilemmas that have us question the notion of children. On the one hand, it is more expensive to have children than ever before, and while countries like Finland make it easy to start one, there is little in America for maternity leave or financial assistance that makes having children desirable. We have been told that westernized developed nations are horrible spewers of carbon gases, and the most environmentally friendly tactic is to forego children altogether, something Jonathan Franzen claims retroactively in his memoir. With the rise of divorce and single-parenting households, something that Andrew Yang deeply fears, there’s a growing body of evidence that points to what Ta-Nehisi Coates states in his long form letter to his son, Between the World and Me, “Anyone can have a child, but it’s something else to be a father.”
And now this, this coronavirus. Granted, the fatality rate is not as high as some other known diseases, but it has set in store what will likely be a long depression, and the pandemic instead has instead thrown wide open a globalized economy that was much more fragile than any of us cared to admit. The slightest changes in the employees working at meat processing plants, and the slightest changes in dietary habits of citizens eating at home rather than restaurants, sent ripple effects of food waste and euthanasia of millions of domesticated animals. Trillions of dollars are in the balance right now, and likely trillions more might be leveraged to prevent civil unrest and thaw a frozen economy. All the talk of progress in the 20th century led to this, this shock that could not be absorbed.
John Updike was a depression baby, an only child amongst many in that time of families, particularly in urban centers, tightening their belts and foregoing a chance for a higher birth rate. In a steadily declining rate of births since the baby boomers, one can hardly imagine this trend reversing, but my goodness it seems like the fast-forward button is going to be pressed. Granted, some outliers will continue to have plenty of children, but in a world more reliant on inherited wealth, we will return to primogeniture, a line of succession that will encourage one child for a consolidation of wealth.
This is all speculation of course.
All that said, my future possibility of being a father is a case largely open and closed. Working as a teacher, I did not want to see children in the morning and afternoon, only to come home to more children in the evening. My wife has a condition which has blocked her off from having a child almost permanently, a revelation that has hurt her beyond dispute. As a child development major from Vanderbilt, she has wanted nothing more than to be a good mother. To have such despicable parents in the world, only to have a kind and generous one waiting and willing, and to then have a latent disease strike right at the moment, is one of life’s cruelties that to explain requires something beyond language.
Some people manage to rationalize: David Wallace-Wells, writer of one of the most sensationalist pieces on climate change in the past couple of years, The Uninhabitable Earth, claims that while he does have little in the way of positive statements about the state of the world come 2050, he still has a child as a physical sign all its own. But just on the other side of the equation, David Willetts has written in The Pinch about how baby boomers have effectively taken all the opportunity from young people to work towards independence and social mobility. It seems in the late 20th century that people wanted to have children, but the wealthy was unwilling to leave the ring.
I mean look at the political situation in our midst: Donald Trump is 73. Joe Biden is 77. Bernie Sanders is 78. Elizabeth Warren is 70. The issue has less to do with senility, as our nation’s 70s age is now the new 60s, but rather the issue of trust. So much wealth and political clout has been held by old age, rather than passed on willingly to the younger generations, that class warfare has translated to a kind of generational warfare, complete with differing views on identity politics and free speech vs. tolerance on college campuses.
So who, if they were proactively considering the state of the world right now, would feel comfortable having kids? You cannot guarantee social mobility at all, nor can you really know if they will outlive you or make as much money as you did in your prime. You don’t even know if college will be a feasible option. The amount of individual debt may be much higher, and their political power as a generational cohort will never be what it was with much more numerous previous generations. Home owning or financial independence may not truly happen until you die. Every extracurricular activity is expensive. Every mishap requires a Google search.
Just the fact that it is possible to have children and to have them still breathing by age 5 is so enormous.
To raise them in a place with water and electricity is rather lovely.
To have access to books and libraries, to give them a spiral with which to write their thoughts is pennies on the dollar. And at the flick of a switch, they may write past the dark.
For how much of human history has that been possible.
With each generation, while it is important to deliberate the massive responsibility of bringing a child into this world, we must also take stock of all of human history and make a comparison on fair footing. And the truth is: as bad we claim it to be, the tears shed are mere droplets in the ocean of human misery. I for one choose to believe in the parents of today, and I sincerely hope that, though my wife and I cannot make that choice, there is still plenty to be thankful for, plenty to take advantage of, and plenty to share in the unprecedented joy of having a child in 2020.
Sometimes late at night as I finish an essay by a well-wrought pen from the likes of Marilynne Robinson, or Didion, and I selfishly cling to what I’ve gained in the time and solitude, I feel a pang of jealousy over the prospect of being childless. In public, I will never say this. I will continue to take pride in my act of saving the environment. Any rationalization really, to save face the unfair distribution of happiness that has always been here, that always lingers in everything from GPAs to GDP.
Perhaps that is why I still teach. At least then there is a return policy.