One time I heard my sister commenting to my mom about how striking it was that the book she was reading – set around 150 years ago – was so full of death and so focused on death. My mom replied that back then the romantic ideal was a beautiful death scene.
“In those days,” she explained, “people were obsessed with death the way people today are obsessed with sex.”
I didn't say anything, but I was dying to point out how fortunate we are today. Which would you rather have: romantic sex or a romantic death?
I'm being completely serious when I say this. Increased life expectancy – combined with convenient, effective contraception – has dramatically transformed our whole society and outlook.
Today if you're in a loving marriage, you expect to be able to grow old together. Abusive or otherwise bad marriages are ended by choice, rather than having good and bad marriages alike cut short by untimely deaths.
And as a parent, rather than having more children than you can effectively handle – and then watching many of them die – you can typically choose to have no more kids than you think you can raise well, and more importantly, you can base this calculation on the expectation that you will most likely see them all live to adulthood.
This is no small matter. If I had to give up every single other advance of our miraculous modern era to keep this one, I would.
Our society has new attitudes and values that are the product of our current life-cycle. As Noëll was saying the other day on Agnostic Mom, ideas about child safety have changed.
I think the change boils down to the following calculation:
Imagine that your children have a one-in-ten chance of dying in childhood of disease or malnutrition and a one-in-five-hundred chance of dying in an accident. In that case, massive efforts to keep them safe from harm don't improve their chances of survival very much. You improve your family's overall survival rate by focusing on more productive tasks than babysitting and by leaving the kids to roam free and fend for themselves.
Now imagine that the disease and malnutrition death risk drops to one-in-five-thousand. Suddenly the one-in-five-hundred risk of accidental death is no longer a trivial side-note. It becomes worth your while to follow the kids closely to make sure nothing happens to them, even if it means a huge expenditure of time and energy.
I don't mean to suggest that individuals are consciously making this mental calculation. But society makes it unconsciously and our customs change accordingly. That's why there's been such a dramatic increase in child-safety practices within this generation (car-seats and other safety paraphernalia, attitudes about how much supervision children require), even though our current fertility/mortality situation essentially goes back another full generation or more. It takes about a generation for a culture to learn something – in this case for people to notice the disproportionately high rate of preventable accidental childhood deaths compared to total childhood deaths – and for attitudes and practices to change.
Contraception and working women enter into this same calculation. The long and short of it is that if Mom's salary is essential to the family budget, then every single additional baby is dauntingly costly. So if you are convinced that the ones you have will live and you have a simple means of not having any more, then just focusing on your current brood becomes a very attractive option.
That's essentially how it has gone is our house. When my second was a baby, I was sure I wanted a third kid. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I mostly wanted a third as a back-up to soften the devastating blow if something happened to one of my other two. It wasn't so much that I wanted three kids as it was that I didn't want less than these two, and I've kind of decided that that's a bad reason to have another kid. I figure it would be better just to be extra careful with the two I've got.
(For simplicity I haven't mentioned my husband here, but he's on the same page.)
The other half of the calculation is that we can just barely afford to have a nanny come in and take care of them while I'm at work, and we can't keep it up indefinitely. I assume a lot of families end up doing some sort of equivalent time-and-money calculation about kids at some point. In our modern value system, the strategy is to have only as many kids as your abilities and finances will allow you to raise correctly, and make every one of them count.
I'm not saying that people in the past loved their children less. But even if you have an unlimited amount of love (which is not a guarantee), you have only a finite amount of time, energy, and resources. So it's no accident that nuggets of Victorian wisdom such as “spare the rod and spoil the child” or “children should be seen and not heard” are shocking to modern ears. Today it is seen as irresponsible to have children you don't want, and criminal to abuse or neglect them. Not so many generations ago, having more children than you want was standard operating procedure, so society was a little more lenient on the whole abuse-and-neglect thing.
Additionally, as painful as losing a child obviously was in generations past, I suspect that it is more devastating today if only because today's parents are totally unprepared for it. A few hundred years ago, you expected to see some of your children die. It was a fact of life that you learned to accept by seeing it happen to so many others. A modern parent is also less likely to have a natural support system of people who will say “I know exactly how you feel – I remember when that happened to me,” and instead may be isolated as friends have no idea how to deal with the situation or what to say.
I've heard people argue that the hard-headed, cruel-but-realistic solution to world overpopulation is just to stand by and let children in poorer countries die. For those who are heartless enough not to be offended by the cruelty of this solution, I contend that it is also wrong in practical terms, and in fact is dangerously counterproductive. The thing is that it is very difficult to persuade people that it's a good idea to have only two or three kids if the kids have a one-in-ten chance of dying of disease, malnutrition, stepping on a land mine, etc. So if you take a poor country where people are having seven to ten kids – to maximize the survival rate – you end up with quite a lot more kids total than if families there were having two kids each and every single one of them lived.
The darker calculation is that where children are likely to die senselessly of diphtheria or malaria, it's human nature for their parents to prefer to see them die honorably fighting whatever enemy they imagine caused their family's hardships...
For their own safety if nothing else, the people of the wealthier countries need to make it a priority to help the rest of the world get to a state where (1) people have access to basic health care, especially contraception and prenatal, neonatal, and pediatric care, (2) children are unlikely to die of disease, malnutrition, and violence, and (3) the mother's economic contribution is vital to the family's finances, giving her more footing to decide in family planning issues and making each additional baby more costly and hence more valuable.
These goals are far from easy. However, nothing else has been shown to reverse the trend of overpopulation and its accompanying ills.
I'm sorry this essay isn't very amusing. I just wanted to post all of my crazy theories on this subject in one coherent article to make it easier to refer to them later.
And in case this post isn't already sufficiently long, boring, and controversial, I'd like to add one last point about my generation's obsession with sex:
It's only reasonable to expect that healthy, well-fed adults who aren't busily raising more kids than they can handle would have an overactive libido. Natural selection wouldn't have it any other way.
What a miraculous age we live in!!!
So many possibilities, so many responsibilities...