Is having kids “sustainable?”
(Perhaps I could have called this one “does green sex = green babies?” but older, wiser Jenny is actually a little embarrassed to have gotten that term rolling.)
A couple months back a reader messaged me with a good – and weird – question. Like the great blogger and expert time juggler that I am, I promptly never answered her message and lost it in the bowels of Facebook. But! I remembered the inquiry all these months, and I wanted to take a stab at it today.
Her trouble was with a friend of a more progressive stripe who’d been bending her ear on how profoundly “unsustainable” children are, and for this reason, that no one could possibly justify having more than 1 of them.
My reader, troubled though she was by her acquaintance’s apparent disdain for the continuation of the human race, was hard pressed for an appropriate response.
My initial response was to snort laugh through my nose. But then I sobered up, because hadn’t I just driven my gas guzzling mini van to Whole Foods just that past week in search of the cheapest organic formula this side of the internet?
Granted, I had the vehicle filled nearly to capacity and was therefore a candidate for the HOV lane. But I did see her point.
From a purely secular and ecological perspective, things have gotten so crazily out of focus that I suppose it is possible to make the case that HUMAN LIFE ITSELF IS NOT SUSTAINABLE OR RESPONSIBLE.
But what does that mean? Have we come to such a profound depth of self-loathing as a species that we’ve begun to philosophically self destruct over the very meaning and purpose of existence?
Is this the inheritance of relativism and materialistic humanism?
I think (for now) no, to the first, but yes to the second.
I don’t believe that most people are hellbent on human destruction in the name of good stewardship of creation. That rather flies in the face of the essence of creation, at any rate, does it not?
Can’t have a creation without creatures, and creatures gonna imitate their Creator.
But therein lies the bigger problem, a very real fruit of the harvest of a relativistic and materialistic worldview: people are no longer uniquely paramount in the created order, and people are no longer valued based on who they are, but instead are measured increasingly by what they do.
In plainer terms, people only have as much worth as what they can offer back to the world.
Which is why we abort babies with Down Syndrome.
Which is why elderly Canadians are waitlisted for basic medical services in the name of “conservation of resources.”
Which is why babies born out of wedlock to poor, single, black women are targeted more ruthlessly by Planned Parenthood than any other subset of humanity.
If you don’t have something readily apparent to offer in the marketplace, you may excuse yourself from society.
Babies, of course, are about the most useless of all humans. They consume endlessly. Milk, diapers, energy, affection. They produce nothing but waste, quite literally. And so, by the standards outlined above, they are in no way “sustainable.”
Crazy thing is, they’re also who every one of us once was.
It is a foolish bias for the here and now that drives an adult population to utterly devalue the past and the future for the sake of the almighty present.
If there’s one way to easily sum up most of our cultural woes in the year 2016, selfishness might be it.
My body, my free time, my best life now; my convenience and my prosperity and my mental health and my infinite disposable income and leisure.
Children threaten all of those, sometimes terminally. And so children have become one of the enemies of the hip new economy of self realization and fun.
For fear of missing out, we’ve traded away the one thing that really matters: relationship with the other, and that uniquely human capacity to love exponentially into the future, willing the good for a society that does not yet exist, but which will one day utterly replace your own.
(Presumably, that society will still be comprised of people, not just dogs and iPhones.)
Relationships are tricky, though. And they’re often costly. They’re unpredictable and the benefits do not, emphatically, always outweigh the costs.
But if new life coming into this sad, old world isn’t the very essence of what we’re doing here…then what else matters?
Yolo, indeed. Emphasis on the “you.”
But if it does matter? If the future is not some faceless wasteland of McDonald’s wrappers and water bottles and overcrowded parking lots with double parked hovercrafts, but a continuation of the human story? Then it matters very much indeed what we’re spending our time and money and yes, our non-renewable resources into.
Investments wisely made yield dividends into the future.
I could go into the myriad ways that children can be “sustainable” and “green” because hand me downs, carpools, shared toy economies and limited carbon footprints from expensive air travel. But those essays already exist, and the more fundamental problem in my mind isn’t demonstrating whether having a small or medium or large family can be super socially conscious, but rather the fact that the question itself is being raised: are human beings themselves, sustainable?
Without an eternal worldview and an end game sunk deep into immortality, I don’t know how one answers that question.
Which is perhaps precisely why we’re asking it in the first place.
Lose sight of the Creator, lose sight of the dignity of the creature. And the rest of creation, along with it. Which is what Pope Francis has been telling us all along.
The more children you have, the more use you get out of all the stuff—the hand-me-downs, the toys, the highchairs, the new found patience. 😉
Thanks for touching on this topic. We definitely get grief for having babies and destroying the planet (by overpopulation) here in the Pacific Northwest. Mostly by women who have chosen to have no children of their own.
We also live in the PNW, and I have noticed a similar thing: our family gets attacked for having kids by the people that don’t have/want any. I have to imagine that deep down they feel a lot of sadness about their choice to be “responsible”. It’s not an easy road to choose to go against God’s will. And whether we have kids or don’t, all women are called to motherhood. They have my prayers.
Please remind these “childless by choice” ladies and gents that YOUR CHILDREN will be contributing to their Social Security, etc. for them. They have no heirs to contribute to the government system. I think the younger generations do not how to think and reason, much less consider consequences down the road, if not immediately…we were criticized for having a third child in 1969!
This may be slightly off topic, but I feel moved to share it.
Some time ago I came to the conclusion that, outwith the world of the practising, and possible resting/lapsed but will be back, Catholics, the main yardstick for all things is utility – just as you have written here.
I also came to the conclusion that, along with utility, there came the idea of convenience/inconvenience. Useful things/people are convenient to have around. Inconvenient people and things that are not useful need to be removed because they are…well…inconvenient. No other reason. Simple inconvenience.
Welcome to the world of euthanasia and abortion where the old, the ill, those conceived unwittingly or unwillingly or deemed to be imperfect must be removed to spare the rest of the world the inconvenience of having to care for them, look at them, fund them……
Arguing that children or anyone else are a drain on the resources of the planet is simply another version of the utility argument, dressed up in nice green coat and hat.
But eventually, it will be a self-limiting one. Look at China…..
And I suppose just from the consumption side of things, most people do not raise children in a way that is sustainable. Toys, clothing, sports, activities, electronics, books, and other STUFF is hugely out of proportion to what kids need to be happiest and healthiest. Besides the fact that contentment, peace and faith cannot be bought at all!
The less children you have, the more you have invested in each one.
Fail one child when you have six, and you have a pretty good batting average. Fail one child if all you have one, and your failure rate is 100%.
The smaller the number of children, the more likely that the parent will be a “helicopter” parent, or “hover” over the child when it should be learning to take care of itself, how to live within a budget, to learn the difference between want and need, and to develop their ability to be self-sufficient and responsible.
It’s not sustainable to have the bottom drop out of your population. Just ask the Japanese: the elderly commit crimes so they can go to jail just so they can have a roof over their heads and food to eat. There aren’t enough young people to support the old.
Yes, Utilitarianism is the underlying philosophy of the question as to whether having children is sustainable. You did hit on the answer on the environmental level: If a person has 5 children, they are going to share and reuse resources much, much more than a couple that sticks to having one child. But beyond resources, the 5 children are going to learn to do without the non-essentials more often than the one child and will learn to share resources more than the one child, depending upon the parents’ income and spending habits, too. Often the parents who only have one child do so because they want their child to have EVERYTHING (meaning, materially), whereas the ones who want to have larger families are more inclined to value relationships and family life as the source of abundance in their life. Differing attitudes will ultimately drive the cultural values. So, the ultimate question to pose to the one who questions the sustainability of having children is “what is the ultimate purpose of life?” And please, don’t allow them to ban God from that answer. Evangelize instead. After all, what a sterile point of view it is to say that the whole entire purpose of life is to be sustained!
Very good points. And, from a practical standpoint, also look at China. Not the enforced nature of it, but the logical results. Their population is shrink too fast. They won’t have enough workers to care for their elderly. They have a large, tragic cohort of parents whose one child died – and now they have no family, no grandchildren, no one to be with them as they age. Look at all the European nations with sub-replacement fertility rates. The next several decades will demonstrate very clearly that not reproducing one’s family and culture is the exact opposite of “sustainable.”
I respect your perspective and genuine love of your family. Thank you for telling it like it is, having kids is hard and sometimes it is your job. I’m tired of being judged by people for not having a good job, I helped raise two stepkids and then had two of my own. I feel like a lot of people here (Los Angeles) just want to be mean to moms, treat you like you’re doing something wrong by raising little people.
(My body, my free time, my best life now; my convenience and my prosperity and my mental health and my infinite disposable income and leisure.) This is my favorite line and sums it up for me. God bless you and your family
I agree totally with a lot of the points you make. There is another reason couples may not have children, my medication means it is not advisable to have kids, so the fact I don’t have any children is not a selfish choice, I have 70% + chance of having a disabled child. Please remember that not all childless couples don’t have children for the loss of convenience or a different perspective
Oh gosh, absolutely. I have friends in the same boat. This piece was inspired by a reader’s question on how to respond to a friend who is emphatically anti-child for all the reasons we went into here. It’s so important not to presume to know someone else’s circumstances! God bless you for your vulnerability to contribute to this conversation.
Instead of grousing at western moms in the CostCo parking lot, I wish we could focus our positive energies on helping correct true over-population in places like Niger and Pakistan. Places where children (girls especially!) are going uneducated because their parents cannot afford to send them school, child mortality is horrific because of lack of access to medical care and where so many of these children are being born to children themselves. This misdirected judgment and denial of where the real problems lie are the real sins here, I think.
respectfully disagree with your false dichotomy, Patty. Women suffering in the developing world often do so directly at the effect of our own insatiable appetites in the West to consume: entertainment, food, clothing, material possessions, etc. Our desire for cheap goods and our increasingly fracturing family culture that causes us to value possessions over people is precisely where the developing world far outpaces us in wealth. Are there horrifying standard of living discrepancies between “here” and “there”? Absolutely. But we will only solve those discrepancies with authentic charity and growth in generosity, and that growth begins at home.
We mustn’t judge the material poverty they suffer to be more serious than our own spiritual and cultural poverty in the First World. Pope Francis certainly doesn’t.
How does being less materialistic at home directly help impoverished women? Those clothes will still be manufactured in the third world. Foreign aid is a tricky business and if you read the book “Half the Sky,” it shows how community focused development programs where the people it benefits are directly involved are far more effective. Throwing money at poor countries or saying that people’s bad family values makes poor people worse off does nothing. Well other than use tax payer money and make people feel bad about themselves for wanting and liking new things.
I went to the Greek Theater in Hollywood last night for a Friday night afterwork outing. We had dinner before. a limo ride up the hill, nice seats and drinks after. This kind of thing is very casual these days but cost us the GDP of a small African nation. None of us married. No kids. All over thirty. Nobody less than six years of college. We’re missing out on the family and children, young married experience. I don’t think anybody is sorry or likely to be but we don’t look down on you. There’s room for all of us, so far and if the World is going to end soon or even if it’s not, what difference does it make?
The forces of evil are always taking fairly innocent concepts, like sustainability, and imperceptibly inflating their significance until they becomes monsters destroying rational thought. Evolution as the development of different species is an interesting theory with some evidence, but it has been inflated to the point where people think it’s scientifically proved that everything came from nothing. Environmentalism, which starts as a wholesome desire not to make the world less habitable, gets turned into a doctrine that human beings are pollution. It’s not surprising that people who think have to keep clarifying the meaning of these things.
“Her trouble was with a friend of a more progressive stripe who’d been bending her ear on how profoundly “unsustainable” children are, and for this reason, that no one could possibly justify having more than 1 of them.”
Her friend needs to learn some basic math. Start with exactly 4,294,967,296 people, with exactly half of them being women, half men, and assume no infertility, no person who chooses the consecrated life, no accidents or deaths that occur before one of the persons dies.
Pair them off, have each couple produce exactly one child, then do the same with each succeeding generation.
How many generations before 4 billion people is reduced to none? Exactly 32 (that number above is exactly 2 to the 32nd power).
The number of children each fertile woman must produce to sustain an extant population varies by time, place and culture (disease, famine, accident, war, cultural shifts that induce or encourage infertility, etc. all play a part in effecting this number), ranging from a “perfect” value of 2.1, on up to about 3.9.
That’s just to sustain an existing population. Japan is below 1.5, Sweden is running 1.9, and other parts of Europe vary between 1.6 and 1.8, depending. The US population would be in decline if not for immigration (both kinds). Currently, the modal number of children for native born American women is one.
Even if one assumed that we should be striving for zero population growth, the social, cultural and religious impacts of such a plan are only now being discovered. A couple that has a “sustainable number of children” is less likely to encourage, or even want one of their children to enter the consecrated life. If you have six children, and two of them enter the consecrated life, your line continues. With just two children, your line ends in that generation.
I sometimes wonder if Satan has deliberately set out to either abort or contracept away our religious and priests, or whether he just set things in motion and trusted us to destroy ourselves.
I think it would be valuable for you to talk about climate change.
I think we have a responsibility to do everything in a responsible and environmentally sustainable manner, including raising children but I don’t think anybody should be persecuted for having a lot of children. Honestly, to me, it seems like a stupid way to spend so much of your short time here on but knock yourself out if that is your blissful pathway.
I don’t share your faith so I don’t want to judge anything you wrote. However, I do take offense at the mention of wanting good mental health being a selfish desire. I don’t read your blog so correct me if I’m wrong, but have you experienced mental illness? It is a kind of suffering that can’t be understood by those who have never felt it. If you have never restricted food obsessively, or cut to relieve emotional pain, felt so lost you wanted to die or just felt numb, I’m sorry but you cannot talk about mental health. Faith and kids and pro life is one thing, but mental health is important. You are only hurting yourself and your family if you suffer mentally thinking its some kind of selfless sacrifice. I don’t want to sound rude, but your mention of mental health was offensive to me.
Wow! Thanks for the link. Well, boy do I feel like a dumby now. I just read your post “oops it happened again.” I have to say I am SO HAPPY you shared you struggle not only with PPD but also that story about sharing your depression struggles with your now husband. Really inspiring way that he responded to you! Sorry if my comment came across wrong as I really have little exposure to your past posts!
No way, not a dummy at all! Glad to have you here – it’s really crazy how mental health struggles can affect us all differently.
Since you *have* been there, I find it weird that you lump mental health in with convenience and free time. I appreciate that you’ve shared your journey with PPD–I think it’s so helpful for women to understand they’re not alone–but it feels uncharitable at best, and dangerous at worst (for those who are afflicted with a more scrupulous temperament) to suggest that women who struggle with mental health issues are being selfish if they don’t want kids/more kids.
Which you are perfectly free to think, it’s a public essay after all.
But some things are worth suffering for. People being the foremost.
“NFP is great, but if you think severe mental illness is a serious/grave enough reason to avoid, you are being selfish and acting as a handmaiden to the Culture of Death because Other People are Worth Suffering For, even if they don’t exist yet and your suffering means subjecting your existing spouse and children to the grim reality of living with someone who has come totally unhinged. It’ll be okay. After all, they need to have some crosses to carry, too!”
Awesome. Thanks. Prayers.
Replying to the point raised by Katie and responded to by you:
There are wide ranges of mental health issues that people can experience, sometimes to the point of having one’s child taken away. Both parents of my children had schizophrenia. They parented my son for the first year of life, struggling all the while with their mental health. They were a married couple with a child, struggling to live a normal family life. Their son was ultimately taken into protective custody, placed in foster care and then placed in a potential adoptive family. But the mother of my son conceived and gave birth to another child, and half of her pregnancy was spent in a mental health facility. Her newborn daughter was placed into foster care directly from the hospital. It always amazes me that in the face of losing her first child (whom she could easily have aborted if she didn’t want to face motherhood while being mentally ill), she had a second child whom again she chose not to abort, even though it was a foregone conclusion she would lose her (and I cannot imagine their pain facing that loss a second time). My son met his birthmother in a mental hospital when he was 19 years old; my daughter never met her, but would like to now (she cannot find her though). They both have met their birthfather and maintain contact, and have recently both shared their news that he is to be a grandfather this year: 2 grandchildren from 2 children he never got to raise himself. So, this is an extreme example of mental health issues interfering with motherhood, and yet the life-giving outcome, which many would criticize, is something I thank God for. If their mother (and father) had not said yes to the pregnancies because of her mental condition, these children would not exist. In some instances of mental health issues, one can neither be classified generous nor selfish, but perhaps just a lot more vulnerable (or even “irrational”) in making such decisions about having a child (and I neither advocate sterilization nor contraception nor abortion for the mentally ill woman, a very problematic ethical issue). Whether or not her decisions to have 2 children were “rational” or not, the 2 children are blessings to everyone who knows them. Cooperating with God’s grace in the creation of new life is always a blessing, even when the world doesn’t see it that way. Life happens far beyond the moment in which we are living, so what seems difficult at one time in life can be transformed by God into the most amazingly beautiful outcomes.
Beautiful post. Agree wholeheartedly. ‘People are no longer valued based on who they are, but instead are measured increasingly by what they do’ is most profound part of your post, Jenny. This statement speaks to so much disfunction in American culture. So far, 2016 is certainly proving to be a year of selfishness in American culture. People are becoming ‘too smart’ for God and losing their ability to use common sense. We all have struggles we must overcome and sufferings we must bear. We are called to be selfless and family life helps us get there. Despite what popular culture wants us to believe, our path to Heaven is not about our own happiness or comfort. Enjoyed reading this. God Bless. 🙂