Having children is no longer a given, and modern would-be parents should weigh all the pros and cons before starting a family
Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Monday, Sept. 17, 2012
by Kristen J. Tsetsi
It used to be that many people had children without giving it much thought because “that’s what people do,” but Laura Carroll, author of The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World, says that’s becoming an attitude of the past.
Today she sees evidence that more people experience a period of ambivalence before having children, and she sees fewer people who “have always known they want children.”
“Ambivalence is a sign that it’s getting more acceptable to entertain the possibility of not following the social and cultural norms surrounding parenthood we have had for so long that aren’t necessarily based on what is true,” Carroll says.
Those norms, she explains, stem from “pronatalist” beliefs, or the idea that parenthood and children should be life’s central focus and something to be revered. Throughout history, she says, a value on fertility was necessary to ensure survival, but because reproduction came with risks to women it was necessary to create myths to exalt motherhood and persuade people to have multiple babies.
“According to sociologist E.E. LeMasters, when a social role like motherhood and fatherhood is difficult, a romantic myth needs to surround it to keep it in its most positive light. And, historically, this is exactly what happened,” she says.
It wasn’t until more men and women elected to live “childfree” that people began questioning what she calls the “pronatalist assumptions”: that it is our destiny to reproduce; that there is something wrong with those who don’t want children; that parenthood leads to ultimate fulfillment; that the purpose of marriage is to procreate; that parenthood is a privileged right; and that one should have children to create a support system for old age.
While explanations vary widely, from financial concerns in a tough economy to marriage later in life to the realization that having children isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion, the fact is that many Americans are putting off having children, and more are electing not to have them at all. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, births in 2011 were lower than they’d been in 12 years, and demographic trends compiled by the Pew Research Center show that “births to women age 35 and older grew by 64 percent between 1990 and 2008.”
According to Carroll, adults who weigh the pros and cons before having children are taking a positive step toward making the right decision for themselves. However, those who have children because they are succumbing to pressure can end up having them for the wrong reasons, “and when they really don’t want them, it can result in unfit parenting, from struggling to provide for their children, to being emotionally or physically abused, to being neglected or even abandoned,” she says.
Neglect accounted for the highest percentage of abuse inflicted on US Children in 2010 at 78 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical abuse came in second at 17.6 percent.
The same report shows that in 2010, more than five children per day died in the US from abuse or neglect, 80 percent of whom were under the age of four. Additionally, abuse occurred (and continues to occur) “at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education,” the report says.
And according to the National Institutes of Health, “unplanned childbearing increases the risk of child abuse.”
“There is great danger in bringing children into the world on impulse,” says West Hartford clinical social worker Marcia Brubeck. “The responsibilities of parenthood should not be undertaken casually. Once the child is born, there is no going back.”
Brubeck advises anyone considering having children to carefully weigh the long- and short-term financial costs of parenthood, the ability to commit the time and energy a child will need, and the environment the child will be entering.
“Children require more than food, clothing and shelter,” she says. “They demand unconditional love, flexibility, and patience from adults.”
Mary Grace Peak, 35, had her first child at 32 following years of careful planning. An assistant to the Commissioner of the CT Department of Agriculture and blogger on the website CTWorkingmoms.com, Peak and her husband had been together for four years, married for two, before they decided it was time to have a baby.
“We felt content and settled in our work life, and we knew that it was important that we would be financially able to take care of her,” she says.
But they also wanted to have a stable relationship to bring a baby into.
“You have to be really good friends, because it’s a bumpy road ahead. And you have to know that you’re in it together.”
Challenges on the bumpy road include ironing out parental roles and duties, figuring out how to balance differences in parenting styles (Peak is a worrier, and her husband, Matt, is more laid back, she says), realizing there’s no such thing as a simple trip to the store, and making important decisions — healthcare, daycare, babysitter, food, allergies — every single day.
“Life is certainly not simple, anymore. It gets complicated,” she says. “If you’re someone who’s fiercely independent and needs to have time to themselves, that’s kind of hard to come by until they’re off to college. I never really anticipated that it would be constant, but you’re on all the time. They say that having a child changes you, and it’s not a cliché, it’s true. And it does in a tangible way, because their life is in your hands.”
Not only physically, but emotionally and psychologically. Trauma — from neglect, inconsistency in care, or other developmentally disruptive treatment — can imprint on the brain before language, making it difficult to later treat some injuries suffered very early in life, Brubeck says. She stresses that anyone thinking of conceiving should take a long, hard look at what it means to “take care of a helpless infant.”
ARE YOU READY FOR KIDS?
Questions social worker Marcia Brubeck recommends would-be parents ask before conceiving:
- Why do I/we want children? “So many have them for the wrong reasons, ‘I want someone to always love me’ being one of them,” she says.
- What will the costs be?
- How will the household need to change?
- How much patience do I have?
- Am I a good listener?
- Do I know how to condemn bad behavior and still unconditionally love?
- Can I meet my own needs and still be a good role model and responsible parent?