I’m really not sure why I had children, except that I was supposed to. I wanted someone to love me, and I wanted to love in return, but I didn’t think about it much beyond that.
Fifty years ago, that would have been true for just about everybody. Today it’s not. More and more people are choosing to remain childless (and more are childless not by choice, but that’s another story). Our birth rate now hovers around 1.6, far below the replacement level needed of 2.1. And it’s not because families are getting smaller; it’s because more people, even those in committed relationships, are choosing not to have families at all.
While for an individual couple this may be the best choice, for a society it certainly isn’t. If we want Canada as a nation and a culture to survive, we need a higher birth rate. So why is it plummeting?
I read recently on Steve Janke’s blog the proposition that it’s because children no longer have value. Before you jump all over me, let me elaborate. At one point, Janke explained, children were your retirement savings plan and your health insurance. They took care of you if you were old or sick. Once the government stepped in into these roles, we didn’t “need” children in the same practical way we did before.
I would even go one step further and say that in those glorious “olden days” when people walked to school uphill both ways, children would have added economically to your household. They were expected to help on the farm or the business. Having children enabled you to have a larger house, a larger farm, and generally prosper more than you would have otherwise. Today it’s the opposite. Children don’t add; they subtract. We live in a child-centred world where it is us who are expected to work: we must drive our kids to lessons; sacrifice time to help them with homework; save a fortune for their education. When we have kids, we have more work, not less work.
And so I think there’s something else going on. If you’re a young adult surveying the parental scene, you see harried parents chronically short on cash because hockey costs so much this year. You see them tying themselves in knots because their toddler won’t sleep through the night, their seven-year-old can’t read, or their teenager has gotten into the wrong crowd. It looks like a recipe for an ulcer.
The one thing you can’t see is what’s going on inside those parents. You don’t see what happens in the heart the first time you hold your baby. You can’t see what being a parent does to you; how it makes you love life so much more, care about the world so much more, or brings a richness to your life you never believed possible. I am not saying that non-parents can’t experience love; only that being a parent is a joy like no other, and cannot truly be comprehended until one experiences it.
In the old days there were enough societal and economic pressures to have children that people tended to make that choice, and so they did experience that joy. Today, with those pressures gone, how many will decide not to procreate, and in so doing lose the joy that we only realize once we’ve already taken the plunge?
At one point parenthood was one of the experiences that we all had in common. We had all gone through labour in some form or another, or stayed up all night with a child with croup, or kissed a boo-boo. Even if language or religion or culture or class separated us, we were all parents. When we lose these shared experiences we lose a shared culture. Parenting is hard work, and it requires more sacrifice today, perhaps, than it did a century ago. But it is still worth it. I know some will always choose to remain childless, and that’s okay. But I hope our country as a whole does not turn its back on parenthood. Babies are our future, and they really are irreplaceable.