John’s son, Adam, spoke glowingly of his father at John’s memorial service. Adam and his sibling were adopted when they were small. Adam knew what his life would have been like if they hadn’t been taken away by social services from their alcoholic mother.
Another member of our Meeting, Jane, also adopted two siblings. She was able to be a wonderful, caring, single parent to them.
As an obstetrician-gynecologist, I got to know many types of families over the years. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about same-sex couples having children. Then one Saturday, I was on call at the hospital, and no one happened to be in labor that day. I spent some time with a woman who was there for a complication of pregnancy, attended by her gay partner. As I sat with these women and listened, I realizing that their love was as fluid and deep as the love I share with my wife.
Many people build their families – or get their child-fixes – in non-traditional ways. My wife and I once stayed in Salt Lake City in the home of a couple who didn’t have children. Before our stay, they told us we shouldn’t be surprised to see in their home a baby’s room with an empty crib. The couple had signed up with social services to foster infants whenever needed.
Increasingly, people are deciding to forego childbearing. Perhaps you read that the Census Bureau reported that the 2021 birth rate in the U.S. was the lowest ever. Some practical reasons seem clear: the pandemic is one and the availability of reliable contraception is another. However, less tangible causes also seem to be at play.
Societal expectations have moved beyond the old stereotypes, which used to dictate that women should marry and bear children as early in adulthood as possible, whether or not they had finished their educations, and men should serve as breadwinners for these women, who would stay home and “keep house.” Even before those societal expectations were upended, women began choosing to have smaller families. Then, of course, the fundamental expectations were indeed challenged. In most places in the U.S. today, a person can no longer assume that one woman plus one man equals a family. Gender roles have shifted and broadened. Gay couples may have children and raise them. Trans people have those capabilities, too. As a person in my late 70s, I sometimes find these rapid changes hard to comprehend – and the changes aren’t over yet! For example, technology now exists to produce a fertilizable mouse ovum without an ovary!
My wife and I have two grown sons and three granddaughters. They live several hours drive away, so we don’t see them often. We envy our friends whose progeny live closer to them. However, we have lived in a cohousing community for twenty-two years. One of the characteristics that we like the most about our community is that all the adults help take care of all the kids. Last summer, Franklin would stop by our house now and then with his backpack full of books. “Would you like to hear me read?” he would ask. We sat on the front porch with him and listened, and helped him with the difficult words. He would get a reward at the end of the summer for all the books he read.
Fostering and adopting are laudable alternatives to childbearing. In Colorado alone, 533 children were available for adoption as I was writing this. The state human services agency has been able to find permanent homes for only 190 children in the past 16 years; nearly half of these vulnerable young people were placed in homes once, then returned to the state’s care in “disrupted adoptions.” Things don’t always work out well with adoptions.
In fact, one of Adam’s siblings has struggled with drugs and alcohol for years, and has been in and out of prison. One of Jane’s adopted children still suffers psychologically from essentially having been ignored by their birth mother for too long. Even the best counseling and psychological care cannot make up for some damage.
Today, more than one in five American women will not bear any children. Sometimes this is due to infertility. However, voluntary childlessness has become more common in recent decades. And although many people who have born and raised children will see a childless lifestyle as misguided, studies that measure people’s happiness have consistently shown that childfree couples are happier than those with kids.
Also, people are finding new reasons to elect to not bear children. Rarely, when I was still practicing medicine, I would talk with women who were concerned about the ecological impacts of humans. They worried that our planet was already overpopulated and didn’t want to contribute to that destruction. This view has become more common over the years, as more people learn about climate change and all the other environmental problems that we humans have caused. They don’t want to subject a child to an uncertain future, one which will be very different from the pleasant conditions they have enjoyed on Earth.
Such concerns about the future are not just limited to people in rich countries. Pastoralists and agriculturalists, whose lives depend on the climate, are more sensitive to these changes than we urbanites. For instance, some people in Kenya are limiting their family sizes because of these concerns. Here is a quote from a 25-year-old rural Kenyan mother of three: “Limiting the number of children will help us to cope with the change in climate.” Just imagine, the average family size in Kenya was eight children not too many years ago! Thanks to improved sanitation, better nutrition, and increased access to medical care, many fewer children are dying in Kenya and other developing countries. Therefore, smaller families with fewer children can provide the same security for aging parents as much larger families did in the past.
Be it adoption, fostering, nieces and nephews, or the kids next door, people have many ways to enjoy the company of children without having more themselves. These alternatives will help slow population growth and potentially decrease climate chaos and the myriad other ecological problems we face. ~~~
Richard Grossman recently retired from the practice of obstetrics and gynecology in Durango, CO. He continues to work on several population-centered projects. To learn about these, see: www.population-matters.org. He is a member of Durango Monthly Meeting (IMYM).