If you were to enter any of the Sunday Masses at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Front Royal, Virginia, you might be stunned, as I once was, by all the wriggling bodies—and I don’t mean liturgical dancers.
Here in this parish, more traditional than many of their counterparts around the country, large families—five, six, seven children—are the norm, and every other pew sports at least one baby. Just last week, I watched the family seated in front of me pass a fussing infant from one set of arms to another. Finally, Mom took the baby and the toddler to the vestibule while Dad and his teenager daughter maintained crowd control over three restless boys.
In today’s culture, of course, such large families are very much the exception.
In 2018, birth rates in the United States once again declined, this time to a level not seen in over 30 years. Figures vary, depending on which source we examine, but, in 2018, there were 1.72 children per woman in America. Experts usually tell us that 2.1 children per woman are necessary simply to replace the existing population. This decline in U.S. birth rates isn’t new, but has attracted media attention in the past two years because the decline was steeper than usual.
Other countries face even more precipitous changes. The populations of Japan (1.478 children per woman), Spain (1.391 children per woman), Italy (1.491 children per woman), Poland (1.29 children per woman), and other countries are already facing the dire circumstance where those who die outnumber those being born. Japan, for example, has already entered an accelerated fall in population.
Demographic experts usually blame the economy for shrinking birth rates. Certainly, rough financial times may dissuade couples from having more than one child, or keep them from having any at all, but something about the economic argument doesn’t quite work. In both good times and bad, birth rates in countries such as the United States and Japan have continued to fall over the last 50 years.
In an interview conducted by Rachel Rettner of LiveScience.com, Karen Guzzo, associate director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green University, credits the economy for some of the drop in the number of babies born, but also adds that for today’s young people, “it takes longer to feel like you’re a grown-up.”
Guzzo makes a good point. Increasingly, young people marry at a later age than did their predecessors, and that marriage rate, like the rate of reproduction, has also declined in the past 40 years.
But perhaps the best explanation for what Ben Wattenberg famously called “the birth dearth” lies with the shifts in our culture since the 1960s. The Pill and legalized abortion either prevent pregnancies or keep them from coming to term. Along with these changes came feminism, which has strayed from its original interests in equality between the sexes to lauding professional women and decrying stay-at-home mothers. For decades now, some radical feminists have also attacked men as oppressors, mothers as “breeders,” the family as bourgeois, and homemakers as slaves.
All of these factors have helped create a large group of young women who are focused more on themselves, their own dreams and ambitions, than on any desire to make a family. In her online article, “5 Real Millennial Women on Why They’re Not Sure They Want Kids,” Leigh Weingaus communicated with women of childbearing age who gave a variety of reasons for not having children. Though the number of women to whom she spoke is obviously quite small, I suspect they voice the opinions of many contemporaries. One woman preferred “to focus on work instead of family,” another wanted “to be free to devote immense time and energy to my career and volunteer work,” and a third stated she “would consider adoption before having her own kids.” One of these women attributed her disinterest in motherhood to overpopulation and its impact on the environment.
While it’s true that fewer people might use less of the earth’s resources, a decline in population also has negative ramifications. It is, for instance, already placing a heavy yoke on U.S. workers in terms of caring for the elderly. In “How Many Workers Support One Social Security Retiree?” senior research associate Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University estimates that by 2030, only two workers will support that retiree. As the numbers of workers go down, and the numbers of retirees go up, the Social Security system will eventually become unsustainable.
To encourage families—to encourage women to become mothers—means promoting marriage and motherhood, yet these traditional institutions have suffered attacks on fronts, ranging from government welfare services to negative depictions, primarily of fathers, in our movies.
In “Is Motherhood Falling Out of Fashion?” Annie Holmquist, editor of Intellectual Takeout, applauds the motherly instincts of the teacher Miss Temple in “Jane Eyre,” but then wonders whether those instincts are disappearing from our society. She concludes with these words:
“Today’s headlines suggest that many are increasingly worried about the fertility decline. If we are to fix this, do we need more young women with motherly desires and tendencies like Miss Temple? And in order to gain those young women, do we first need to convince them that motherhood is a worthy and noble vocation, not eclipsed by one rewarded by paycheck and prestige?”
So what can we do?
Since the time of Augustus, the emperor who tried to encourage upper-class Roman families to bring more children into the world by rewarding those who did so, most attempts by governments to encourage childbearing have failed. Recently, the government of baby-poor Poland declared that stay-at-home mothers of four or more children would receive pensions. We’ll see whether that policy entices Polish women to have more children.
In America, we find little official effort to encourage either marriage or motherhood.
Like the experts, I am at a loss as to how to encourage motherhood and more children.
But here’s one thing we can all do, especially if we hope to collect Social Security someday.
The next time we see some mom struggling with four children in the checkout line at the grocery store, instead of making some comment like “Are those all yours?” we might just say, “What beautiful children.”
We might even offer that mom a thank you.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, North Carolina. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.