Friday, May 2, 2008

Reasons for having a baby?

"Next time you come back, we want to see 3 of you!". In one of the many different variants, my wife and I have heard this message repeated many times lately. A recent visit to my hometown was sure to bring it up, but hints (or even explicit requests) have been raining on us from all sides. Normally, this wouldn't matter one bit, except that I've often caught this thought in my mind of its own accord. Not to mention that I find myself powerfully moved by images of dads carrying little kids on their shoulders, or teaching how to ride a bike or build a paper airplane. Yet, I had not, so far, pondered on the decision itself: that is, how/why people decide to have children.

It is not a trivial question. The availability of birth control doesn't only mean we can choose not to have children when we'd rather not. It also forces us to choose whether to have them and when. That freedom brings the burden of making a momentous choice. The costs of the choice to have kids are immediately apparent. Granted, there are advantages too, as there are costs (mostly social) to not having kids. But unlike the decision to live as a couple - with easily shown gains in personal satisfaction, finances and even life expectancy - the cost/benefit effect of children is not so immediately clear.

Not wanting to rely on the limited (and biased) pool of my friends and family for reasons, I turned to that repository of common consciousness called internet for reasons to choose (or not) to have a baby. Results (with Google):

  • The search "reasons to have children" returned 43,700 hits, some of which certainly spurious (e.g. "wrong reasons to have children"). The search "reasons not to have children" (plus a related variant) returned 16,210 hits (73% in favor 27% against). This reflects the attitudes of English-speakers, demographically dominated by Americans (fertility rate: 2.1 children/woman).

  • The same search in Italian - Italy has a notoriously low fertility rate, 1.3/woman - yielded 315 pages of reasons to and 899 pages with reasons not to (26% in favor 74% against).

  • In French (France, 1.98/woman), it brought up 3,800 pages for and 6,090 pages against (38% in favor 62% against). To the latter, a recent contentious book published there (No Kids: 40 reasons not to have children), by Corinne Maier (a mother of two), certainly contributed, through book reviews etc.

  • The German language (Germany/Austria/Switzerland about 1.4/woman) provided a paltry 5 pages for and 422 against (1% in favor 99% against), though I suspect translation issues in my search, and the effects of the debate on Maier's book.

  • In BokmÃ¥l Norwegian (Norway 1.9/woman), 7 pages for and 4 against (64% in favor 36% against), unlike much of Western Europe. From what I observed, Scandinavian (esp. Norwegian) parents take even infants anywhere, however rough or unsafe it may look to parents of other cultures. They also receive generous government help to raise kids.

  • A Spanish search (Spain 1.3/woman; Mexico and others don't contribute to internet autorship representatively to their population) came up with 902 pages for and 3220 not to (22% in favor 78% against).

We'll stop here. Clearly, the different natality rates & attitudes towards children on the two sides of the Atlantic are reflected here. The search in other parts of the world might have been interesting, but is limited by a combination of my personal language barriers (e.g. Russia, Japan), government censorship/propaganda (e.g. China), or minuscule and unrepresentative number of internet users (rest of the world).

The listed reasons for having or not having children, by and large, all fall within the same categories everywhere in the developed world:

Reasons to have children:

Fulfulling: Natural inclination, companionship, personal growth, desire of immortality, personal or global hopes, entertainment, excitement, pride in children's accomplishments, strengthening of couplehood, religious prescriptions
Avoiding: Social pressure

Reasons not to have children:

Fulfilling: Specific philosophical stances (ecological, existentialist, etc.), different life goals (monk, daredevil, etc.)
Avoiding: Loss of disposable income and time, career hindrance, strain on couplehood, pregnancy and labour, lifetime of responsibility/anxiety, generational conflicts, unpleasant tasks (diapers!), disappointment, health concerns

The two categories with the fewest items must not be looked at dismissively. Clearly, societies need people to have children much as our bodies need new blood cells to be continuously produced, so we all participate in creating this social pressure in obvious or subtle ways. And, in turn, we must consider it, to the extent we don't think of ourselves simply as isolated individuals. Just as clearly, some choices of world view and lifestyle are utterly incompatible with (responsible) parenthood. Beyond these unquestionable motivations, however, reasons to have children have primarily to do with growth and fulfillment. Reasons not to have children are primarily concerned with avoiding change and suffering.
There, distilled in one line, lies the nature of the choice. Lest anyone rushes ahead to pass a judgment by reading this, consider that this is, in its essence, the same all-important choice debated by Hamlet:

"To be or not to be: that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?"

It is a question that I don't believe can be answered by Reason, and it's ultimately anyone's to ask and respond to. Frankly, when it comes to making our own decision on a baby, I doubt anything above will matter much. But there's one more item to consider that perhaps has a lot to say about human nature. When asked if they'd do it again, almost without exception (Corinne Maier apparently is one), parents answer much like the woman who cut my hair a few weeks ago: "Your life will change forever. But you'll never want to go back!". I happen to know of another activity that brings similarly unregretful responses despite its hardships: mountain climbing. And exactly why do we climb a mountain (or explore space, or decide to have a baby)? "Because it's there" (G.L. Mallory, 1923). That's it, really. Whether foolish or profound a reason, that's up to you to decide.