Every so often a baby panic flares up. “Oh, no,” it goes, “women no longer think they have to have kids!” And, in an actual quote from the story I’ll discuss here, women’s choice not to procreate, it is said, “may spell disaster for the country”!
We’re in the midst of one of those flare-ups. Today’s disaster-criers are Joel Kotkin and Harry Siegel, who wrote, “Where have all the babies gone?” for Newsweek / Daily Beast.
They are late to the panic-party, though. Even within this latest brouhaha, they were scooped by a similar screed at the Wall Street Journal. And so, there is no need for me to critique the America-destroying part of their claim about the consequences of the choices made by women who do not have kids. That’s already been done.
At The New Republic, Ruy Teixeira answered the question, “Do low fertility rates spell economic collapse?” Short answer: No. He reports that “the Census Bureau expects us to add another 100 million people by 2060” and that “Census population projections show per capita income rising by 61 percent over the next thirty years.” In the Atlantic, Philip Cohen explained that declining fertility is not the root of America’s problems. He provided graphs of evidence in support of his points that “fertility in the U.S. isn’t falling much” and “U.S. fertility is still pretty high.”
Nonetheless, Kotkin and Siegel want more women to have kids. What I will do here is trace the psychological outlines of their approach. How are they trying to persuade women to get with the baby-making program?
There is some subtlety to their story, and I think that has the potential to add to its effectiveness. For starters, they frame their story as an analysis of a problem, more so than a plea to women to do their baby-making duty for their country. The tone has an even-handed ring to it (even though it is not all that balanced). Yet, despite their somewhat light touch, I think what they are actually trying to do is to mock, shame, threaten, and bribe women to step up to the baby-making plate and take a few swings at procreative ball.
The article includes some statistics, but for psychological insights into individuals’ decisions not to have children, the authors went to a hookah bar. I’m not kidding. The article opens with this:
“Sitting around a table at a hookah bar in New York’s East Village with three women and a gay man, all of them in their 20s and 30s and all resolved to remain childless, a few things quickly became clear: First, for many younger Americans and especially those in cities, having children is no longer an obvious or inevitable choice. Second, many of those opting for childlessness have legitimate, if perhaps selfish, reasons for their decision.”
Don’t let the “perhaps” fool you. The authors are tagging these people as selfish. My sense is that the authors were good at feigning camaraderie, got the people they were interviewing to relax and talk freely, as they would to friends, and then used the ensuing banter to make the foursome appear to be self-centered, short-sighted, and crude ignoramuses.
Here’s a sampling of the quotes from the night at the hookah bar:
- “I don’t know if that’s selfish,” says Tiffany… “Kids, they change your entire life. That’s the name of the game. And that’s not something I’m interested in doing.”
- From Janet: “There’s a feeling like we’re basically like wombs on legs… And then as I got older, I feel like the responsibility of having a child is a really huge deal and the expense is out of control.”
- Tiffany and Emily “joked about the grotesqueness of a hand appearing inside a belly and about “parasites,” “popping one out,” and “horrible little grubs” in the midst of more serious conversation about their fears of relinquishing sole ownership of one’s own body.”
It is not fair to say that the authors did all of their questioning of individual people’s reasons for not having kids in the hookah bar. There was also a phone call. Elizabeth told them that even in her childhood, she did not like baby dolls: “I always wanted the Barbies with the boyfriend and the job, not these helpless things.” Also, the authors mention that Elizabeth had an abortion when she was 18, and “she can’t remember if it was just before or just after graduating high school.”
Do these women sound like serious, thoughtful people who should be respected for their choices or jokey self-centered types who need to be lectured by two white men? I suspect they actually are serious and thoughtful, but the authors are underscoring not “the serious conversation” but the quips about “parasites” and “horrible little grubs.” They are, I think, subtlely mocking and shaming them.
(Youngish adults who want no children, though, are not the sole targets of Kotkin and Siegel’s disdain. Older people, for instance, get it, too. They are described as “doddering.” As their numbers increase, the authors predict “cultural and innovative torpidity.”)
So let’s move on to the tactic of threatening the women who are choosing not to have kids. The authors wave in their faces the myth of dying alone. In Japan, they claim, it is already happening: “‘lonely death,’ among the aged, the unmarried, and the childless, is on the rise.”
The authors also like the myth about the empty lives. Describing the results of research, the author say this, with apparent disapproval: “the percentage of adults who disagreed with the contention that people without children “lead empty lives” has shot up, to 59 percent in 2002 from 39 percent in 1988.” The quote is in a paragraph about how “American marriage is faltering – and the baby is being thrown out with the bath water.”
The threat gets laid on even thicker, though, when it comes to electoral politics. The rise of single women, demographically, has made them a political force, the authors believe. Because of their progressive values, single women are of great value to the Democratic Party, and they have power to wield. (I think political leaders and candidates have a long way to go in learning about and appealing to single voters – men and women – but I won’t continue that digression here.)
Don’t get too comfortable, though, you single women with no kids! Watch out, the authors warn: the Mormons, evangelical Christians, and Orthodox Jews are coming! They are going to have more kids than the progressives are, those kids are probably going to have the same “rigidly traditionalist worldview” as their parents, and then the “secular, young, childless voting bloc” will get their comeuppance.
Finally, the authors have neared the end of their argument. They have mocked, shamed, and threatened women who are choosing not to have kids. Time to haul out the bribes.
The authors believe that more women can be goaded into having kids with government programs such as “reforming the tax code to encourage marriage and children;” “creating extended leave programs that encourage fathers to take more time with family;” and “other actions to make having children as economically viable, and pleasant, as possible.”
About that last one: So maybe if we add nice soft music to birthing rooms, then more women will want to have children?
The tax code already profoundly and unfairly favors married people. Existing leave programs can and should be improved for all, but they are already particularly negligent of single people with no children. Singlism is rampant; discrimination against single people is written right into our laws.
I agree with the approach Philip Cohen described in the Atlantic:
“Rather than try to increase birth rates, I would rather focus on making things work with fewer children, which might have the positive side effect of improving the lives of children.”
I have one more point to make, in a future post. If more women were persuaded to have children, that choice would not be “free.” If women give more of their time to child-bearing, and women and men devote more of their energy to raising kids, then other pursuits are losing out. So the question I will address next is: What is the potential cost to society of goading women into having kids? [Here it is.]
[Note: For some essays that call out the scolding of adults with no children rather than engaging in it, check out Section III of Singlism, "Singlism's cousin: Stereotyping and stigmatizing of adults with no children."(Paperback is here; ebook is here.)]