“Will you have more kids?”
I’m a mother of two, and this is a question I often field from friends and strangers alike. But my answer isn’t relevant. What matters is what the question implies.
Among my millennial peer group, particularly in secular circles, there’s reluctance to bring children into “this world”—a world that, to millennials who until recently have lived generally free from significant sociopolitical upheaval as adults, now feels exceptionally tumultuous. We are approaching year three of a lingering global pandemic, facing unmatched levels of animus across the political divide, and grappling with renewed fears about the long-term dangers of climate change. At the core of this hesitation to procreate is a reigning sense of moral responsibility—a responsibility not to have more kids. To whom exactly we are responsible is unclear. To the children themselves? To society? To the earth? To all the above?
I don’t know, but one fact is plain: My generation feels obligated to constrain our footprint in the name of some vague notion of social justice.
I reject this.
This is not a judgment on those who long to have children but can’t, or on those who choose to have only one or two due to personal limitations—not everyone can (or wants to) have seven. Rather, this is a reflection on why any family planning philosophy that hinges on “the state of things” springs from deeply flawed logic.
Studies consistently show that millennials are not having children at the same rate as our boomer parents. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal we have reached the lowest birth rate since 1973, dipping well below the population replacement level. Other recent CDC reports indicate COVID-induced economic uncertainty will continue to suppress birth rates in the coming years. A 2020 Morning Consult poll revealed that 17 percent of a sample of almost six hundred claimed they would indefinitely delay starting a family due to the pandemic. Others attributed their hesitation to start a family to concern for the environment, lack of a partner, and both personal and global instability.
The studies reveal that scourges like COVID, sociopolitical unrest, economic challenges, and climate change have instilled in many a tremendous existential fear that, at its worst, pushes us to delay or opt out of procreation. But our current global and communal instability is not necessarily worse now than ever. It is just a different brand. Our generation has not lived through a depression, a world war, or other watershed events that have radically reshaped our sociopolitical context (though we might be due for some radical disruption).
Regardless of whether we’re in a watershed moment, the world is, and always was, utterly broken. If it’s not political unrest, it’s a global pandemic. If it’s not a violently dehumanizing institution like slavery, it’s massive economic upheaval. Like vapor in search of a shape to contain it, the very same stain of brokenness and sin bleeds from issue to issue, generation to generation, decade to decade. As I heard Dr. Paul Griffiths, former Duke University Warren Professor of Catholic Thought, quip in a 2016 speech to young professionals: “We are not more confused. We’re just differently confused.”
This begets a question: Should we wait until the world is less “confused” before having children? To say yes would mean basing a life-altering decision on a false premise: that utopia is achievable on earth. It is not. If we wait for the world John Lennon conceived in “Imagine,” we will be waiting a very long time. We are, and will always be, confused. The world is, and will always be, uncertain. Even though evidence on issues like climate change points to inevitable crises, calamity and chaos have always lurked in the shadows. Yet no global crisis of any magnitude justifies the life-altering decision to remain childless.
Life will always force us to become deeply uncomfortable. Human beings already know this at a biological level. After all, anyone who has been through childbirth knows that it is far from comfortable, and yet mothers willingly subject themselves to this fathomless pain again and again.
Made for Discomfort
Fortunately for the future of humanity, we were not made for comfort. To commit our lives to its pursuit would deprive us of life’s greatest gifts, like marriage and childbearing. But more significantly yet, it would leave our hearts perpetually depleted as they flit from pleasure to pleasure, distraction to empty distraction. As St. Augustine writes in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Bishop Robert Barron, renowned evangelist and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, frequently dismantles the millennial ethos that our lives are fundamentally about us. The individual quest for personal fulfillment is a shibboleth. We are wired for community, the most fundamental level of which is the family. Family infuses life with meaning, purpose, and dimension. It transports us beyond the narrow confines of our own skulls and forces us to grow. Like a rock polisher, it buffs out our imperfections. It will make us shine, but it demands something of us in return: a gloriously painful outpouring of the self. One thousand daily deaths and self-denials in exchange for the greatest good of all—to love, and to be loved.
Am I afraid of subjecting my children to what’s to come in this world? I am not. The question is not whether trials will come, but rather, when they do, how will I marshal my children through them? The work of motherhood has significantly reduced, rather than increased, my anxiety about how utterly confused we are. The self-forgetting daily work of parenting has not only forced unprecedented personal growth in virtue (like patience!) but also transformed the mundane into the extraordinary: Simply watching my kids experience the world has brought it to life in technicolor, shifting my focus from the world’s problems to its undeniable beauty.
But beyond this, it has forced me into a new understanding of reality: the inherent challenges that start with morning sickness and joint pain and end with sleepless nights and battles over teeth-brushing have forced me to accept that life is not, and never will be, consistently comfortable. We must learn to become comfortable with our lack of control at the micro-level (how long we sleep, what our children are willing to eat) and at the macro level (what will happen to our society and our planet). This is a more grounded, honest posture toward reality than one of paralyzed trepidation.
I cannot promise my children perfect comfort or safety in the world. But I can make their world—our home, our lives, our family—a mooring when everything else is guaranteed to be perpetually confused. This is the work of parenting children. This is the legacy that we all have the power to forge in a world that is, always was, and always will be, broken.