It’s Okay to Have Children

Instead of challenging the pressures that capitalism puts on child-rearing, liberals surrender to it.

Illustration by Christoph Kleinstück

Having kids is bad for the environment.

Or is it the deficit? Or wait, no, it’s selfish because the world has gone to hell. Whichever one you choose, the important thing to remember is that, according to a growing number of liberals, reproducing the species is the equivalent of buying a McMansion and running the A/C with all the windows open.

Or maybe having babies is more like, say, pouring the concrete on an illegal Israeli settlement? “The egoism of child-bearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country,” says the narrator of Sheila Heti’s critically acclaimed novel Motherhood. “How assaulted I feel when I hear that a person has had three children, four, five, more. . . . It feels greedy, overbearing, rude.”

In the Guardian alone, the past two years have seen headlines such as “Would you give up having children to save the planet? Meet the couples who have”; “Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children”; “‘It’s the breaking of a taboo’: the parents who regret having children,” “Want to save your marriage? Don’t have kids.” In the New York Times, “No Children Because of Climate Change? Some People Are Considering It.” At Business Insider, “7 reasons people shouldn’t have children, according to science.” And this new logic is quickly making its way through liberal culture writ large: “Feminist funnywoman Caitlin Moran says the planet doesn’t need your babies.

It’s hard not to get the message. Yet it seems to be falling on deaf ears.

According to a recent CDC study, the gap between the number of children American women want to have and the number they’re likely to have “has risen to the highest level in forty years.” The number of women who want a child in the future has only increased since 2002. And the only age group that’s seen a slight uptick in fertility rates are women between forty and forty-four.

“Americans are improving their ability to avoid unwanted pregnancies far faster than they are improving the ability to achieve desired pregnancy,” as the New York Times put it. With the most expensive health care in the world (and tens of millions still uninsured), decades of stagnant wages, and skyrocketing education and housing costs, having kids has never been so expensive. The Department of Agriculture estimates that it’ll cost an average of $233,000 to raise a child born in 2015 through her seventeenth birthday — and that doesn’t even include college tuition, another uniquely American exorbitance. More and more, bringing a child into the world is a dream many simply can’t afford.

It’s here in this misanthropic anti-natalism that liberalism finds an ally in conservatism. The Brookings Institute put deferring parenthood as one of their “Three Simple Rules Poor Teens Should Follow to Join the Middle Class.” It’s a line no different than what we’ve heard from conservatives like George Will for decades now: you’re poor because of the immoral choices you’ve made.

It recalls the unabashedly racist mid-1990s campaign when both Republicans and the Clinton administration joined together to denounce the scourge of “unwed teen mothers” as a mortal threat to children’s health and family values — “a bedrock issue of character and personal responsibility,” as Clinton’s own 1994 proposal put it. At the time, another set of Democrats went even further and attempted to include a provision that denied all food stamp benefits and Aid to Families with Dependent Children to unwed mothers (and their children) under age twenty-one.

Despite the fearmongering over these supposedly shameful and selfish young mothers, these women were in fact making the best decisions for their families. Dr Arline T. Geronimus has argued that, contra both conservative and liberal shaming of “poor teen moms,” the choice of low-income women to have children at a young age represents a logical decision when faced with the constraints of being poor in America:

If she finds employment, the wages and benefits she can command may not offset the costs of being a working mother. She cannot expect maternity leave; nor is accessible or affordable day care available that would free her from reliance on kin for childcare once she does return to work . . . her greatest chance of long-term labor force attachment will be if her children’s pre-school years coincide with her years of peak access to social and practical support provided by relatively healthy kin.

With this enormous gap between the desires of women and the grueling realities of being a working-class mother in America, what could possibly explain so many liberals’ strange new anti-natalism?

Even in France, long known for their generous natalist welfare state, their new thirty-five-year-old minister for gender equality is signaling a willingness to rewrite commitments to mothers down to threadbare American levels. “I always notice the energy and the volunteerism that exist in America,” France’s Marlène Schiappa recently told the New Yorker. “Regarding the place of women, the reflex in France is to say, ‘What’s the state going to do for me?’” Quelle horreur!

Diminished horizons, lowered expectations, and doing more with less — this is the twenty-first-century liberal program for the toiling masses. In other words, it’s a continuation of liberalism’s forty-year program of austerity, a result of its total abandonment of the trade union movement. A decent living, a home of your own, and a comfy retirement — a meager share in our society’s immense collective wealth — are all long-abandoned promises. Now, apparently, so is having kids.

More and more, liberalism finds itself unable to imagine any way out of the hell of life on the margins in 2018. Instead, they’ve begun to see their role as something like moral sentinels: piously observing and managing the collapse. It’s a liberal-left that no longer believes it can change the world and instead, in the words of Adolph Reed, finds its most important mission in simply “bearing witness to suffering.” They either believe a mass political challenge to capital and climate collapse is impossible, or simply undesirable. Either way, their answer is the same — not a revived labor movement but a new moralism of austerity and self-sacrifice.

That inevitably means asking women to adapt to the logic of raising children under the dictates of the market instead of challenging those strictures. “Lean In” and call it victory.

It’s an attitude that would have bewildered men and women alike in East Germany. Women in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had both a robust welfare state to help them raise children — free daycare started just weeks after a child’s birth and included breakfast and lunch — as well as a much higher workforce participation rate. Abortion was legalized in 1972, years before West Germany. For women in the East, divorce too was quick, easy, and cost nothing. They were also more likely to feel confident in their physical appearance and reported higher rates of sexual satisfaction than their cousins in the West. For all its political authoritarianism, the ability to raise kids in the GDR didn’t hinge on the ability to keep a nuclear family together.

Now, in a unified Germany, daycare openings are expensive and competitive, with a national shortage of 120,000 nursery workers — all low-paid work, of course. In the East, birth rates plunged immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet today, women in the eastern half of the country still have children significantly younger than their western sisters and boast a smaller pay gap between men — in the western half of the country, that gap is comparable to ours in the United States.

Today, the only nations that come close to East Germany’s commitment to providing women this kind of freedom are the countries where the organized working classes have made successful incursions against capitalism’s imperatives. Dutch women — not “Lean In” American women — are, according to studies, the happiest in the world. And hardly any of them work full time. Thanks to trade union mobilization, their working class won the ability to prioritize their freedom over any “duty” to the job market or husbands.

Here, then, we have the root of liberalism’s newfound anti-natalism — the very logic of capital. Capitalism needs new workers and consumers; it just doesn’t want to pay for their upbringing. Those costs, in the logic of capital, should be passed off onto the individual and the household.

Which is why today in the United States, the FBI and ICE are called in to prevent baby formula theft — locking it behind glass cases in the grocery store is preferable to simply socializing it and distributing it for free. Instead of the state providing collectively for the upbringing of children, our police literally chase down biological fathers to collect child support. In this view, it’s better to coerce a nuclear family into staying together than for the state to collectively provide childcare, education, and health care services to parents and their children. It’s shotgun marriage as public policy.

We’ve gone from the conservative postwar view of women as dutiful baby-factories, to telling them that they should delay pregnancy as long as it takes for them to get a career off the ground and build their brand — possibly forever. While reproductive medicine is currently making enormous strides, in vitro fertilization (IVF), ovulation-enhancing medicines, egg storage, and artificial insemination are prohibitively expensive. Without a truly universal health care system, these scientific advances will always be reserved for the affluent.

Asking women to wait to have kids until they have launched a career and saved up enough money is just the obverse of commanding women to stay at home and make babies for their husbands. Both ask women to defer not to their desires, but to an all-powerful abstraction: the market, the environment, patriarchy, or even a twisted faux feminism.

It’s important for those of us in the professional classes to remember that, for the vast majority of working people, the labor market is not a potential site of self-realization and never will be. Instead, it’s a brutal arena where you’re forced to trade a third of your life in order to survive. In 2018, a “do what you love” career is far out of reach for all but the affluent. What the professional classes will never understand — both conservatives who shame young single mothers or liberals who demand that women defer parenthood until they can afford Baby Bjorn — is just how rewarding child-rearing is for those who are under no delusions that capitalism will ever provide validation.

How can we ever win a program that socializes the costs of bringing children into the world if so many liberals still see the desire to have kids as something like a timeshare in Vegas — a costly, foolish, and tacky investment mostly for the rubes? Instead of parroting this gross and misanthropic politics, we should demand that capital stop shirking off the costs of childhood onto workers and instead socialize them — free Finnish baby boxes and a Medicare for All program that covers not only all prenatal and pediatric care, but that makes IVF a right and not a luxury. A program that hires and trains hundreds of thousands to work in high-quality state day cares. The only way we’re going to get any of this is through a revived labor movement — not creepy (and inevitably racist) “population control” thinkpieces.

Why shouldn’t a twenty-something be able to have a kid and still have the freedom to embark on a career? Why shouldn’t a young single mother be able to go to college while leaving her child safely in the care of the state? And why should she need to find or “keep” a relationship with a man just to be able to provide for her kids?

A true freedom for women would mean the ability to walk away from the false choice of “babies, education, or career?” altogether. Right now, however, only the affluent can truly have it all.

That’s anything but just.