It’s not a fertility problem, it’s a marriage problem
I read – and shared – a piece from Medium with my Facebook readers yesterday morning. It’s about the precipitous decline of childbirths in the West – particularly in America – and especially in the year 2017.
In it the author, Lyman Stone, contemplates the impending collapse of the US fertility rate and tries to make some sense of it. He also rings a few alarm bells, launching wondering statements into the ether in an attempt to explain “why” this is happening. And also, to communicate to the reader that barring a full-stop culture-wide reversal of the trend, there is little we can actually do to recover to a baseline replacement rate of fertility.
I think he makes some compelling points, and that his data are both fascinating and confounding.
I also think we may be missing the forest for the trees.
The problem, from where I see it, hasn’t as much to do with our fertility rates as with what we have done – or what we have allowed to be done – to marriage.
Marriage has undergone a radical paradigm shift over the past decade. Sure, the roots of that shift date much further back, reaching into the origins of widely available artificial contraception and no-fault divorce, but marriage has been transformed from a commonly-agreed upon arrangement of mutual sexual fidelity between one male and female “till death do them part” has been dismantled piecemeal over the last decade at breakneck pace. And not only dismantled, but resurrected as something entirely different, styled and promulgated through the media and disseminated with breathtaking effectiveness across the digital continent.
So let me bring this back around to my thesis: people aren’t having children because people aren’t getting married. At least not “married” in the way we would have commonly recognized as marriage 100, 50, or even 25 years ago.
Let me try to explain.
Old view of marriage: (leaving religion entirely aside) Life partner/best friend + sexual attraction + desire to build a family + pledge of fidelity and financial/emotional support through thick and thin = lifetime commitment.
(Were there people who fell outside the bounds of this overgeneralization I’m making? Yes. But they were cultural outliers.)
New view of marriage: contractual arrangement ordered toward self-fulfillment/actualization, sexual desire and acquisition of maximum pleasure + material goods + financial fail-safes engaged to legally protect both parties in case of dissolution + mutually agreed upon terms of behavior/performance = finite legal arrangement hinging upon the satisfaction of both parties.
You notice in the old view of marriage, friendship – or at least partnership – and the creation of a family, built to last, were at least a part of the bundled expectations at the outset of marriage. My theory is that far fewer couples today go into marriage thinking primarily of the other, let alone the potential others, who might benefit from their committed union.
Marriage used to be ordered toward the future and toward the other. I would argue the marriage, in its present culturally understood form, is ordered primarily towards the present and the self.
And that’s not a great recipe for childbearing.
Because if marriage is primarily about me, and about my fulfillment in the present moment, then it makes almost zero sense to take the flying leap of courageous insanity necessary to procreate the next generation.
First, because the cost to me personally is so high: social, professional, financial, physical, and even sexual well-being can all take a real beating during childbearing and rearing.
Second, if I am partnered with a spouse who views our union primarily in terms of contractual benefits weighed against risks, and whose fidelity I cannot count on, I would have to be somewhat delusional to take the step to introduce a permanent fixture into our union: a child.
Until we can restore and adequately communicate an authentic vision of marriage as the fundamental building block and the primordial relationship of society, no government policy or tax break is going to make a dent in our fertility freefall.
Unless we recapture a sense of sacred duty toward the future, and an obligation to provide for someone beyond ourselves and our immediate needs, then from a purely hedonistic perspective, marriage looks completely insane, and having a child might be considered tantamount to self harm.
Are there other factors at play? Surely.
The current economic situation presumes a dual income household in most parts of the country (and given the typical consumerist expectation of standard of living), and bucking that trend by having more than 2 kids and almost by proxy, being priced out of daycare as a viable option, means being willing to suffer the cost of a radical downgrade in “experiences” and standard of living.
Like maybe being a single car family. Or not taking vacations. Or not owning a house for the first 5 or 10 or ever years of marriage. Or not bankrolling (gasp) a trip for every single offspring through a 4-year university of their choosing.
Of course, there are more dire circumstances than the absence of a college fund. And many families can and do choose to suffer those iniquities willingly out of love, or at least resignedly through gritted teeth and furrowed brows. And those couples, in my opinion, are the real heroes in this equation. Couples who don’t just forgo the annual vacation or the college fund or the organic milk, but who live a life markedly below what is considered “standard” middle class living, foregoing even basic pleasures and nearly all luxuries and likely being ridiculed while so doing.
But if the rest of us can’t get past the vision of marriage as a “me first” vehicle for self-fulfillment and happiness that may happen to include a kid or two at some nebulous point down the road, provided all the appropriate financial failsafes are in place and the milestones of adulthood in a materialistic consumer-driven society such as ours are checked off, then we’ll make little if any headway in rebalancing our precarious fertility rate.
And so, finally, why does it matter?
Why look to the future and worry about a time that doesn’t personally concern us?
Why not just leave the childbearing to the religious zealots and the immigrants and the poor, uneducated working class to pick up the slack?
In short, does it matter that people are no longer getting married and having babies?
Being 20 or 30 years old can indeed at times feel something like immortality, the inevitable physical and mental and financial slowdown of old age will one day claim us all, if we are fortunate enough to achieve it.
So even if we have no personal interest in weighing ourselves down with the baggage of a lifelong commitment and a handful of small people who share our DNA, have we stopped to consider the consequence of an aging population outnumbering the generation or two beneath it by 50 or 100 or even 200%?
The choices we make today will engineer the society we inhabit in the future. And as everyone who has ever had a mom who drilled mom-isms into their little brains can repeat in a singsong voice, “our choices have consequences.”
And a future of upside-down demographics where the culture is overwhelmingly grey and non-productive, fiscally speaking? That’s where forced – and likely plenty of voluntary, as is the duty of a good materialist – euthanasia will probably come into play.
Look to Japan to see the social and economic cost of an upside-down population where every worker is disproportionately responsible for 2 or 3 or even 4 pensioners a piece, and do the math.
On a fundamental economic level, our failure to adequately replace the dying, aging population otherwise known as all of humanity leads to a gruesome end-of-life scenario for those of us who will not or cannot invest in the next generation.
But who cares? Shrugs the pro choice, pro radical individualism, pro what-suits-me-needn’t-concern-you camp.
I suppose that remains to be seen, whether those who are so flippant about other people’s lives today maintain that perspective on their own lives one day in the not too distant future.
In the meantime, the rest of us should be getting about the business of having and raising families, despite the temptation to count the cost – and the cost is often and increasingly dear.
But when you look a little further down the road, through the mists of time, the long-term cost looks to be far, far greater.
And it’s not just about a grey headed population needing help. It’s about all those others who need help too! Our youngest (of 5) is autistic. High end of the ASD spectrum but will always need someone there for him. His siblings, and their spouses, have all assured him, and his dad and me, that they will always be there for him when we are gone. So we can relax knowing that the nightmare of all parents with children who will never, truly, ‘fly the nest’ is not something we need to worry about.
And the reason? We are a family in the traditional sense. Forever.
I don’t know how to turn round the way society has gone, but perhaps this is one to pray about?
Maureen, you are right. This IS something we need to pray about – particularly the Rosary. Only God can effect a change.
I read the comments on his article and almost ALL of them were about how he hadn’t proven that this lack of replacement fertility rate was actually a problem. He replied that he’d be digging into that in the future so I’m interested to hear what he’ll say from a secular perspective about the costs of an upside down population.
I suspect marriage has always been more about “what’s in it for me” than about making some grand gift to the future. Whether it was social status, a roof over the head and food on the table, access to sexual activity, children to work the farm, security in old age, etc., there were some pretty hefty carrots (and sticks–who wanted to be an aging spinster totally reliant on the generosity of family members to survive?) to incentivize men and women getting and staying together. Men and women used to need each other (and children, especially in an agrarian society) for sheer survival. Marriage also provided much-desired social status in many cultures. (on a side note, I don’t think people expected their spouses to be best friends, or even to feel particularly “in love” with them, over the course of the millennia; marriage was a very practical institution)
Men and women neither need each other nor children in the same way they did before. Once marriage becomes a choice (whether getting married in the first place, or staying married when things get tough), many humans simply won’t. Human nature hasn’t changed: we have always been selfish. What has changed is the necessity for men and women to live together and get along, for survival. When you have no real options, you get busy trying to make the best of your situation. When you do have options, you start dreaming about them when things get really horrible.
This is not to say that all the other factors you mention don’t play a part in the declines in fertility. But I don’t believe there was ever a time when the vast majority of humans married and had children out of some altruistic desire to do what was right by society. Humans have always operated from a “what’s in it for me?” perspective. Even Jesus talked about heavenly rewards, mansions, and feasts, after all. We are motivated by the thought of good things coming our way.
The “what’s in it for me” in marriage and childbearing just isn’t as clear-cut in the modern world. I wouldn’t expect a lot of humans to start making marriage and childbearing choices based on what might be good for upcoming generations anytime too soon.
True though much of your point may be, you’re wrong to say that man and women “neither need each other nor children in the same way they did before.” God’s plan for humanity is timeless and unchanging, no matter how woke we think we might be. And sure, from a purely human perspective, marriage has some decidedly utilitarian motivations. But Jesus elevated marriage to a Sacrament, and so just as the Eucharist is more than a funny little piece of bread, a selfish romance or roommate arrangement between spouses is more than, well, that. Thanks for your perspective!
If no one is standing on your ground – it’s vacant.
I don’t really think we disagree–of course men and women still need each other in the sense of God’s plan for humanity. My husband and I have six children, have been happily married for nearly 26 years, and definitely believe our marriage is much more than some roommate arrangement!
We don’t, however, need each other to survive the way my great-great-grandparents needed each other to work the farm, keep food on the table, and a roof over the head. And that really does turn things on its head from a human behavior perspective.
Most people on earth are not and never have been sacramentally married (Christians only comprise about 31% of the world’s population). So it is important to consider the problems of marriage in the modern world from the perspective of natural (vs. sacramental) marriage as well. Even without the benefits of the sacrament, the vast majority of people traditionally were able to get and stay married, but technology, independence, choices, and a host of other problems of modernity have really thrown a wrench into male-female relations and family life.
Agreed! Plus, many young couples now live far from their parents (aka free babysitters) due to economic circumstances. We of the fertile age don’t want to commit to large families without that additional family structure to support us. Unfortunately, the way our society is today means grandparents do not live in the same location as the children and grandchildren. Our older generations are not present to help us raise our kids. My parents live where they live for employment and we live were we live for our jobs.
Centuries ago, whole families lived in the same house. That’s not the way our culture operates now. It’s good and bad for different reasons and it is the way it is.
William L Klein
John Powell SF termed this a “Copernican Revolution,” where one suddenly realizes the world does not revolve around oneself.” And so, it’s all about me. “Because if marriage is primarily about me, and about my fulfillment in the present moment, then it makes almost zero sense to take the flying leap of courageous insanity necessary to procreate the next generation.” Bravo. And no, there’s no going back – it’s just part of our civilization’s epitaph.
It’s a contraception problem not a marriage problem.
In the western world people are having more sex than ever and fewer children than ever. That’s only possible because of contraception.
Cindy Millen Roberts
I teach at a Catholic and am surprised how many parents of two there are who feel their kids must have their own rooms, their own electronics, vacations, travel sports, and so many clothes, and both parents work feverishly to provide these things.
There is a real contrast between those families and the ones with with 4+ kids whose kids share bedrooms, wear hand-me- downs, have no electronics other than the family computer. I would submit that the latter group of kids are much happier, calmer, self-sufficient, and are able to delay gratification. They also show up to Mass more often. In short, they are better prepared to be successful adults. I know I’m generalizing but there is clearly a difference between the two groups.
My own kids are so happy they had five siblings. You do NOT need 3/4 of the crap that society tells you to buy.
Keep it up Jenny and congrats on baby #5.
This is spot-on. The thought of sacrificing for your spouse and/or children has escaped so many. Birth control and abortion (aka murder) has allowed a throw-away, burdened view of children to replace what God intended for man and women. In speaking to a friend about my husband and I being “open to God’s plan” when it comes to having more children, I was berated with questions regarding how can we afford multiple children, won’t we want to take vacations, will they share bedrooms, don’t you want to have more freedom, etc… To that I simply answered that after my life is over (and I pray that it is a long, healthy life) when I am nearing death, none of what she mentioned will be there. What I want is to be surrounded by my children as I pray that I am welcomed into God’s Kingdom. Family is what matters to us.
We read this over the weekend and found it….well, interesting. We know the author and his sister, and I’m not sure he actually would consider himself left-leaning (I mean, I’m basing that off what I know of the whole family, but if he actually did say that somewhere then I cede my point). What we found to be bizarre about his article (and a few others we’ve read by him about fertility decline) is that while he seems genuinely concerned about fertility decline, he never seems to connect it to anything socio-cultural, like, say widespread promotion and acceptance of contraception and the destruction/changed idea of marriage, as you’ve outlined very well here. Still, hopefully his data crunching will actually help spark discussions about the ramifications of fertility trends!
I article rings so true, even as I live in a rural mostly-conservative area of the U.S.! Every day I struggle to overcome the ‘new idea’ of marriage as self-fulfillment, even if my husband and I have two kids in almost 3 years of marriage, and even if we are learning so much about being selfless and in a marriage for the other every day.
I think it’s sad, too, when I hear high school girls ( I used to teach high school) announce that they are never going to have children because they are scared or just don’t want to. It points exactly back to what you are saying, though. I think they say that because they don’t have a stable home life or see a stable marriage as an example and think, there is no way I can do that!