Rev. DeVries is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Wingham, Ontario, Canada.
Life Without Children
This is the title of a shocking essay by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead for the 2006 “The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America” report. For those who view children as “an heritage of the LORD,” read and weep:
Being a parent has never been easy but today it is a source of growing distress and a rising chorus of complaint. Increasingly, Americans see the years spent in active child rearing as a grueling experience, imposing financial burdens, onerous responsibilities, emotional stress, and strains, on marital happiness. The cri de coeur is loudest among the most privileged. For upscale parents, it seems, every step of parenthood, from getting pregnant to choosing the right childbirth method to getting the kids into a nursery school to managing the Herculean task of college applications, is fraught with difficulty, anxiety and a growing sense of isolation from the adult mainstream.
A slew of books and magazine articles by journalists—who also happen to be well-educated, privileged mothers—has given rise to this outcry. But evidence suggests that this view is not limited to this relatively small but influential group. In survey after survey, American parents report lower levels of happiness compared to nonparents. Troublingly, too, married couples now see children as an obstacle to their marital happiness….
Yet this does not mean that younger Americans are rejecting parenthood altogether. Most Americans are, or will become, parents. Most women still want to have at least one child and, ideally, two. In fact 68 percent of Gen X women today are likely to say that having a child is an experience every woman should have compared to just 45 percent of baby boom women in 1979. So strong is the desire for children that some couples endure grueling fertility treatments in order to have a child.
Still, for those who want children, there’s a sense of trepidation about entering the child-rearing years: parenthood, they’re reminded, can be a rough ride. Today’s parents are stressed and depressed; mommy wars are breaking out all over; and motherhood itself is losing its luster. Why? What is happening to the joys of parenthood?
The answer lies in a recent and dramatic change in the adult life course. For most of the nation’s history, Americans expected to devote much of their life and work to the rearing of children. Life with children was central to marriage and family life, to norms of adulthood, and to an adult sense of purpose. Today, however, child rearing occupies a smaller share of Americans lives. An ever-diminishing proportion of the entire adult life course is devoted to the nurture and care of minor children.
At the same time, the nonchild- rearing years have been increasing as a share of the expected life course. These years were once considered transitional periods at the entry and exit points of working adult life. Today, however, the expanding no-child-rearing years have become life stages in their own right. Moreover, these years have been invested with positive meaning and purpose. Against the pressures and responsibilities of life with children, the “child-free” stages hold out the alluring prospect of fun, freedom and fulfillment.
The Expanding Years Before Children
Within living memory, it was typical for an American woman to bear a first child shortly after her teen years. Oftentimes, she would then give birth to one or more additional children and, by the time the youngest child reached an age to leave home, the mother was well into what was then regarded as middle age.
Accordingly, the number of her adult years that were occupied by the rearing of minor children could equal or even exceed the number of her adult years that fell either before or after her childrearing years. But this life course pattern no longer holds. For women who become mothers today, the child-free share of adulthood is longer than it used to be, and the child-rearing share is correspondingly shorter.
Women now postpone marriage and/or motherhood in order to get more years of schooling and work experience before they settle into married life. In 1970, for example, the median age of first marriage for women was not quite 21. Since then the age of first marriage has risen to just short of 26. For women who hold a four-year college degree, the age of first marriage is even higher.
After marriage, moreover, women wait longer before they bear their first child. In 1960, 71 percent of married women had a first birth within the first three years of marriage. By 1990, the percentage had fallen to 37. Thus, after marriage, couples spend a great number of child-free years before they have their first child….
The Expanding Years After Children
Women are also completing their child-rearing years earlier in their expected life course. Thus, just as there has been a decline in the child-rearing share of women in their late 20s, there has also been a decline in the child-rearing share of women in their early 50s. In 1970, 27.4 percent of women, ages 50-54, had at least one minor child of their own in the household. In 2000, that percentage had fallen to 15.4.
One reason is lower fertility. Mothers today are likely to have fewer children than in the past. If a woman had three children spaced three years apart, she would have minor children in the household for 24 years. If she has one child or, as is becoming more common, twins, she will have a minor child or children in the household for 18 years. Consequently, fewer children mean fewer years of child rearing.
Another reason is the extension of adult life expectancy. The end of child-rearing years used to occur close to the end of life itself. And that was true only when parents in the past enjoyed what was considered a long life. Many parents didn’t live long enough to see all their children reach adulthood….
The Rise of Two New “Child-Free” Life Stages
Until very recently, the adult life course was thought to consist of two stages: parenthood and old age. Parenthood dominated the larger share of one’s adult life. Old age occupied the lesser share. The years surrounding these two stages were transitional. Life before children was a brief time between the end of formal schooling and the beginning of marriage and family life. Likewise, life after children marked the end of productive adulthood and the beginning of a descent into enfeebled old age….
All of this has changed dramatically. The years of life before and after children are no longer transitional. They represent two distinct and separate stages in the adult life course. Moreover, individuals in the non-child-rearing life stages are highly visible, influential and prized as workers and consumers.
Childless young adults, for example, are exceedingly well suited to life and work in a dynamic society and global economy. They display great facility and comfort with new technologies. Their youthful penchant for experiment, risk-taking, adventure, along with their sheer physical energy, fit the requirements of the 24/7 work world. One of their most desirable attributes is that they are not tied down by child-rearing obligations. They can pick up and move. They can work odd hours and go on the road. They can quit their jobs without worrying about having more than one hungry mouth to feed.
As consumers, too, young adults who do not yet have children represent a highly desirable market segment. A growing proportion of today’s well-educated young adults step into high paying jobs shortly after they finish their education. They may have college loans to pay off, but their financial obligations are theirs alone. They aren’t yet responsible for others. And their pay-checks and credit cards are stretched to include more than bare necessities. They eat out, go drinking, take vacations, get big screen TVs, join health clubs and buy tickets to sports events and concerts. Even the less well-educated and less well-employed spend money on affordable luxuries for themselves— one reason for the astonishing growth and success of Starbucks….
Finally, the sex lives of the young and old have been liberated from the traditional association with marriage and children. Sex is now part of the fun and freedom of the early adult years before children. Similarly, sex has become part of the pleasures of life after children. Many of today’s parents are entering the empty nest years with subscriptions to Match.com, prescriptions for Viagra and hopes for hot new romances.
What the two new life stages have in common is a focus on the self. This does not mean that adults in the non-child-rearing years are selfish. But it does mean that their lives, by necessity as well as by choice, are oriented to self-improvement and self-investment. Indeed, the cultural injunction for the childless young and the childfree old is to “take care of yourself.”…
Parents have always had the primary responsibility for taking care of their children’s needs. What is new is that those needs are greater today. In a dynamic society and global economy, the task of nurturing, guiding and preparing children for flourishing adult lives requires higher investments of parental money, time and attention than ever before.
Take the most basic needs for food, shelter and schooling. According to the latest estimates from the Department of Agriculture, it will cost $237,000 for a family with an average income of $57,400 to feed, clothe, house, and educate one child from birth to age 17. But this estimate, like the three-month summer school vacation, is pegged to an increasingly obsolete way of life. It excludes one of the biggest and increasingly most essential child-rearing costs—a college education. And the cost of college is increasing at more than double the rate of inflation….
Even if parents ignore, or are unaware of, these eye-popping numbers, they can scarcely miss the insistent message that comes to them through the media: namely, children are budget-busters. The financial service industry urges parents of newborns to start investing in a college fund. The auto industry tells parents they need to buy bigger, safer, and more expensive cars. The toy industry reminds parents that they should purchase games and gadgets that will increase their child’s school performance. The travel industry underscores the necessity of a Disneyland vacation….
For many parents today, therefore, the costs of child rearing mean more debt, smaller retirement savings, and greater exposure to economic risks and uncertainties than they would otherwise have. Indeed, if adults cared only about their material comfort, they would be crazy to have children when they could have a more lavish life without children. “Without the multimillion- dollar liability of children,” writes journalist Philip Longman, “even young couples of comparatively modest means can often afford big-ticket luxury items. These might include a fair-sized McMansion, two BMWs, and regular vacations to the Caribbean, all of which could easily cost less than raising 2.1 children.”
There are also psychological costs to child rearing—especially for highly educated women who postpone childbearing until older ages. Victorian brides were shocked by their first experience of sex. Contemporary wives are shocked by their first experience of motherhood. For them, motherhood represents a radical change in the kind of life that they have led during their early adult life and have come to accept as the norm. From the time they are born until the time they give birth, they follow a prolonged and heavily mentored educational path that prepares them for future adult lives of economic self-sufficiency and social independence. This life path has been brilliantly effective in boosting women into the college ranks and then into the professional or managerial workforce. It has also prepared them for stable marriages by situating them within social networks that increase their chances of marrying someone of similar educational achievement and economic potential. What it has not done, however, is prepare them for the experience of motherhood.
Before motherhood, educated women spend their adult lives very much like educated men. They have absorbing work and personal freedom. Like many men, they identify their self-worth with their on-the-job performance. They depend on the pay-and-promotion recognition that provides a tangible measure of their value as workers. Outside of work, they spend their time in ways that are personally satisfying and intellectually fulfilling. They “own” their time and their life.
Motherhood is an abrupt departure from this pattern. Their time and life are no longer their own. They can’t just pick up and go wherever and whenever they want. Everything that once seemed so easy to do on their own now requires advance planning, lining up a babysitter, checking in at home while you’re out, and famously, feeling guilty about the time spent away from children and spouse. Most of all, they lose the kind of recognition and rewards for outstanding performance that they have come to expect in their work lives. No one gives them a bonus or even a pat on the back for sitting up all night with a sick child or playing peeka- boo and patty-cake with toddlers all day….
The Cultural Devaluation of Child-Rearing
In American society, there is a popular tradition of paying tribute to the work and sacrifice of parents—and especially the steadfast heroism of American mothers. This tradition is waning. Indeed, if the popular culture were the only source of knowledge about American parenthood, one would quickly conclude that being a parent is one of the least esteemed and most undesirable roles in the society. From the newsstands to the blogosphere, reports of parents behaving badly abound….
Television has long made fun of fathers. Now, in a dramatic departure from television tradition, it has turned to ridiculing mothers. The Unfit Mom has become a reality show staple. In the shows Nanny 911 and Supernanny, mothers can’t get their kids to eat, go to bed, or pick up their toys….
The unappealing image of life with children is all the more striking when it is contrasted with the appealing image of life before children. Television shows like Friends and Sex and the City have sexualized and glamorized the life of young urban singles. The characters in these hugely popular shows hang out with friends, hook up for sex, and spend enormous amounts of free time in restaurants, clubs, and coffee bars….
Of course, the media images of the non-child-rearing years do not accurately describe the real life experience of most American adults. Life without children is rarely as sexy or liberating as the popular portraits suggest. Nonetheless, fantasy can be more powerful than reality in shaping cultural aspirations. And in this case, the fantasy is revealing: in what is a major cultural shift, the childfree years are portrayed as more attractive, even superior to, the child-rearing years.
We are in the midst of a profound change in American life. Demographically, socially and culturally, the nation is shifting from a society of child-rearing families to a society of child-free adults. The percentage of households with children has declined from half of all households in 1960 to less than one-third today—the lowest percentage in the nation’s history. Indeed, if the twentieth century aspired to become the “century of the child,” the twentyfirst may well become the century of the child-free….
The cultural devaluation of child rearing is especially harmful in the American context. In other advanced western societies, parents’ contributions are recognized and compensated with tangible work and family benefits. In American society, the form of compensation has been mainly cultural. Parents have been rewarded (many would argue inadequately) for the unpaid work of caring for children with respect, support and recognition from the larger society. Now this cultural compensation is disappearing. Indeed, in recent years, the entire child-rearing enterprise has been subject to a ruthless debunking. Most notably, the choice of motherhood is now contested terrain, with some critics arguing that the tasks of mothering are unworthy of educated women’s time and talents. Along with the critique of parenthood, a small but aggressively vocal “childfree” movement is organizing to represent the interests of nonparents.
It is hard enough to rear children in a society that is organized to support that essential social task. Consider how much more difficult it becomes when a society is indifferent at best, and hostile, at worst, to those who are caring for the next generation.
Horrific! Yet, in many respects, no surprise. The entire essay is well worth reading; it is well documented, replete with footnotes. Check it out at: http://marriage. rutgers.edu/Publications/Print/ PrintSOOU2006.htm
The question is: to what extent have we been sucked into this culture of childlessness? To what extent have we come under the influences and the pressures of the carnal, self-centered spirit of this age? Much more than we like to admit.
May God be merciful! And gracious unto those couples who desire to bear children.
But, do we still sing: “Joyful children, sons and daughters, Shall about thy table meet, Olive plants in strength and beauty, Full of hope and promise sweet”? Then let us continue to live it!! Let us bring forth the covenant generations till Christ returns. Be not deceived! Children are the heritage of Jehovah, our covenant-keeping God.