How Liberals Talk About Children

When Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2srcsrc2, I was twenty-two and deep in one of those unfortunate periods during which a young writer wants to be serious but doesn’t quite know what that means. The young writer may, in such a phase, try to have strong, and usually negative, opinions about

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When Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2srcsrc2, I was twenty-two and deep in one of those unfortunate periods during which a young writer wants to be serious but doesn’t quite know what that means. The young writer may, in such a phase, try to have strong, and usually negative, opinions about big prizewinners, aligning himself instead with more overlooked authors. But, when a new translation of Kertész’s “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” was published a couple of years later, I picked it up. The narrator of the book, a novella-length lament, is a Holocaust survivor, as Kertész was. The prose is manic and unpleasant, like a raw and unedited rant; I found it both galling and thrilling. Even after years had passed, I couldn’t shake its central question: should we bring children into a violent, genocidal world? The book answers with a famous repeating line: “No!”

The question, I admit, was an abstraction—a philosophical debate that I found interesting to consider but that I didn’t apply, in any serious way, to my own life. Later, and in much the same way, I followed debates about anti-natalism spurred by the work of the South African philosopher David Benatar, who argues, in a seeming perversion of Buddhist thought, that it is immoral to have children because so much of life is suffering. Then, when the timing felt right, my wife and I had our first child. Six years later, we decided to have a second. We liked the idea of giving our daughter a sibling.

These weren’t decisions based on a lot of rational calculation. We did factor in whether we could afford to have children, but even those considerations felt a bit post hoc—if we hadn’t been able to provide for the kids and maintain our basic standard of living, we probably would’ve just convinced ourselves that we could, and we would have made do. Most couples, I suspect, make such decisions more or less this way, because there is never really a perfect time, and, unless you’re fabulously wealthy, there is never really enough money. Child rearing, for us, is mostly pleasant, and largely straightforward; the kids have needs and we try our best to meet them. This is called a blessing and a privilege. It is also, for me, I’ve come to realize, called being a man. My wife thought much more about the ethical implications of having children than I did.

A new book by Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman, “What Are Children For?,” is an engaging, literary investigation into why so many highly educated, financially comfortable women in the United States are ambivalent about having children, and how we should actually think about that decision. (I recently interviewed the authors on a podcast that I co-host.) To understand the reasoning of their contemporaries, Berg and Wiseman distributed surveys and conducted interviews with “dozens of Zoomers, millennials, and Gen Xers.” More than ninety per cent of their respondents had a college degree, they note, and nearly seventy per cent had a graduate degree. This focus on the middle and upper middle class might feel limiting, especially for a book with such an ambitious title, but the public conversation about the relative morality of having children has been shaped, to a great degree, by this demographic.

Within this larger discourse, Berg and Wiseman see a landscape of beleaguered people who have leaned a bit too far into their political and cultural beliefs, trading in the joys of life for an overly determinative belief that children will suffer inescapable misery. The thought of having children, in these mostly progressive circles, is often weighed against rising existential risk, whether stemming from climate change, the emergence of the far right, or even artificial intelligence. This, the authors point out, is a weird way to talk about kids. And they envision a near future in which that conversation becomes further polarized, with the anti-abortion right on one side and an increasingly anti-natalist left on the other. This outcome, they think, would be disastrous. “Simply put,” Wiseman writes, in the book’s introduction, “the question of whether or not to have a family is too important to allow it to be a casualty of the culture war.”

The book sometimes feels a bit too online; the size of the anti-natalist movement, for example, which periodically rages on social media, looms larger in Berg and Wiseman’s telling than I imagine it might in real life. But “What Are Children For?” wasn’t written to win some erudite or deranged Twitter argument. Rather, Berg and Wiseman want to engage with anti-natalism in the context of a possible future in which the United States has as low a birth rate as that of Japan or South Korea. The American birth rate has declined for the past seventeen years, and keeps reaching new lows; the book can seem like a man-made dune before a hurricane.

It opens with an essay from Wiseman, who does not have children, and ends with an epilogue from Berg, who has two young children, charting a path from Wiseman’s questions about what a happy family might look like to Berg’s answers. In between, the concerns of women who think that they must delay or possibly forgo having children are seriously considered, discussed, and then gently, or sometimes forcefully, countered. It’s not that Berg and Wiseman believe that everyone should have children. It’s that they think the arguments against having children—beyond “It isn’t right for me”—need a bit more friendly interrogation.

For instance, they discuss at great length the issue of financial precarity, and whether it should be a bar to having children. Many millennial women do not believe that they should have children until they can ably provide for them, a bar that tends to change across time. The authors acknowledge that millennials started their careers at a financial disadvantage from earlier generations, but point out that, in 2src21, economists at the Federal Reserve “found that millennials had ‘staged a remarkable comeback,’ increasing their median wealth by 29 percent between 2src16 and 2src19, with more ‘time to gain lost ground.’ ” Berg and Wiseman also cite several studies showing that millennials actually feel quite fiscally comfortable. “As attractive as economics may be as a solution to the riddle of the growing ambivalence about having children, it is partial at best,” they write. “Many millennials are not as financially stressed as they are often assumed to be.”

Not content to leave it there, Berg and Wiseman also question the thinking behind the idea that it would be wrong to bring a child into a situation where they may experience financial hardship:

The banal correlation of socioeconomic status with expected welfare, combined with the assumption that the moral permissibility of having children correlates with their expected well-being, yields a startling conclusion: Having children can be justified in direct proportion to the social and financial security of their parents. According to this reasoning, a couple in Haiti will not only encounter greater material hurdles to providing their child with a good life than their counterparts in the United States; they are also less morally justified in having them in the first place.

The book is filled with dozens of similar blows to faulty logic; it is, perhaps more than anything, a book for lovers of sound reasoning. “Slow love,” the term sometimes given to an app-driven approach to dating in which people go through dozens or hundreds of suitors to try to find their perfect child-rearing partner, gets a similar treatment. “It doesn’t just threaten the possibility of finding love, which always involves the sacrifice of opportunities and exposure to chance,” Berg and Wiseman write. “It might actually stand at cross purposes with what many people still hope their relationships will eventually enable: serious commitment.”

The book is best read, I think, as a corrective to liberal neuroses about having kids, one that feels necessary at a time when the right wants to dictate the terms of the family, whether through the banning of abortion or anti-trans legislation or what gets taught in schools. (It is also a good book for men like me, who might feel a bit too confident that our wives mirrored our own thoughtless and carefree entry into parenthood. And, to their credit, Berg and Wiseman convinced me that I should probably pitch in more when it comes to child care outside of meticulously planning my daughter’s youth-soccer career.) “Parents stand to gain many things from parenting a child—some will enjoy ethical growth, others artistic inspiration and intellectual insights; some will find spiritual liberation or just the permission to really take time off of work; others will find the pleasures of play, pride, love,” Berg writes, in the book’s conclusion. “But to have children is to allow yourself to stand in a relationship whose essence is not determined by the benefits it confers or the prices it exacts. That’s what it means for it to be not just another good among others. People say that having a child is a gift, but if that’s true, it’s not because it’s like getting a gift. If having a child is a gift, it’s because it’s like giving one.”

Berg and Wiseman also implicitly ask a question that I have mulled for the past few years, and that may not have a satisfying answer. Are the sorts of people they interviewed—well-educated professionals who worry about climate change, and who have, perhaps, at some point in their lives, ripped open their hearts for all the suffering people of the world—capable of talking about what a good life for their children might be? In other words, can middle-class liberals describe their family values?

The standard liberal definition of family values is that all forms of love are worth protecting and celebrating. In this house, we believe, etc. Since families need support, the maximalist liberal vision promotes welfare programs, supplements for child care, and shared prosperity rooted in well-funded public schools and broader access to class mobility. American prosperity should not be cordoned off for people of certain races, gender identifications, or religions—it should be a collective endeavor. This is more or less what Joe Biden said in a speech about the American Families Plan, in 2src21.

Progressives generally approve of the social programs and expanded funding that Biden proposed in that plan. But, tellingly, he framed the need for them in economic and national-security terms, calling them an “investment we need to win the competition with other nations for the future,” and insisting that the U.S. was “in a race” in which “the rest of the world has caught up to us.” This competitive, economic logic has become endemic in the liberal and progressive circles that Berg and Wiseman address. Children are often talked about as if they are self-contained economies with huge expenditures—not to mention ones that threaten ecological balance and are probably doomed. In the course of my past few columns, I’ve tried to put my finger on what, exactly, feels alienating about modern, liberal, middle-class parenting. I keep coming back to the impression that we don’t talk in a public and philosophic way about children as objects of love nearly as often as we describe them as obstacles or means to an end. Liberal writers and thinkers don’t frequently opine on the joys of bearing and raising children, or the tremendous social good that it brings.

Consider the discourse around public schools. Progressives will argue that public schools are necessary for fairness and social justice; they will rise up to protect public schools from book bans, curriculum mandates, and privatization. The case isn’t exactly for public schools on their own but, instead, converts them into another battlefield where liberals, weary but dutiful, must once again beat back the right. But when was the last time you heard or read a full-throated case for the public school not merely as a necessity but as a great resource, a place where children can make friends with everyone within a community and where they can learn what we, apparently, have forgotten—that the problems of the burning world will not be solved by individuals? I imagine that many of the progressives whom Berg and Wiseman are writing for do not talk about schools in this way because, on a deeper level, they do not believe in this sort of collectivism. And I suspect that the negative language they often use about children serves to justify, and perhaps shield, their own selfish thoughts.

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