Time magazine's attention grabbing cover story last week sported a smiling, carefree couple lounging on a beach under the headline "The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having children."
It was a reprise on the banal fantasy peddled by soap operas, romance novels and vacation brochures: romantic fulfillment with ample resources and zero demands from pestering kids.
Despite its allure, it would be disastrous for our collective prosperity and character were this conceit of childless fulfillment to become a commonplace lifestyle.
Like many cover stories, this article about an increasing number of Americans not having children was not what was precisely hyped on the cover. For one, the poignant accounts of social isolation experienced by many of the childless adults profiled wouldn't match most people's conception of "having it all." And much of the article discussed issues of childlessness for single women rather than chosen childlessness for couples.
That distinction regarding marital status is crucial. The article documents how in some corners of our culture there is an expectation that adult women — regardless of marital status — should bear children. It is disheartening to read of this curious social pressure facing so many single women in our society. Anyone seriously committed to the welfare of children could not look at the terrible odds facing children in non-marital households and say that childbearing outside of marriage was either wise or ethical. The responsible decision of single adults to remain childless should be applauded.
We also recognize that within marriage, childlessness is not always chosen. Too many couples yearning to welcome children face disappointment and discouragement as they try to start a family. Furthermore, we acknowledge that having children is a private and sacred decision for husband and wife that necessarily takes into account the physical and mental health of the couple and their capacity to provide the necessities of life.
But when a wife and husband decide to bring children into the world, they make an enormous investment in the prosperity of our nation and embark on an unparalleled opportunity to refine their own characters.
Yes, children do cost money. Lots of money. The latest analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that a middle-income American family will spend close to $300,000 to raise a child from birth to age 17 (not including college costs). Those are direct costs, and do not include forgone income as parents step out of the workforce to nurture children.
But, according to estimates from family scholars at Brigham Young University, that same child will likely contribute between $4 million and $8 million to the national GDP during their economically productive years. So, although a couple could significantly improve its individual household standard of living over a few decades by remaining childless, to do so would deprive society of enormously productive inputs across a half-century. And this analysis doesn't begin to account for how beneficial a robust birthrate is for healthy maintenance of cherished social programs.
Children also require time, patience, sweat, tears and (mostly) love. Such investments of self tend to yield stronger marriages and an unquantifiable return of refined character. The psychologist Erik Erikson posited that a vital stage of adult psychological development was mature contribution to the next generation. Intentional parenthood is the single best way for adults to develop these traits and protect themselves against destructive self-absorption.
Novelist George Saunders thoughtfully captured this aspect of parenthood in a widely circulated commencement address given at Syracuse University this spring when he said:
"And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won't care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit."
Our society seeks real solutions for its long-term economic woes and its decay in civic-mindedness. Few choices offer as much empirically grounded hope for those specific concerns as the decision of committed spouses to bring children into the world. That Time magazine would suggest the child-free life as a path to fulfillment suggests that it has shifted from offering up news and analysis to hawking deceptive fantasy.