A few months ago, a friend recommended to me a BBC series titled “Call the Midwife.” Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, it portrays a young nurse serving alongside Catholic nuns in the poorest neighborhoods of 1950s London. My husband and I were hooked after the first episode. As the new midwife catches babies in grimy flats, she is sometimes unable to contain her disgust at the crudeness and filth she encounters, and yet she is moved by the miracle of birth, the illimitable love parents feel for their infants, the sacrifices they make to raise them. It seems my husband’s and my reaction was not unusual; to the surprise of some entertainment critics, the series has been wildly popular, attracting about 10 million viewers during its second season.
Last night my husband and I watched the show’s Christmas special. When it ended and I’d finished blowing my nose, I returned to my world, September 2013. You might think this would be a happy return. Many things are much better now. No workhouses. No rats in my flat. And yet I found myself complaining, “I wish I lived in the ’50s.” And my husband understood. “Me too,” he said.
Those entertainment critics would think we’re duped by nostalgia, but I believe my feelings are not ungrounded. Western civilization has acquired innumerable comforts and opportunities since the ‘1950s, and in many ways we’ve become more enlightened. But we’ve also given up some crucial things. Perhaps our greatest loss is babies. Yes, babies. Those bothersome creatures that wreak havoc on a woman’s body, that drain a man’s bank account, that ruin a good night’s sleep, that bring us to our knees in frustration, guilt, even shame and anger. Babies are a lot of trouble.
But what is life without babies?
In our year, 2013, pundits and their audiences have been debating Time Magazine’s recent cover story, “The Childfree Life: When Having it All Means Not Having Children.” In the article, author Laura Sandler reports on and defends the increasing segment of adults who are choosing to avoid parenthood. I heard her explain on talk radio that Americans are finally questioning our “cultural imperative” of procreation. She recalled a college professor asking students to raise their hands if they wanted to someday raise a family. Almost all hands went up, but when the professor asked why, no one had a ready answer. The apparent moral of her anecdote was that countless generations of Americans have been duped into the oppressive assumption that they must procreate. It must be emotionally traumatic for parents, she said, to meet the challenges of raising a child if it wasn’t their heartfelt desire to become a mom or dad.
The trouble with this modern philosophy is that it fails to admit what men and women are: members of the animal kingdom. We have been reproducing for millennia not because we’re westerners, but because we’re home sapiens. Clearly, procreation is not a cultural imperative; it’s a biological one. That someone would argue otherwise and be taken seriously by the media establishment is nothing short of absurd and alarming.
Putting biology aside, let’s consider this philosophy from a spiritual perspective: happiness springs from having what you want? Pain and frustration are only endurable if they stem from an individual choice to pursue a dream? This worldview—in addition to setting one up for a lifetime of disappointment–degrades parenthood from a meaningful sacrifice to a pet project. It demeans the status of children to that of pets. Indeed, when the subject of procreation arises, a prevalent theme in Internet discussions is “Each to his own and mind your own business!” This attitude skirts the issue: We might believe that today’s birth control methods and abortion procedures have erased the biological imperative to reproduce, but the fact remains that babies are necessary. If our civilization is to survive, someone has got to make them and raise them. The discussion should center on the question “Who bears this responsibility?” but it usually revolves around the topic of self-determination, as though liberty erases responsibility. Is childrearing to be delegated to the poor and uneducated so that the privileged classes are free to pursue their dreams?
Few people seem to recognize that our nation’s most precious asset is our babies. One day they will run our government and economy. One day they will see to our physical needs. In the mean time, they do something even more important: they teach us to love. They compel us to put others above self. They force us to move beyond the adolescent pursuit of personal dreams to the discovery that, in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.”
Time conducted a survey along with their article in which 34% of respondents said our nation’s declining birth rate is a good thing, more than double the 11% who said it was a bad thing. Fifty-five percent said it was neither good nor bad. I marvel that Americans are ignorant of the economic woes that come with a below-replacement birthrate (woes that are now bedeviling nations like Japan and Russia) and are oblivious to the spiritual bankruptcy staring us in the face. This is why the primitive 50s are looking better every day. Life in the 21st century is so entertaining, so convenient, so comfortable and so empty. We are pampered by time-saving technological miracles, but have less and less time for the miracle of life.