Adults who choose not to have children are often portrayed as selfish people, so preoccupied with their own lives that the prospect of the sacrifices that raising a child would entail seems repulsive to them. Is this view fair or is it just an unfair judgement?
Carolina Miranda says it’s not fair, and admits that after she got married she was often asked why she didn’t have children. “Saying ‘I don’t want kids’ simply set me up as a challenge to be surmounted. I’ve spent BBQs and cocktail parties fending off some inquisitor who made it their mission to convince me to reproduce.”
Carolina Miranda is a writer and her husband is an artist, so they often have to travel long distances. They both love the life they lead and don’t consider it selfish. “I have simply chosen to share my life in a different way. Sure, I may one day regret this decision. I may also regret a heap of other things. Not spending more time with my father. Being a jerk to a good friend. Eating too much pizza. But perhaps a bigger regret would consist of being strong-armed into having a baby I simply never wanted.”
What the American author recounts is by no means an isolated episode within the borders of the United States. The story is almost identical to that of Maria (58) and Dragos (59), who decided early on not to have children. Instead, as they told a Romanian newspaper, they chose to make each other’s lives as beautiful as possible, sharing common concerns and respecting one another. They have always enjoyed their free time, the opportunity to stay out late at parties and go on numerous holidays.
A late genesis…
According to Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres, authors of an article in City Journal, family was the foundation of the great ancient cities of China and the Middle East, and later of Northern Europe. The same article points out that the historian Philippe Ariès, in his famous study L’enfant et la vie familiale sous l’ancien régime (The Child and Family Life in the Ancient Regime), argued that the notion of the “modern family” originated in the urbanisation of the continent, reflected in the bourgeois life of Rembrandt’s paintings. Another historian, the British Simon Schama, in The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), described the typical 17th-century Dutch town as “a republic of children.” Later, European emigrants carried these values overseas, where the urban planner Sam Bass Warner notes that by the mid-1950s there was a strong “commitment to familialism.”
The trend reflected in Caroline Miranda’s comments is therefore relatively recent. In the 1960s, sociologists such as Herbert Gans noted a widening gap between family-oriented people and those who enjoyed what city life had to offer. Today, specialists such as urban studies theorist Richard Florida and New York University professor Eric Klinenberg rarely mention the notion of family in their work, describing modern Western cities as providing “conditions that make living alone a more social experience.” Perhaps the most compelling description of the post-family city comes from sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark, quoted in the City Journal article, who see the city as an “entertainment machine.” With schools, churches, and local associations no longer the bedrock of the new city, the main activities are in the leisure, arts, culture, and hospitality sectors—a system built for the modern, liberal, and libertine individual.
… with branching roots
It is no accident that these trends coincided with the sexual revolution and the resurgence of the women’s liberation movement. “Sexual liberation” without shame or fear of repercussions included the promotion and maintenance of sexual relations outside heterosexual and monogamous relationships (such as marriage) and, consequently, the intense promotion of nudity (through magazines that later became very famous, such as Playboy, published in the United States in December 1953, or Penthouse, published in the United Kingdom in 1965), the widespread use of contraception (the contraceptive pill was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1960), the legalisation of abortion (through the Supreme Court decision in Griswold vs. Connecticut in 1965 and later legalised only in the first trimester of pregnancy in Roe v. Wade in 1973), and the normalisation of homosexual or other alternative forms of sex.
Another factor that has encouraged premarital and extramarital sex is the advent of antibiotic treatments for sexually transmitted infections, as Professor Andrew Francis of Emory University explains. Penicillin became a panacea for sexually transmitted infections, and the sexual revolution began after people won the battle against syphilis, Francis explains.
Today, these factors have led not only to an increase in the average age of first marriages (27 for women and 29 for men), but also to a decline in the number of traditional families consisting of mother, father, and child/children.
In addition, around the world birth rates are falling. In 2012, the fertility rate was 19.14 births per thousand people, down from 22 per thousand in 2000. And this is not only the case in developed countries such as France (12 per thousand), Norway (10.8 per thousand) and Sweden (10.4 per thousand), but also in developing countries such as Brazil (17.4 per thousand), Chile (14.2 per thousand) and Thailand (12.8 per thousand).
The data may seem counterintuitive, given that women with infertility problems now have a range of treatments available to help them become mothers. Nevertheless, women are choosing not to become mothers and are living lives where having everything does not include having a child.
Reasons for not having children
The reasons for postponing or deciding not to have children are not unfounded. Firstly, at the age of 25, young people are still engaged in higher education and are often frustrated by their inability to find stable and satisfying work in an economy that is moving forward with the brakes on. Second, young people face uncertainty about the future—they don’t know if they will be able to pay their mortgage or living expenses, if they will have a job in the near future, and if they will be able to support a child, according to an Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll.
Third, “there are partners who want to remain in a ‘total symbiosis’ relationship and enjoy the benefits of married life. It is true that there are not many of these couples, where the love for the partner is so great that there is no room for another person,” explains Gyorgy Gaspar, psychologist at the Romanian Institute of Integrative Psychotherapy, in an interview for a Romanian newspaper. The phenomenon is also explained in the same article by Augustin Cambosie, vice-president of the Romanian Association of Psychotherapy: “The idea of a family with offspring is changing, because people no longer rush to have children if they have nothing to offer them. And it’s not just about financial security, it’s also about a highly [specific] cultural and social environment.”
Like Maria and Dragos, those who choose not to have children enjoy more free time for themselves and their partner and invest more emotional energy in the couple. Others don’t want to take on the role of parent because they fear they don’t have the skills to raise a child, or because their relationship with their partner will deteriorate. “Some of the research suggests that having children is a time of maximum stress in a couple’s lives, and partners prone to low-level anxiety may be strongly influenced by this information,” adds Gaspar.
What childless families miss out on
Unfortunately, the consequences are not long in coming, and the passage of time sometimes has irreversible effects. One or both partners may lose the biological ability to conceive a child naturally, opening the door to ethical dilemmas about assisted reproduction in its many forms.
Secondly, young people who delay having their first child risk not being able to meet their grandchildren or be grandparents for at least a few years in old age. Similarly, people who become parents or grandparents in old age have less energy to play with, educate or train them, which can make them absent parents in their children’s lives—not by choice, but by necessity.
Third, couples who choose not to have children cannot enjoy the scientifically-proven benefits of families with children. People who become parents, either naturally or through adoption, live longer than those who don’t have children, according to a large study by Danish researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark, published in December 2012 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The study shows that women without children are four times more likely to die prematurely than women with children.
Men without children are twice as likely to die prematurely as men with children. The link is not causal, but the researchers suggest that the mortality rate among fathers may be lower because of psychological and behavioural changes associated with parenthood. The study also found that the incidence of mental illness among parents was twice as low as among people without children. The researchers hypothesise that having a child reduces stress levels and thus influences the risk of developing mental illness.
Fourth, families with children have a lower divorce rate, as observed by the sociologist Paul H. Jacobson in the 1950s and confirmed by more recent studies. The bottom line is that the divorce rate among childless people is almost double that of those who enjoy the presence of their spouse alone. This is partly due to discussions about one partner’s desire not to have children, but also to the lack of this bond that strengthens the relationship between the two.
The future without children or the future without hope
This is a real phenomenon, increasingly widespread, but not yet covered by statistics. It certainly has and will have a major impact on society, on families, on the workforce, on the health of the population and on the future of the human species as a whole. In a sense, too much preoccupation with the present affects the future. According to Ali Modarres, professor of urban geography at California State University, declining birth rates (in ancient Rome, 16th-century Venice or contemporary Tokyo) correlate with the erosion of interest in the family, but also with declining economic vitality.
The future of cities therefore depends on the purpose they want to serve, explains Modarres. The modern, post-family city is of interest to a majority of the population, but this majority does not have sufficient resources to ensure the future of the city. If big cities are to survive, they must find a strategy to appeal to families with children, who have been the backbone of urbanism for millennia.
Either way, we are facing a major change—the future families, the future Western society, are evolving along a new and as yet unknown path in all the complexity of the effects it will produce. And if from a secular point of view we are more concerned about the social and economic consequences of the demographic implosion in the big cities, from a Christian point of view we are concerned about the picture that this already confirmed trend is painting. A world in which fewer children are born is not only a world with less altruism and playfulness, it is also a world in which individualism will create new moral problems and thus complicate the tortuous recovery of Western metropolitan societies.
Consumerism, grafted onto the increasingly individualistic lifestyle of urban people, is generating ever more vehemently justified discretionary attitudes towards the universal values of human relations in general and the family in particular. Without wishing to pass judgement on individual cases, this trend is worrying in itself and is one of the signs of the crisis that human society is experiencing, especially where the natural laws of life have been most artificially modified and regulated, namely in the big cities.