Being the father of six children offers many joys, among them the pleasure of provoking shocked reactions from strangers.
“Six?” they ask. “Why six?”
“Well, I haven’t been able to talk my wife into seven yet,” I answer. “But who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky tonight.”
Suspicions of sectarian motive seem de rigueur in such conversations. But no, we’re not Catholic, Mormon or Amish. We just love babies.
It says a lot about contemporary culture that a brood of six is nowadays considered so freakishly large. Fifty years ago, at the peak of the Baby Boom, the total fertility rate — average number of lifetime births per woman — in the United States was 3.7. Do the math, and you realize that in 1957, having six children was more common than having only one child.
In the fecund Fifties, childlessness was rare, and generally considered tragic. The childless woman was either a pitiful spinster (unwed motherhood was not yet a respectable “lifestyle”) or else presumed to suffer some medical disorder that deprived her of the ability to bear children.
Half a century on, the cultural revolution has upended the old assumptions. The development of the birth control pill and the legalization of abortion have severed the connection between sexual intercourse and childbearing that previous generations took for granted. Between 1960 and 1976, the U.S. total fertility rate plummeted from 3.65 to 1.74 — a 52 percent decline, so that today’s typical 30-year-old grew up in a family half the size of that in which the average 50-year-old was raised.
In a society where the average woman has fewer than two children, the obvious statistical inference is that childlessness has become far more common, an inference verified by the Census Bureau. The most recent data reveal that more than 19 percent of American women ages 40-44 are childless, which represents a near doubling of childlessness in the past 20 years.
The childless trend has not slowed, despite an overall rebound of U.S. fertility rates caused by higher birth rates among immigrant women. Demographers estimate that one in four of today’s 18-year-old American-born women will ultimately be childless.
Statistical norms have a way of becoming cultural norms, especially when these norms involve the educated, affluent, and influential, and Census data show that childlessness is most common among women in households with incomes over $100,000.
Being “child-free” is particularly in vogue for women authors, who recently have poured out a torrent of titles celebrating sterility: Childfree and Loving It by Nicki DeFago, Baby Not On Board, by Jennifer Shawne, Cheerfully Childless by Ellen Metter and Loretta Gomez, and The Childless Revolution by Madelyn Cain, to cite just a few.
Some adamant non-mothers have turned their barrenness into a political statement. Most commonly, this takes the form of a feminist disdain for the “trap” of motherhood, based on the belief that motherhood abets patriarchal oppression and requires the obliteration of selfhood. One young lady recently informed me that she plans to remain childless because she cannot reduce herself to being a “mere vessel” of procreation.
More unusual is the assertion that by avoiding motherhood, the childless-by-choice are somehow saving the planet. An extreme example of this phenomenon was profiled last week by the London Daily Mail in an article that was prominently linked by the Drudge Report and elicited comment from dozens of bloggers. Toni Vernelli of Taunton, England, aborted her only pregnancy at age 25, and had herself surgically sterilized at age 27.
“Having children is selfish. It’s all about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet,” Ms. Vernelli, now 35, told the Daily Mail. “Every person who is born uses more food, more water, more land, more fossil fuels, more trees and produces more rubbish, more pollution, more greenhouse gases, and adds to the problem of over-population.”
Speaking of “rubbish,” every claim in Ms. Vernelli’s neo-Malthusian argument is disputed by climatologists, geographers, demographers and/or economists, among them the Hoover Institution’s Thomas Sowell, who has demonstrated by simple mathematics that all 6 billion people on the planet could be comfortably housed in Texas.
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