Why Be a Parent?

Angell_1-111016Marcia Angell reviews Alison Gopnik's The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children in the New York Review of Books:

The first sentence in Gopnik’s book is “Why be a parent?” Good question, but she answers it only abstractly, saying that having children “allows a new kind of human being to come into the world.” She does say that being a parent is profoundly satisfying, even if exhausting, but that tells us why you’re glad you did it, not why you did it. In thinking about the reasons in my own family, I realized that they have probably varied over the generations but have some things in common. One set of my grandparents (about 1880 to 1960), who farmed, fished, and built boats, had eleven children; the children provided much-needed labor, even when very young, and they were a source of pride, particularly for my grandfather (I think he saw them as proof of potency), not to mention a bid for family immortality. They were also a form of old-age and medical insurance.

My parents (about 1906 to 1990) lived a different life. They had only two children and we were of almost no use. My father worked in an office that might as well have been on the moon, and my mother was a housewife without much to do after we were of school age. I think they had children because it was expected of them, and besides, what else could my mother do? But they liked the idea of family (the reality, maybe not so much), and here, too, it offered security in old age and continuation of the dynasty, such as it was.

I am seventy-seven years old and, like Gopnik, the mother of grown children who have young children of their own, and also a woman with a postgraduate degree and a demanding profession. I knew the planet didn’t need more children, and there was now some safety net for old age and illness. So why did I have children? All I can say is that I wanted them very much, partly for the lifelong love and companionship of people whose character and values I had helped form. (Here Gopnik might accuse me of being something of a carpenter, and I may have been, but she is too, I suspect.) And like Gopnik, I am glad I had them.

Nevertheless, despite an unbroken chain of people choosing to have children, albeit for different reasons, we are now living at a time when fewer and fewer women are making that choice. The most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that the fertility rate for American women ages fifteen to forty-four was 62.9 per thousand in 2014, the lowest ever recorded. In 1950 it was 106.2 per thousand, 70 percent higher. Moreover, according to Sophie Gilbert in her review in The Atlantic of a book edited by Meghan Daum, titled Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed (2015), which contains essays by writers who chose not to have children, 25 percent of women with college degrees never have children. Despite the new focus of celebrity magazines on celebrity babies, more young people seem to be finding sufficiently close and sustaining relationships with one another to forgo parenthood.

More here.