The National Catholic Review

 

Why have children?

 

“Hey Mom have you heard about the new book asking why have children?”  My son who’s asking is 47, the youngest of six sons and one daughter, aged 57 to 47.  We are helping each other do the dishes after a convivial family dinner. 

 

“If you mean philosopher Christine Overall’s book, Why Have Children? then yes, I’ve read extensive reviews but haven’t read it for myself.” Indeed, over the years I too have grappled with the morality of sex, marriage and reproduction in articles and books.  For those of us who married in the fifties, to marry and have children was just assumed to be intrinsic to being an adult.  

 

The questions emerging for Catholics of our Vatican II era focused on the morality of contraception or sterilization to limit births.  The eruption of abortion controversies then followed along with arguments over homosexuality and artificially assisted reproduction.  

 

By contrast, my children influenced by their secular milieu have not been so involved in similar soul searching theological concerns.  Despite all my efforts they have grown up to be lapsed Catholics, yet of admirably good character.  They have been early to sex, slow to marry or free to remain single. If married fertility problems that now afflict this late marrying generation make decisions about adoption and artificially assisted reproduction issues of moral concern.  The question of “Why have children?” has been less openly discussed.   

  

So I decided to seize the moment with my son and try to express my moral convictions and commitments in accessible non religious language.  I paved the way by mentioning the many arguments for not having children.  Obviously no selfish utilitarian arguments should be defended. You ought not to have children to please spouse or parents (like me), or to enhance sexual egos, or provide income or ensure caretaking in old age (nice as it can be.)   Nor is there any patriotic or ethnic duty to outbreed the enemy. 

 

Other negative reasons also exist.  Dire conditions such as ill health, psychological inability or destitution may inflict too grave a burden on potential offspring.  However, in affluent societies it can be morally good and just to have children.  We have basic human rights for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 

Yes, finally and decisively, despite all counter arguments, having children makes you happy.  Why? All wisdom agrees that the deepest truest human happiness comes from loving, giving and possessing meaningful goals.  Creating and nurturing a family is an experientially proven reliable way to love and be loved.  Other paths that produce purpose and love exist, but they are harder to sustain in the long run. Family intimacy, specific shared interests and embodied narratives remain emotionally engaging through time.  They remain even if and when good friends, good neighbors and colleagues retire, move on, age out and die.

 

If and when family disasters, tragedies and ruptures occur, parents and their children still can be committed and engaged in concerned caring.  For evidence? See the nearest hospital, Alzheimer’s ward, or prison visiting room.

Comments

Sandi Sinor | 9/17/2012 - 4:57pm
OK - there might be a need for a devil's advocate to balance this out a bit. A reality check.

A lot of people paint an overly rosy picture of parenthood, both now and in earlier eras in most societies. In the ''old'' days, it was simply a practical decision - children were economic units of the family - not brought into the world for their own sake - for love - but to serve a purpose - labor on the farm, herding the sheep, learning how to be a smith, taking care of the parents when they got old because it was the only social security in existence.  Children could be exploited with impunity, and subject to ''be seen and not heard'' and a great deal of legal violence within the family - before being sent out to the factory at age 9 to work 12 hours.  Although the motive for children as economic factors for the family still exists in some places, thankfully it is no longer the reason for most people to have children.

The author says, you have them for ''love'' - agreed - that is the best, maybe the only justifiable reason in fact, to have children outside the third world (which often still go for the utilitarian/economic purposes out of necessity).  And while love and close ties exist in many families, it is also true that in many families the situation is not happy or close and sometimes is even toxic.  Even when it is not, there is often neglect. The author implies that Alzheimer's homes and hospitals and prisons are teeming with loving children coming to visit their elderly, sick or incarcrated parents, when all too often you hear a lot more about the patients and prisoners who never have a visitor.

...''finally and decisively....having children makes you happy.'' 

There are many happy families. And there are also many not-happy families. The picture the author paints may be true of her family and others - very Norman Rockwell, with the big family doing dishes together in a cozy kitchen after a traditional, home-made family meal (reminds me of the perfect Catholic fantasy family on Blue Bloods). But it is not always true - perhaps not even usually true.  Raising children is indeed a ''proven'' way to give and receive love. But it is not the only way.

People need to know themselves and reflect a lot before becoming parents, because it's the most important and hardest job out there for most people. There are a lot of lousy parents out there and the kids suffer. There are a lot of miserable parents out there too, wondering what they did ''wrong'' to produce such malcontent or misfit kids. It's a tough world to raise kids in these days, and often the best intentions and unbounding love do not lead to ''perfect'' outcomes - kids break their parents' hearts regularly.

The church does young Catholic couples a grave disservice by ''mandating'' that a couple state before marriage that they are ''open'' to having children.  This is a form of coercion, and increases the pressure on those who may wish to marry, but who do not think they are well-suited to be parents. It also trivializes marriage to have this requirement, saying in so many words, that marriage is not holy and a sacrament unto itself - even without children or the intent to bear children. Reducing marriage to a utilitarianpurpose which is to have children if physically possible and denying marriage to couples who are honest about their intention to not have children is wrong.
ed gleason | 9/17/2012 - 2:09pm
I agreeing with David Smith.. wonders never cease.
David Smith | 9/16/2012 - 12:51am
Obviously no selfish utilitarian arguments should be defended. You ought not to have children to please spouse or parents (like me), or to enhance sexual egos, or provide income or ensure caretaking in old age (nice as it can be.)
Not so obvious. When farms needed large families to sustain them, families were provided. Was that wrong? Is it wrong for adults to try to ensure that they are not left helpless and alone in their old age? Even the sexual-ego reason is rather natural, if by it you mean the pleasure two people must have in growing a brand new life out of their union. And what's wrong with wanting to have one's parents know the joy of grandchildren?

True, modern American families tend to be temporary and fragmented. But they don't have to be. It's a choice.