Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fertility, Mortality or Sex vs. Death

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...


AnnM said...

Crazy theories, my foot! Gary Becker won the 1992 Nobel prize in economics for saying these things, among others. His research on family decision-making is the main reason I decided to go to graduate school in economics.

1992 Nobel Prize press release

C. L. Hanson said...

And there I thought my little analysis here was so original!!! LOL!!!

Actually though I was looking forward to getting some feedback from you on this because it's true that it's fundamentally an essay on economics, which is a field where I don't have a lot of formal training. So I'm glad to see that my thoughts on the subject aren't totally off the wall. :D

Rebecca said...

Hey, you had the same ideas as a NOBEL PRIZE winner! That's just cool.

Cyn Bagley said...

Good ideas. I had a professor that felt that many of the people living today... would have died due to childhood diseases etc.

He went on to say that because of this problem that we had too many people living who did not live up to their evolutionary potential. LOL

He felt the evolutionary human tree needed some pruning. :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

I know, just think -- I could have a Nobel Prize right now, if only that other guy hadn't thought of this first!!! ;-)

Hey Cynthia!!!

I'ts true we're kind of acting against natural selection here, but I like to think of it as a bold experiment... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting thoughts - I've been thinking about this article for the past day and a half. How many children people decide to have and how they raise them can be very contraversial (as you know!) -

I have read that unstructured play is very important for children and child development - exactly what that involves, I'm not certain.

As far as family size goes - when you realize that 1 out of 90 pregnancies naturally could be fraternal twins - it also makes a difference in family size planning.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rachel!!!

These days -- given that a typical family has zero, one, two, or three kids -- the possibility of twins makes a real difference in family size planning.

When my husband and I were talking about the possibility of a third, we always considered what would happen if it were twins. We might possibly be okay with three, but it's borderline. Four would really push us over the limit of the number we feel like we could parent effectively...

A propos -- how are your adorable little twins doing? :D

Anonymous said...

The twins are doing phenomonal! They are climbing everywhere and into just about everything. No words or walking yet - but my daughter likes to say da-da-da as if she were talking almost constantly.

They are sleeping well (thank goodness). We are actually preparing for a trip (just mom and twins) to Chicago next week. I'll be staying at my parents' house.

I have your flight last year with your two in mind - but I think we'll be okay because I'm driving (and therefore not at the whim of flight schedules).

C. L. Hanson said...

They sound so adorable!!!

I hope you guys have a fun trip!!! Travelling by car with kids that age usually isn't too bad. Riding in their little car seats tends to relax them.

Anonymous said...

I never asked though - what book was your sister reading that provoked this comment? The House of Mirth? Tess of the D'Ubervilles?

C. L. Hanson said...

I don't remember the title of it. I don't think it was something famous. She reads a lot of books and is involved in organizing book club discussions, etc.

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

Funny how I was raised with the Catholic mindset that this modern age is a culture of death (based on the support for abortion, war, death penalty, etc).

I see all that a bit differently now, although I don't like many of the above examples either.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Carla!!!

I'm currently reading In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, and one of the most striking things about it is how many children these women lost. Nearly all of them had to see at least one of her own children die. Among the last few I've read about, one lady had nine children and only two lived to adulthood; another had five, and every one of them died as a baby. And that's not just a Mormon thing -- any histories of families from that time period are like that. Go back another century or so in Europe or America, and not only are the kids (and adults) dying right and left, but it's kind of astonishing to see how unnoteworthy it was when one citizen would openly kill another with a sword; public executions were common public spectacles, etc. That's basically what's it's been like for most of human history (except that before people started gathering in large enough towns, instead of public executions, you'd have people getting eaten by wolves and other predators...).

This is one of the ways our modern society (in the rich, developed countries) is most strikingly different from essentially all other human societies that have even been: the degree to which death has become alien to our daily lives.