The past 21⁄2 years haven’t been easy for parents: We’ve been faced with a global pandemic and had every support structure ripped out from under us. Millions lost the child care and support provided by grandparents as they isolated to stay safe from a virus that was especially dangerous for the elderly. Schools and day cares closed, practically overnight, leaving parents to work full time while caring for their kids. Even now, parents are grappling with formula shortages and short-staffed day care centers that have been forced to close.
These issues, atop a host of others, have led to writers like Anna North to proclaim that millions of Americans are “terrified” of having children. As North wrote last week for Vox:
Say you give birth to a baby in America today.
First you have to figure out how to feed it: Hopefully you can breastfeed, because the country’s infant formula shortage is getting worse, with families driving hundreds of miles or paying hundreds of dollars just to get their children the nutrition they need.
Then you have to take care of it — and good luck with that, since the U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world without paid parental leave. Also, child care costs more than college in many states, if you can even find a provider — more than half of Americans live in child care deserts, where there are more than three kids for every spot in day care.
Once your kid turns 5, though, at least they can go to school … where they have to endure “active shooter drills” in case what happened in Uvalde or Sandy Hook or Parkland happens at their school, too.
Then, of course, there’s the pandemic, climate change and increasing maternal mortality, particularly among Black and Indigenous Americans.
These are prevailing concerns for many apparently, with Ezra Klein writing in The New York Times recently, “Over the past few years, I’ve been asked one question more than any other. It comes up at speeches, at dinners, in conversation. It’s the most popular query when I open my podcast to suggestions, time and again. It comes in two forms. The first: Should I have kids, given the climate crisis they will face? The second: Should I have kids, knowing they will contribute to the climate crisis the world faces?”
It’s not an easy time to have kids, but has it ever been? Maybe there have been pockets of times when life seemed more laid back and there was more social support, but parenting has never been a job for the faint of heart.
In 2022, we have luxuries our ancestors could never dream of: modern medicine, washing machines, supermarkets (usually) well-stocked with diapers and food, child-proofing gadgets for every danger you can imagine. In countless ways, things are easier for parents today than they have ever been. Nor are today’s parents and would-be parents in America having to raise children in the violence and aftermath of war as their grandparents and great-grandparents did.
But even that has not been a reason to not have children in generations past.
The website of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel, explained what conditions looked like in displaced-persons camps in Europe immediately after the Holocaust: “The birth rate in the camps was among the highest in the world at that time. In Bergen-Belsen alone, 555 babies were born in 1946.”
The articles goes on to say, “The growing rates of pregnancies and births expressed a deep-seated Jewish need; it was as if a child was the personal contribution of each survivor to the continued existence of the Jewish people.”
Yad Vashem quoted a survivor of a labor camp, Eliezer Adler, who explained what drove the births: “The desire for life overcame everything — in spite of everything I am alive, and even living with intensity. When I look back today on those three years in Germany I am amazed. We took children and turned them into human beings, we published a newspaper; we breathed life into those bones.”
Life will always come with hardship and unpredictability. We can never know what the coming years and decades will bring; having children has always and will always be a leap of faith. It’s a leap that our ancestors made because of their love of life. The loss of that love is the tragedy behind our plummeting birthrates.
At the Washington Examiner, columnist Tim Carney calls this “civilizational sadness.” He wrote recently, “Climate change isn’t quite an ‘excuse’ for those not having children. Climate change is instead a totem of dread, which is a cover story for guilt, which is rooted in sadness — a belief that we aren’t good, so why should we have more of us?”
As policy debates continue about how to best support families, and we discuss what’s really driving falling birthrates, we need to analyze the unspoken reasons behind the large numbers of those of childbearing age declining to become parents. Our “civilizational sadness” manifests itself in numerous ways, including the breakdown of the nuclear family and skyrocketing addiction and suicide rates, in addition to mass shootings like those recently in the news.
It’s important to recognize this deep-seated sadness as a contributing factor in all of these societal ills. This is something that policy prescriptions can’t fix; it requires self-reflection. Meanwhile, the exuberant hope expressed by Holocaust survivors eager to start families even while living in displacement camps should inspire those who despair of tough circumstances today.
To quote Adler again, “People got married; they would take a hut and divide it into ten tiny rooms for ten couples. ... The great reckoning with the Holocaust? Who bothered about that ... you knew the reality, you knew you had no family, that you were alone, that you had to do something. You were busy doing things.”
Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”