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    Detail of painting of wooden toy farm animals by Richard Hall, titled EIEIO

    The Case for One More Child

    Why Large Families Will Save Humanity

    Ross Douthat

    November 18, 2020
    9 Comments
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    • Ali Phelps

      I was shocked by this article. ( I'm writing from the UK, so appreciate that perspectives may be different.) The climate emergency is not only real and now, but WE are causing it. I want to make my role as a steward of the Creator's beautiful earth and Jesus' command to Love one another my guidelines to making choices. Each baby in the developed world uses 586 times more resources than a baby in the less developed world . This increases tragic hardship to our least resilient brothers and sisters and seems plain unfair. However hard I recycle my cans or stop flying, it's almost nothing compared to reducing the number of consuming children. (Brandalyn Bickner, a Catholic one time Peace Corps volunteer from Chicago has a great personal story) Of course, reducing my carbon footprint is not the only important current issue, and having babies is a very personal choice, guided by the Holy Spirit in people of faith. I don't want to become judgmental and lose conversations with those who see things differently. My personal story: We have 2 (now adult) kids, and I had wanted more. I liked the lifestyle. It gave me fulfilling purpose and I'd hoped to become a better mother having made plenty of mistakes on the first two. My husband was reluctant, he understood more (and cared more) about the global impact than I did. But the Lord spoke to me through Matthew 19:12 'Some are born eunuchs, some are made eunuchs and some are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven' What if the Lord wanted something other than natural motherhood of me, 'for the kingdom?' At least I had 2 kids. So I treasured them a bit more, practised not being jealous around all the new babies in my community and discovered accidentally that we had room to respond to emergencies. We fostered kids , welcomed homeless individuals, the separated and asylum seekers and had so much laughter on the way. I am still using every ounce of mothering within me, just not with blood relatives. And I had space in my life when the church asked me to work on the team. I'm glad the Lord knew better than I did about baby numbers.

    • Christina

      “And even if you think climate change will be truly apocalyptic, it’s no more threatening than the prospect of nuclear annihilation, which did nothing to prevent the last great Western baby boom.” How can you NOT think climate change will be apocalyptic? If you lived where I do and saw the massive fires that are increasing yearly, or if you lived in places struck by the recent hurricanes and were homeless and hungry, maybe you’d think differently. The threat of nuclear annihilation is still here, by the way, but has not stopped people from having kids—it’s a threat, but one we all hope and pray will stay under wraps. It didn’t stop me from having a child. The threat of a virus that might come along and kill us all is similarly unlikely to cause people to skip childbearing. Wars have never stopped us. Climate change, on the other hand, is already here and is already disastrous. It’s not a theory, and it’s happening far faster than scientists had predicted. There will be more fires, more hurricanes, more flooding year by year. The nuclear threat is real but is also avoidable. We can get our act together and get rid of the weapons, with enough will power and concern for all of these children. Climate change, however, is unlikely to be solved at this point; it is already causing terrible suffering and death, mostly in the poorer countries, so it’s easy to pretend, sitting in some of the wealthier nations and cities, that it’s not going to be truly apocalyptic.

    • Cait

      Wow... thank you. I have never heard a real argument for having more kids, let alone one so complete and well thought out. I have two kids, 6 and 7 years old. I was so overwhelmed when number 2 came so quickly after number 1, and I kinda burnt out. We also have moved several times, and amidst chaos of life we have always had a reason why it is not a good idea to have another right now, and every year that goes by makes it harder to want to get out the diaper bag, the stroller, the bassinet, all the blankets, the cloth diapers, get a new carseat, the training potty, and do it all over again. I have always wanted more kids, but have been thinking for several years that maybe there is a better time than right now, and we will just wait until things calm down a bit, and feel more stable. I do not know if things will ever calm down, or feel stable again, and right here in the midst of my childbearing years I am suffering the fear I may never have another, because of this ever growing list of reasons why now is not the right time. I don't think the right time I hope for will ever come. It may require a significant amount of sacrifice on my part, and may invoke a certain level of anxiety at times, and will surely cost me hours upon hours of sleep I could have had, but I want to look into those little eyes, and see a first smile again. I want to teach someone to walk again. Why do I not already have that child? Feeling afraid. Afraid of the world, and where things are going. Afraid of the finances. Afraid of needing to buy a new car, make the SUV jump. Afraid of the weight I might put on. Afraid of the current medical system, and feeling like in order to honor myself, I may need to find the strength and resources to traverse a lot of this unknown journey on my own. After reading your article, I feel inclined to be brave. Bravery is not the absence of fear, it is just prioritizing something more than avoiding what you fear. If that baby was here, it would be easy to prioritize anything he or she needed, but because they are not here yet, and I can't see the sparkle in their eyes, it feels hard to fit that priority in. I am encouraged by this article, and feeling ready to get brave, and take the leap to have another baby, because there will never be a better time than now.

    • Barbara Penna

      I love this well balanced and thoughtful article. Left out, though, is the fact that there is no logical reason to have kids. They are inconvenient and a financial drain. It is an emotional decision, with untold emotional rewards. How can the joy of an infant's laugh, a 6 year old's hug, a daughter's engagement, be measured? The author's best argument for having more children (even just one more) is for the socialization that occurs between siblings. Friendships come and go, but family is forever. I raised 3. Acquired 2 more through marriage. Still I wish I'd had more.

    • Alan S Drake

      The ideal should be a slowly declining population with no smooth age cohorts. Say -0.3%/year. @ 240 years to cut the population in half. The savings in fewer children far exceed care for the frail elderly. So overall fewer resources for those at dependent ages. Infrastructure need be only replaced with minimal expansion. Per capita GDP & Quality of Life will be significantly improved. Managed & moderate population decline is better than endless expansion of population - the philosophy of a cancer cell.

    • Marissa Burt

      Good words. I agree that large families are counter-our-current-culture, a necessary good to be desired (if not always granted) in Christian marriage, and a very real gift to ourselves and the broader community. Children are, in fact, a blessing - whether we sense the reality of that when stretched thin by many of them or in our worries over climate change, etc. I don’t expect a secular/pagan mindset to fully embrace or affirm this though I am saddened when I encounter “child-free” talking points in the church. We need better catechism. I remember 20 years ago as a mainstream Protestant there was zero discussion of marital sexuality and children - family planning, birth control, etc. was incontrovertible conventional wisdom. I was shocked to learn a year or two later the church has historically had quite a lot to say about this... I do think there’s a very small subset of secular culture that’s come to love and embrace the messy joy of large families, but I think even these movements are born out of God’s design and struggle without his broader life-giving ways, for instance, it’s difficult to maintain a large family without a commitment to marriage. Your final points made me think of what I recently read in Ronald Rolheiser’s book Domestic Monastery: “Carlo Carretto, one of the leading spiritual writers of the past half-century, lived for more than a dozen years as a hermit in the Sahara desert. Alone, with only the Blessed Sacrament for company, milking a goat for his food, and translating the Bible into the local Bedouin language, he prayed for long hours by himself. Returning to Italy one day to visit his mother, he came to a startling realization: His mother, who for more than 30 years of her life had been so busy raising a family that she scarcely ever had a private minute for herself, was more contemplative than he was … What this taught was not that there was anything wrong with what he had been doing in living as a hermit. The lesson was rather that there was something wonderfully right about what his mother had been doing all these years as she lived the interrupted life amidst the noise and incessant demands of small children. He had been in a monastery, but so had she. What is a monastery? A monastery is not so much a place set apart for monks and nuns as it is a place set apart (period). It is also a place to learn the value of powerlessness and a place to learn that time is not ours, but God’s.”

    • Plougher

      Wow. This was very well written all the way through. The car seat economics stuff is too real.

    • Diane Peske

      OMG Ross- this is the best thought piece on this subject I’ve ever read!!! My husband and I had 5 children which seemed enormous in our upper middle class Southern CA world. I always pined for more even as my body had to stop. We currently have 14 grandchildren... and the place I draw the greatest hope for their future is every Sunday Mass when I see young parents struggling with squiggly toddlers and older families with a brood from pre-school through college. Thank you for penning this

    • Joe at Plough

      What do you think? Can society evolve to accommodate and support larger families? Or is conversion the answer as Douthat suggests?

    Start with the car seats. They hulk in the back seats of any normal sedan, squeezing the middle seat from both directions, built like a captain’s chair on Star Trek if James T. Kirk was really worried about taking neck damage from a Romulan barrage. The scenes of large-family life from early in the automobile era, with three or four kids jammed happily into the back seat of a jalopy, are now both unimaginable and illegal. Just about every edition of Cheaper by the Dozen, published in 1948, uses an image of the Gilbreth kids packed into the family automobile, overflowing like flowers from a vase. Today, the car seats required to hold them would take up more space than the car itself.

    In his 2013 book, What to Expect When No One's Expecting, Jonathan V. Last described “car seat economics” – the expense and burden of car seats for ever-older kids, the penalties imposed on parents who flout the requirements – as an example of the countless “tiny evolutions” that make large families rarer. Obviously car seats aren’t as big a deal as the cost of college or childcare, or the cultural expectations around high-intensive parenting. But it’s still a miniature case study, Last suggested, in how our society’s rules and regulations conspire against an extra kid.

    Our society’s future would be radically different if people simply had as many kids as they desired.

    Seven years later, two economists set out to prove him right. In a paper entitled “Car Seats as Contraception,” they argued that car-seat requirements delay and deter the arrival of third children, especially, because normal backseats won’t hold three car seats, so you basically can’t have a third young kid in America unless you upgrade to a minivan. The requirements save lives – fifty-seven child fatalities were prevented in 2017, the authors estimate. But they prevent far more children from coming into existence in the first place: there were eight thousand fewer births because of car-seat requirements in 2017, according to their calculations, and 145,000 fewer births since 1980.

    Small wooden toy bus with wooden people inside.

    You don’t have to quite believe the specificity of these numbers to see that an important truth is being revealed. Our society is not exactly more hostile to children than societies in the past: indeed, once an American child is born, her girlhood will be safer from all manner of perils than the childhoods of the 1980s, let alone the farm-and-factory past. But this protectiveness coexists with a tacit hostility toward merely potential children – children who might exist, children who are imagined when people are asked about their ideal family size, but who, for all kinds of reasons, are never conceived or never born.

    We lack a moral framework for talking about this problem. It would make an immense difference to the American future if more Americans were to simply have the 2.5 kids they say they want, rather than the 1.7 births we’re averaging. But talking about a declining birthrate, its consequences for social programs or economic growth or social harmony, tends to seem antiseptic, a numbers game. It skims over the deeper questions: What moral claim does a potential child have on our society? What does it mean to fail someone who doesn’t yet exist?

    Detail of painting of wooden toy farm animals by Richard Hall, titled EIEIO

    Richard Hall, EIEIO All artwork by Richard Hall. Used with permission.

    I think about this with our daughter Rosemary, our fourth child, six months old as I write. We weren’t sure if we could have her, or if we should. I had been sick with a debilitating illness that maybe – not officially, but definitely anecdotally – can be passed along to children. My wife carried the scars of several caesarean sections. We had moved three times in five years, losing money as we went. Much more than with any of her siblings, having Rosemary was a leap of faith.

    She was conceived in the summer of 2019. In the winter of 2020, I brought Covid-19 home to my family from a book tour, and our other children and my seven-months-pregnant wife got sick. Rosemary was born amid the first wave of the pandemic; her birthday matches the exact late-April peak of deaths for our home state of Connecticut.

    After we brought her back from the hospital, healthy and cheerful, I thought about what would have happened if news from 2020 had fallen back through a wormhole into 2019. Guess what? Before you conceive another child, you should know that there will be a pandemic next year, the economy will shut down, there will be riots and a crime wave, and you’ll all get sick with the virus, deep into your wife’s pregnancy. Would Rosemary have been conceived in the shadow of that foreknowledge? Would we have made the leap?

    Because of course now that she is here she has inestimable value. How could the challenges of 2020, however dire they might have sounded as prophecy, possibly justify her non-existence? How could we not have pressed ahead, if the endpoint was her friendly cheeks, her babyish giggles, her oh-so-human eyes?

    The idea that not-enough-Rosemarys might be a problem for the world has taken a long time to take hold. The consensus during my youth held that falling birthrates were always a sign of progress, that Third World overpopulation might doom the world to famine, and that anyone who cared too much about Western fertility was probably a crank.

    I took this gospel for granted as a child: I remember quizzing my dad about how the earth could possibly survive the combination of overpopulation and pollution. But I also came young to the realization that the problem might lie elsewhere. Sometime in Bill Clinton’s presidency, I was assigned a high school science bulletin-board project on population trends. In the library I checked out all the books on overpopulation – which meant basically the collected works of Paul Ehrlich, the alarmist author of The Population Bomb. When I compared their 1970s-era projections to what was actually happening, my teenage self could see two things plainly: first, none of the disasters Ehrlich envisioned had come to pass, and second, for the rich world the population trend was an arrow pointing down and down and down.

    The birthrate is entangled with any social or economic challenge that you care to name.

    I was hardly the first person to notice this: P. D. James’s dystopian prophecy of mass infertility, The Children of Men, came out five years before my bulletin-board revelation. But the fear of under population belonged to the realm of weirdos and conservatives (but I repeat myself) well into my adulthood. When Hollywood got around to adapting James’s novel in 2006, the film focused more on terrorist disturbances and cruelty to immigrants than the horror of a childless world. When countries in East Asia and then Eastern Europe began to search for policies to bolster birthrates, they were regarded as illiberal curiosities.

    It was only when the US birthrate, long an above-average outlier among rich nations, began to descend anew following the Great Recession that the topic began to spark stirrings of real interest. But even now there’s no agreement that the birthrate deserves as much attention as healthcare or taxes or abortion or police brutality, let alone that it might be one of the most pressing issues of our time.

    Yes, Republicans can be induced to include a little family-friendly tax policy in a larger tax reform, and Democrats support family subsidies when they’re cast as measures to fight poverty. But to argue that the American future depends on pushing our birthrate back above replacement level, as Matthew Yglesias did in his recent book One Billion Americans, remains an eccentric argument to many people: an interesting idea, maybe, but not a particularly urgent one, and certainly not the sort of issue that would make the cut of questions for a presidential debate.

    Which is a bit crazy, when you stop to think about it. Whether a society is reproducing itself isn’t an eccentric question; it’s a fundamental one. The birthrate isn’t just an indicator of some nebulous national greatness; it’s entangled with any social or economic challenge that you care to name.

    As social scientists have lately begun “discovering,” a low-birthrate society will enjoy lower economic growth; it will become less entrepreneurial, more resistant to innovation, with sclerosis in public and private institutions. It will even become more unequal, as great fortunes are divided between ­ever smaller sets of heirs.

    painting of a toy truck full of marbles by Richard Hall, titled Lost My Marbles

    Richard Hall, Lost My Marbles

    These are just the immediately measurable effects of a dwindling population. They don’t include the other likely effects: the attenuation of social ties in a world with ever fewer siblings, uncles, cousins; the brittleness of a society where intergenerational bonds can be severed by a single feud or death; the unhappiness of young people in a society slouching toward gerontocracy; the growing isolation of the old.

    Families can be over-sentimentalized, imprisoning, exhausting. But they supply goods that few alternative arrangements can hope to match. No public program could have replaced the network of relatives that helped my grandfather live independently until his death – even if, yes, his five children, my mother and aunts and uncles, had often feuded with him and each other over the years. No classroom is likely to supply the ­education in living intimately with other human beings that my children gain from growing up together – even if the virtue of forbearance is not always perfectly manifest in their interactions.

    Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel, runs the Psalmist’s blessing. A society of plunging birthrates withdraws the first blessing, and compromises the second day by day.

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    But to identify these problems is to run into a question: Whose responsibility, exactly, is it to fix them? One reason that the healthcare system and the tax code come up at presidential debates is that both involve official choices about how to regulate and spend. But the government cannot conjure babies (yet), and fertility decisions belong to an intimate sphere that we rightly insulate from the reach of state coercion. And modern societies feel uncertain about whether they can even ask people to have kids, since that implies a moral obligation to have children.

    Such an obligation was assumed by most peoples in human history, but most peoples were not us: freed from patriarchal demands, liberated from economic systems in which an extra pair of hands is an automatic asset, proud of the opportunities available to women, too secular to accept “be fruitful and multiply” admonitions, and conscious that there are eight billions of us and counting on an earth whose environment is, put mildly, under strain.

    Still, even for a secular society it isn’t hard to generate a moral-obligation-to-procreate case. You can just play the utilitarian game: Society should seek the greatest good for the greatest number; there is no good so essential as existence, so society should be organized to maximize, within reason, the number of people that exist.

    I said within reason because that’s how even the most child-friendly parents tend to think. You have to go pretty deep into religious traditionalism to find people who don’t do anything to space their children, and put their childbearing exclusively in the hands of God. The rest of us, even the people who embody what a Washington Post journalist once called “smug fecundity,” tend to balance the number of kids they have against some other perceived good: not just health or the demands of some humanitarian vocation, but education, real estate, professional ambition. And, of course, the desire to someday get a little sleep.

    Small wooden dog pull toy

    But maybe this “reasonability” concession gives too much away. A famous rejoinder to the utilitarian case for more kids is that it leads to what the philosopher Derek Parfit termed the “Repugnant Conclusion” – namely, that so long as we consider existence itself a utilitarian trump card, we have to conclude that for “any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.”

    The supposed repugnance of this conclusion need not be conceded. The religious believer who regards suffering as freighted with potential moral purpose will have a very different reaction to a phrase like “barely worth living” than the typical secular utilitarian. The world of one hundred billion people who suffer tribulations might produce more saints; the world of ten billion people enjoying unparalleled hedonic pleasures might be under divine judgment.

    Yet in framing the choice to have more kids as something that we should favor only within reason, aren’t we tacitly embracing some version of Parfit’s thesis – in the sense that for ourselves, we assume that there exists some family size whose possible tribulations exceed the good of an extra human being’s existence? Aren’t even we, the relatively fertile, minimizing our obligation to children yet unborn?

    Perhaps medieval categories can help us. Perhaps we can say that the unique sacrifices required of parents – and let’s be clear that they’re required of women more than men – make the absolute case for children a counsel of perfection, a marital equivalent to the chastity and poverty and obedience demanded of members of consecrated life. The family that is open to new life unstintingly, eschewing not just contraception but any kid-spacing caution, is living a supererogatory life, going beyond the basic requirements of the moral law, in a way that we should admire without feeling condemned if we cannot do the same.

    Just how many kids would count as supererogatory under this moral theory is another question. Kid-spacing caution was invented long before the 1960s, but clearly people in the past wouldn’t have regarded four or five kids as some sort of heroic, saintly, half-mad effort.

    On the other hand, we shouldn’t overestimate the gulf between past and present either. People in many premodern societies married later than historical clichés suggest, and infant mortality rates meant that how many kids you bore was tragically different from how many kids you raised. Raising five children to adulthood would have been very normal in, say, seventeenth-century New England, but raising a Quiverfull-style dozen would have been exceptional even then.

    The goal should be to help more families have the kids they already say they want.

    Since my wife and I obviously did some spacing of our children, I’m aware that the decision to have only a “reasonable” number can be driven by all kinds of non-saintly, self-justifying considerations. But the idea of reasonability definitely influences how I think about persuading other people, my more secular neighbors especially, that more kids would be better. I don’t expect America to suddenly become filled with ten-kid families driving hulking vans. Rather, in a rich society with a plunging birthrate, the plausible goal should be to help more families have the kids they already say they want, meaning not six or eight or ten, but just one more – the kid who requires a new car seat and maybe a new SUV, the kid they feel like they might be able to afford, the kid you can feel pretty sure they won’t regret.

    So what keeps us from that one-extra-kid world? One answer is that too many people fear that the repugnant scenario is here already – that overpopulation and climate change will between them usher in a future of unparalleled misery.

    “Meet Allie, One of the Growing Number of People Not Having Kids because of Climate Change,” runs a recent NPR headline. Miley Cyrus recently declared her intention to refrain from procreating until somebody fixed the climate crisis: “I refuse to hand that down to my child.”

    I’m not sure I believe her, though. I know there are some people who are sincerely child-free because they fear the ecological impact of overpopulation. This strikes me as a deeply mistaken approach to the climate crisis – above all, because any long-term solution will require exactly the kind of human ingenuity that a stagnant gerontocracy will tend to smother. But I can concede that it has some coherence, some altruistic pull.

    painting of a toolbox full of wooden toys by Richard Hall, titled The Great Escape

    Richard Hall, The Great Escape

    Those I doubt are the people claiming that they’re refraining from having children for the kid’s sake, in a reversal of the argument for a moral obligation to have kids. Humankind has existed this long because people have borne children under radically difficult circumstances, amid famine, war, and misery on a scale we can’t imagine. Nothing in the potential life awaiting Miley Cyrus’s hypothetical daughter promises hardship remotely comparable to those ancestral burdens. And even if you think climate change will be truly apocalyptic, it’s no more threatening than the prospect of nuclear annihilation, which did nothing to prevent the last great Western baby boom.

    No: In most cases, invoking climate anxieties seems more like an excuse, a gesture to ideological fashion, than a compelling ­explanation of low fertility. There has to be a deeper cause.

    So let’s name three. First, romantic failure – not just in breakdowns like divorce, but in the alienation of the sexes from one another, the decline of the preliminary steps that lead to children, including not just marriage but sexual intercourse itself. Some combination of wider forces, the postindustrial economy and the sexual revolution and the identity-deforming aspects of the internet, are pushing the sexes ever more apart.

    Second, prosperity, in two ways. One, because a rich society offers more everyday pleasures that are hard to cast aside in the way that parenthood requires. (Nothing gave me more sympathy for the childless voluptuaries of a decadent Europe than the first six months of caring for our firstborn.) Two, because prosperity creates new competitive hierarchies, new standards for the “good life,” that status-conscious people respond to by delaying parenthood and having fewer kids.

    Finally, secularization – because even if it’s possible to come up with a utilitarian case for having kids, the older admonitions of Genesis appear to have the more powerful effect. The mass exceptions to low birthrates are almost always found among the devout, and the big fertility drop-offs in the United States correlate clearly with dips in religious identification.

    The first of these three causes comes latest in history: the alienation of the sexes is mostly a post-1970s phenomenon, and previously any trend had run the other way. (More American women were married in the 1950s than in the 1880s.) Wealth and secularization, on the other hand, come in together centuries back, and entangle in all kinds of complicated ways.

    In How the West Really Lost God, her provocative theory of secularization, Mary Eberstadt argues that the waning of the family led to declining religiosity rather than the other way around. Thus, for instance, the secularism of the Millennial generation might reflect their experience growing up as children of divorce, with weaker kinship networks leading to weaker ties to churches and other forms of communal life.

    But I suspect it’s wiser to see the whole process as a set of feedback loops: the rich society creates incentives to set aside faith’s admonitions, which orients its culture more toward immediate material pleasures, which makes its inhabitants less likely to have children, which weakens the communal transmission belt for religious traditions, which pushes the society further along the materialist-individualist path.…and at a certain point you end up, well, here, with unparalleled prosperity joined to seemingly irresistible demographic decline.

    So how might it be resisted? One answer is the kind of self-consciously reasonable vision I’ve already invoked – the push to just get back to replacement-level fertility, the push for one-extra-kid for families on the fence. The hope would be that the car-seat economists are right, and that simply by making family more affordable – reducing the cost of childcare or of a parent staying home, reducing the cost of education, reducing the cost of home buying, and so on – you can change both the immediate incentives and the cultural expectations around having kids.

    Even if you think climate change will be apocalyptic, it’s no more threatening than the prospect of nuclear annihilation, which did nothing to prevent the last great Western baby boom.

    The more it seems affordable to have a third or fourth child, in this hopeful theory, the more relaxed the whole culture might become – with less shaming of the fecund poor, less eyebrow-raising at large families in the upper middle class, and a lot more leniency for parents towing their broods on cross-country flights.

    The more you deliberately organize institutions around supporting families, the more children would seem like a complement to education and opportunity rather than a threat. And the more you take family formation seriously as a policy goal, the more you transcend certain fruitless culture wars, and move toward a world where more mothers work part-time or stay home while their kids are young and more fathers play the paternal role that made possible not just Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career, but Amy Coney Barrett’s as well.

    I have some hope in this vision, in part because I move back and forth between secular and Catholic worlds – from contexts where we’re an oversize family to contexts where we’re below-average wimps. And so far in the secular world I don’t see all that much of the judging and hostility that some parents of large families report. (Though maybe the judging only kicks in once you have five or six.) Instead, I see a certain amount of friendly admiration, joined in people older than us to a mild I wish we’d had three instead of two regret.

    Painting of wooden pull toy ducks by Richard Hall, titled Duck Crossing

    Richard Hall, Duck Crossing

    Meanwhile, from the strange worlds of mommy bloggers and Instagram influencers all the way up to the Duggars of TLC, our pop culture manifests at least as much fascination with large families as it does with overpopulation fears. Maybe this fascination is itself a symptom of ill-health, a weird voyeurism about something that should come naturally. But at the very least it’s an homage that sterility plays to fecundity, and a signifier that there are lots of people who might have more kids if their situation felt slightly different, if economic pressures changed and cultural expectations altered with them.

    Again, that’s what I’d like to believe can happen. But there are still times, many of them featuring the overwhelming exhaustion you feel at the end of a professional-parental day, I think that no, to get lots more people to sign up for this kind of lifestyle, you would need something more than a “parenting more than two kids: it’s more feasible than you think!” pitch. You would need our society to become dramatically unlike itself, ordered to sacrifice rather than consumption, and to eternity rather than what remains of the American Dream. You would need not change on the margins, but transformation – probably religious transformation – at the heart.

    Certainly you can see the possible limits of policy tweaks and cultural nudges in the experience of other countries. The rich society that fully acknowledges an obligation to the unconceived may not exist, but many societies, European and Asian, do much more to support parents than the United States. And their results are not overwhelming: at the margins, policy can encourage births, but usually that means going from 1.4 kids per woman to 1.55, or 1.7 to 1.8 – gains that are fragile and easily swamped, both by specific events (like the Great Recession or the coronavirus) and by larger trends like the continued retreat from marriage and intimacy.

    For the average sinner, life with children establishes at least some of the preconditions for growing in holiness.

    So perhaps a greater cultural change in what we want is needed, even for a goal as modest as a fertility rate that matches our professed desires. And this change might not actually start with (even if it would necessarily include) a renewed sense of obligation to generations yet unborn. Instead, it might start with what we the living want and seek out for ourselves.

    The libertarian economist Bryan Caplan once wrote a book called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, which falls mostly into the nudging sales-pitch category: it’s a list of reasons why having a big family is more compatible with normal late-modern ideas of fulfillment than many people think.

    The deepest reason to have more kids, though, is self-centered in a radically different way. It’s that if you don’t feel cut out for spiritual heroism, if you aren’t chaste or poor or particularly obedient, if you aren’t ready to be Mother Teresa – well, then having a bunch of kids is the form of life most likely to force you toward kenosis, self-emptying, the experience of what it means to live entirely for someone other than yourself.

    This can circle back to egotism, admittedly, for people who make idols of their children or practice a ruthless selfishness toward everyone outside the charmed circle of their household. Jesus called us to leave behind fathers and brothers for a reason: it’s still holier to be Francis of Assisi than a dad.

    For the average sinner, though, for me and maybe for you, life with children establishes at least some of the preconditions for growing in holiness, even if there’s always the risk of being redirected into tribal narcissism. If I didn’t have kids there’s a 5 percent chance that I’d be doing something more radical in pursuit of sainthood; there’s a 95 percent chance that I’d just be a more persistent sinner, a more selfish person, because no squalling infant or tearful nine-year-old is there to force me to live for her and not myself.

    But the idea of parenthood as enforced kenosis is very different from the idea that having more kids is swell and good and all-American. The large family as a spiritual discipline, children as a life hack that might crack the door of heaven – if that’s the worldview required to make our society capable of reproducing itself again, then we’re waiting not for child tax credits, better work-life balance, or more lenient car-seat laws, but for a radical conversion of our hardened modern hearts.

    Contributed By Ross Douthat Ross Douthat

    Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times and the author of several books, most recently The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (Simon & Schuster, 2020).

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