A new genre of personal memoir is popping up all over. It could be called "Childless by choice, and proud of it." It features upper middle class women (and sometimes men) who boldly declare that they have no particular desire to have children. Society stereotypes them as selfish, shallow and self-absorbed (as the title of a new essay collection has it), but they want you to know they are at least as responsible as you. Stop judging them! Women are more than walking wombs, and their reproductive choices are none of your damn business.
I have to say I'm a bit surprised by the pugnacious tone of these memoirs. As a childless person myself, I've never gotten a hard time from anyone about it. People think it would be rude and intrusive to comment, so they don't.
In the modern West, the idea of female fertility as a purely private matter is now well entrenched. This is not true in the rest of the world, where your children are considered an essential marker of your identity. Whenever I find myself in one of these unenlightened places, the second question I am asked (after "Where are you from?") is "How many children do you have?" If I say none, I am treated as the victim of a terrible misfortune. My husband and I now have imaginary offspring, just for these occasions.
The very idea of "deciding" to have children is distinctly new. Before birth control, it was just what women did. Even today, decisions about motherhood have less to do with "choice" than with culture and circumstance. My university-educated mom had three kids by the time she was 26, because that's what everybody did. By the time I was 26, women were allowed to have careers and love affairs, so I figured the other stuff could wait. I never chose not to have children – that's just the way things turned out. And I, too, am merely symptomatic of a trend. Today, the most highly educated women have the fewest children, which is something to think about more than we do.
There are lots of theories about why so many women are passing up motherhood. One theory is that maternal instinct and the mother-child bond are merely social conventions, from which more and more women are gratefully liberating themselves. From a biological perspective, this is nonsense. Maternal instinct is nearly universal. It is a precondition for the survival of the species (which is not to say it can't be overridden, as we seem to be doing all too successfully).
Another popular explanation is that women don't get enough daycare/mat leave/help around the house, and therefore the remedy for plunging birth rates is better husbands and more social programs. Besides (many childless people point out), the planet has too many people anyway. So why add to the crisis?
It's true that as women become better educated, the opportunity cost of having children rises. But there are broader reasons for the flight from parenthood. Starting in the '60s, the culture began a seismic shift in values and behaviour. Duty and obligation to family, community and religion gave way to autonomy and self-actualization. Extended family units fragmented into transient relationships and single living. Educated people began getting married later or not at all, which means they began procreating less. Also, the state took over many of the roles that families used to play. People no longer need children as a form of medical or old-age insurance, because the state has taken over.
But what's good for personal happiness, autonomy and freedom might not be all that good for the future of the human race. Today, birth rates have fallen below replacement levels in virtually every developed nation in the world. The most important underlying reasons have nothing to do with the lack of gender equality, or the economy.
In Germany, the most prosperous country in Europe, the fertility rate has plunged to fewer than 1.4 children per woman. (The replacement rate is 2.1.). German towns are tearing down vacant houses because there's nobody to live in them. According to one study, 22 per cent of German men don't want any children at all. Hardly anyone in Europe believes that having three or more children is compatible with a satisfying life.
In Denmark, one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, the collapsing birth rate is being called an "epidemic," and sex education in the schools has turned from an emphasis on contraception to an emphasis on urging young people to have kids before it's too late. As one fertility doctor told Bloomberg, "We have for many years addressed the very important issues of how to avoid becoming pregnant, how to avoid sexual diseases, how they have a right to their own bodies, but we totally forgot to tell the kids that we cannot have children forever."
Things are grim in Asia, too. In South Korea, lavish government spending on child-care subsidies has failed to boost the fertility rate, which stands at a miserable 1.2. In Singapore, where things are even worse, the government has organized matchmaking services for young singles. A rap song, written with the backing of Singapore authorities, urges citizens to do their patriotic duty: "I'm a patriotic husband, you're my patriotic wife, let's do our civic duty and manufacture life."
I'm not convinced that either jingles or more daycare will do the trick. The fundamental issue is whether modern people want to commit to family life and raising kids. Increasingly, the answer is a resounding no. More and more people, it seems, would rather spend their time writing essays about why they're not having kids than having kids. I'm not saying that is either good or bad. I'm just saying it raises some interesting questions about the future of the human race.