What we need in American society are more imaginative resources for thinking about marriage and the great slog of parenthood. We need stories, plays, movies, and shows about the sort of heroism that requires long-haul fortitude and not just courage in the moment.
A long-held but somewhat flexible fantasy I have engaged in periodically since about middle school has me doing some truly unusual, heroic thing—perhaps pulling someone from a fire or heroically diving into the rapids to save some helpless person from drowning or even taking a bullet to protect a child. (I’m afraid of heights, so airplane or skyscraper fantasies never, um, get off the ground.) The pleasure of such a scenario is not really complete until I imagine what comes after. I’m usually standing in front of television cameras, wrapped in a blanket, with my head leaning forward from exhaustion from my Herculean task and, when I was younger (key to a young man’s fantasy), flanked by whichever beautiful young woman of whom I was currently enamored, looking at me with awe and desire. When asked if I think I’m a hero, I respond, “No, I did what I had to do. You want to know who are the heroes? The real heroes are the people who get up every morning and do their jobs. They raise the kids and deliver the food. They take care of the sick and bury the dead. No, I’m just a guy put in a tough situation and, thank God, was able to make it through.”
This speech reveals the utterly false nature of the motivation for this fantasy. For to deny that what I have just done is heroic is simply silly. Of course, it was! Heroism is the practice of extreme courage: namely, the capacity to advance in doing the good in a situation in which the fear of loss of one’s own goods, bodily integrity, and especially one’s life is at a high. My fantasy speech is simply an example of false humility meant to draw even more admiration—particularly from the beautiful girl. Yet even if my motivation for the fantasy speech is bad, there is some truth in it. Fishing for more compliments is one tribute vice pays to virtue.
No doubt our valuation of heroes has suffered the effects of inflation these days. Depending on one’s political tribe and the situation, all healthcare workers, farmers, soldiers, police officers, journalists, teachers, parents, and even officious bystanders (“Karens”), who yell at one for not wearing a mask outside in a park, are accorded hero status circa 2020. But the truth in my fantasy speech is that, apart from being a “Karen,” one can indeed live a heroic life in any of these capacities.
What we value about both our fantasies of heroic bravery and instances of real extraordinary bravery is that they seem to bring our lives to a concentrated point that allows us to excel and shine because all of the million other little things that are part of our daily duty have now been foregone.
Yet what keeps civilization going is not just extraordinary heroism but the kind of courageous action that we more often call fortitude: faithfulness in the daily duty of civic, family, and religious life. I think we can still identify plenty of heroic actions of the sort I fantasized about in America today. What we increasingly lack is this longsuffering consistency in building and maintaining society. During World War I, one Edwardian Karen demanded in the street to know why G.K. Chesterton was not out “defending civilization.” “Madam,” he replied, “I am civilization.”
What we lack are the people being civilization.
In 2012 (blessed, peaceful, irenic 2012!) Charles Murray identified the growing vast cleavages in American life in his book Coming Apart. There, he identified what was separating the rich from the poor in terms of civic life, work, religion, and, most importantly, marriage. American adults who were not in the upper socio-economic quintiles were not marrying, were having fewer children, and, when they did, were having them outside of marriage.
When I reviewed his book at the time, I wrote that despite chapter subtitles such as “It’s Worse Than It Looks!” he was probably too optimistic about many of the trends. The behavior at the bottom was spreading through the middle classes in 2012. Things have only become worse.
Demographers Lyman Stone and Bradford Wilcox write in a recent Newsweek article titled “Empty Cradles Mean a Bleaker Future” that the story we have not been hearing over at least the last twelve years is that American birthrates have fallen through the floor. Despite many decades of American fertility exceptionalism in which American women averaged around 2.1 children in their childbearing years—the rate necessary to replace a population—the drops seen around the time of the Great Recession of 2008 have continued. This year, Mr. Stone and Dr. Wilcox forecast, American fertility rates will fall below 1.7, putting us in the company of China and the other European and Asian countries that have been aging and, some of them, shrinking.
Why aren’t there more children? Mr. Stone and Dr. Wilcox observe that there are certainly worries in times of economic and health uncertainty; the drop that happened in 2008 was swift, and the drop in pregnancies this year has been noticeable, too. But the drop in fertility after 2008 continued through economic recovery into the time just before we locked everything down. Women are actually reporting on surveys a desire to have more children than such surveys revealed in the recent past. But it is now likely the case that one out of four women born in the 1990s will end her childbearing years without having any children.
The main driver for that is the drop in marriage. Marital birth rates have remained steady, if not stellar. But women also worry about the enormous time demands and difficulties involved in raising children. These two are not unconnected: Being a mother is very hard, even with a husband as an active and present father. While some women will go ahead and have a child without a husband or even a man in sight, the takers for this situation are not surprisingly fewer and fewer. The difficulties are exponentially multiplied in such situations and the results are, as decades of social science research show, much worse for children—especially boys. And yet a shrinking population means many more people alone and in poverty. It means serious costs to the economy.
Mr. Stone and Dr. Wilcox end their own article by noting practical proposals to take away obstacles to forming families and being able to afford them, including family leave policies, removal of “marriage penalties,” and tax credits for children. I confess to skepticism about the efficacy of such policies in increasing American fertility rates. While economic factors seem to convince people not to have children, I doubt they will convince people to marry or have children in any large-scale way. If the argument is that marital births might increase, that sounds reasonable to an extent. I think a major economic obstacle to marriage and children for a good number of Americans, unmentioned by Mr. Stone and Dr. Wilcox, is the weight of the student loans they carry.
But I do not think that our lack of a marriage or childbirth culture has as much to do with money as is often portrayed. Because my wife and I have seven children, we often receive unprovoked comments from perfect strangers about both our knowledge of sexual reproduction (yes, we are aware of how that works) and also why they, the complete strangers from whom we did not request any moral account, did not or will not have more children themselves even though they’ve thought about it or even really wanted it. While some conservatives and religious people think that we live in a time of gross selfishness, I much more commonly hear from these complete strangers fears that are less likely to be connected to the money than to the time and difficulty.
Women tell me they are afraid they would not be a good mother to more than one or maybe two children. Men tell me they couldn’t “handle” any more. Or they tell me how tired they are. Or how difficult teenagers are.
I’d like to contradict them, but having seven kids I know they are exactly right. Babies are wonderful. Children, however, take away your time, sleep, energy, money, basic sense of competency, pride, and a whole host of other things. Don’t get me started on their destruction of furniture. They develop by challenging you, and they are assured by the age of fourteen, if not earlier, that they understand the world much better than you do, you blinkered old man. When young couples ask me if children can bring a married couple together, I often tell them, “Yes, by giving you a common enemy.” That’s a joke.
Or is it?
Every day seems to demand fortitude in the face of all the fears that the complete strangers recite that I cannot help agreeing with. Yet if you asked me, even in the midst of three teenagers, whether I would rather I had not had them, I would tell you no. Not for a better career and not for any amount of money.
Demographic disasters roll out over the long term. They do not raise our adrenaline or our fighting spirit in the way that a hurricane or war does. They nevertheless have dire consequences that must be faced now. They do demand fortitude. It may be true that today because of the social and mental pressure, it takes a kind of hero simply to do the ordinary things, to get married and have children. My own action-hero fantasy was derived, no doubt from movies and television scenes. Maybe what we need more than tax credits (though you can sign me up for them) are more imaginative resources for thinking about marriage—not just weddings—and the great slog of parenthood. Stories, plays, movies, and shows about the glorious muck of raising children and the rewards that are certainly worth the pain. Stories about the sort of heroism that requires long-haul fortitude and not just courage in the moment.
Maybe someday I’ll tell mine. I’ve never been in the Peace Corps, but I can say of my family, after many more years than the average volunteer in that organization lasts, that this is the toughest job I’ve ever loved.
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