June 23, 2003
There are few topics that will start -- or stop dead in the water -- as many conversations as children. The having of them, the not having of them, the raising of them, the benefits of them and the risks of them. Someone once said that if you've had kids you have no right to perpetuate your own mistakes by giving advice on child raising to others, and you don't have a right to offer any advice to those who do. It seems that the wisest course of action is to simply smile and kiss the babies and pass on.
But ah, the vexed question of whether to have them or not...
Through the usual laws of serendipity, two things crossed my desk this week.
One was a full page ad in Harper's Magazine entitled "Why we need a smaller US population and how we can achieve it." Quite aside from the usual 'limit immigration' clauses (that's another can of worms, and one that deserves an entirely separate essay), the people behind the ad suggest limiting every woman's childbearing quota from the current average of 2.1 kids per woman to 1.5 and enforcing the rule of no-more-than-two-kids-per-family by fairly draconian financial disincentives.
The other is a poignant account by a sixty-year-old woman (subtitled, "Mourning the child who never was") who had remained childless through a combination of choice and circumstance. (1)
Don't get me wrong -- the world's population is exploding at an alarming rate. The people behind the Harper's ad, a non-profit national organization going by the name Negative Population Growth or NPG, provide the obligatory scary statistics, such as the fact that the current US population of roughly 288 million people will pass 400 million by the year 2050 if growth is left unchecked. NPG points out -- rightly -- that the environment will not be able to sustain such a load of people, that there are a limited number of resources such as access to good water and to adequate nutrition and a decent roof over one's head.
But is a "thou shalt not" leveled at women the solution to this problem? And what if the growth trend in the USA is reversed? There are countries in Europe now -- Italy comes to mind -- whose population growth is tiny if not negative, and they have problems of their own: ageing populations, not enough people to perform the basic jobs which help underpin civilization. Their solution is the importation of relatively vast numbers of the dispossessed of countries blessed (or cursed) with a higher growth rate -- people from Africa, from Asia, from places at the tail end of Europe like Turkey or Romania. People who come bearing their own roots, their own traditions, their own customs and languages -- and who will never be Italian. They are sustaining their level of living to the requirements currently defining civilization as we know it, but perhaps this momentary triumph of survival of the equivalent of the country's body comes at the equivalent of losing the country's soul. This is a situation enacted every day -- on a MUCH larger scale -- in the United States of America, the melting pot of all nations. How long does it take for an immigrant to become an "American?" For that matter, what IS an American? If you qualify your status by saying that you are, for example, Italian-American, which flag are you waving -- Italy's or the Star Spangled Banner?
What should be the immigrants' choice -- keeping their OWN culture going in the face of overwhelming odds of a mountain of foreign customs and mores overwhelming their children the moment they leave the parental home, or submitting to an assimilation and becoming bland, generic, losing everything that once made them what they were in an attempt -- probably doomed, at least as far as the first immigrant generation is concerned -- to fit it by becoming "like everyone else?"
And how is having or not having children going to affect this equation?
In China the problem has been looming for a very long time, and they have a far greater problem than NPG sees developing in America. The "solution" was thought to be the imposition of a single-child-per-family rule -- and yet, so deeply ingrained were the ancient cultural drives that generations of little girls were strangled, drowned or left to die of exposure in the hopes that the next child, the allowed child, would be a treasured son. Quite aside from the horror of this as and of itself, the artificial skewing of population demographics is going to catch up with the nation sooner or later, and the population will truly crash as the number of women available to bear the nation's children dwindles. Although this will have the same ultimate effect as the engineers of the original solution might have envisioned -- a MUCH lower number of people in China -- I doubt that in the long run a population can survive that kind of a shock without dire effects to its viability as a functional and cultural entity.
Is having children an ethical, a moral, a cultural, a biological, a personal choice? The woman who wrote the second article I read concludes that while she admits to feeling jealousy when she sees a mother and child looking at one another in that inimitable way that only a mother and her offspring can, she has finally reached the stage of accepting her own choices. In a way, mourning a choice unmade is railing at the place in life where one is now -- and if one did any one little thing differently one would be in a very different place. If one wants to be in a different place, that would be one thing. But millions of women have chosen -- the scary stats in NPG ads notwithstanding -- not to reproduce. It would probably be inhuman not to expect these women to have an occasional pang of regret sometimes, seeing mothers cradling small babies with that mushy grin that is as much an accessory to Baby as are the diapers, the bottles, and the pacifier. But most of those women are in a place where they are living a lifestyle they enjoy, with perks that would be impossible with small descendants underfoot. They are in steady relationships with partners they like and enjoy the company of. They don't have to worry about jam stains on their tablecloths or baby upchuck on their silk blouses. They have ALWAYS slept through the night.
I have a personal stake in this. I will be turning 40 in only a few days. My biological clock is probably winding down; it is more of a probability than a possibility at this stage that I will never have children of my own. By comparison, my first cousin (only 9 months younger than I am) has two daughters aged ten and seven, and is pregnant again. But, unlike me, she has always wanted children -- to the extent of suffering through two miscarriages, of having to spend most of her second pregnancy on her back in bed, of suffering through two traumatic births -- and is willing to go through it all again. I, on the other hand, am perfectly happy to pat my small nieces on the head and hand them nice presents on their birthdays.
Oh, I do have children, in a way.
They are bound between covers. They live on bookshelves. I write books. My words, my characters, are my children. I love them no less than I would a flesh and blood offspring of my own But if I have made this choice, it was not because I was coerced into it by governments or agencies willing to use me -- and other women like me -- to solve the problems for which they are unwilling or unable to implement the hard solutions.
The way to stabilize the world's burgeoning population is not to decree the number of children allowable to any one human being -- it is to educate the population, to raise vast numbers of people from poverty and ignorance so abject that they are left unable to do anything other than find solace in an act calculated to perpetuate their misery on yet more of their descendants. If we could feed, clothe, educate the human race, they would all understand that we live in the same small back yard.
But that's the hard way. It's so much easier to trot out statistics and make broad vaguely threatening generalizations about the catastrophes to come.
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Alma Hromic on Swans (with bio).
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