To Breed or Not To Breed

The Seattle Times recently published a personal essay by editorialist Sharon Pian Chan titled “Why I am not having kids,” in which she described how, after 15 years of waffling, she and her husband decided to skip parenthood.  Her article was followed a week later with a piece by Times columnist Danny Westneat, who reported that Chan’s narrative went viral online.  Then, speaking as a father, he offered several blithe reasons why parenthood is not all bad. 

I’ve been stewing over their discussion because the opinions expressed were disturbingly insubstantial.  The question of whether to procreate is a serious one and deserves a serious answer.  It’s also a simple question with a simple answer:  If you are married and if you have reasonably good health, the answer is an unequivocal yes.  And if you are capable of marriage and yet are single, then you should find a suitable spouse as quickly as you reasonably can. 

Why should we not eat, drink, be merry, establish our careers and avoid all the bother of babies?  Because we’re animals—homo sapiens, no less!  Because human life is more exquisite than anything else on Earth and, as far as we know, anything in the Universe.  It took billions of years—countless lives and deaths, joys and sorrows—for Mother Nature to produce you, an animal belonging to a species unparalleled in intelligence, creativity and depth of feeling.  Who are you to say you’ve got better things to do then pass on the torch of existence?  Who are you to enjoy sexual gratification without participating in the great wheel of love and sacrifice to which sex belongs?  Who are you to end the circle of life?   

Women, look at your bodies: your womb is made for growing babies; your breasts are made for suckling them; your voice is made for singing lullabies; your nature is to nurture.  Men, look at your bodies: you were made to sire children; you were made to protect them and their mother; you were made to labor so that they might eat.  Men and women, look into your minds and into your hearts: you were made to fall in love and brashly give your life in exchange for the love of another and the offspring you create.

“But my career?” some cry.  “But my hobby?” others lament.  “But my bank account!” they weep.  These complaints remind me of something my one-year-old loves to say: “Waa!  Waa!  Waa!”  They remind me of the couch potato who wishes his body were not meant for exertion.  The consequences of a sedentary life go well beyond obesity and diabetes to mental, social and spiritual problems.  And so it is with choosing not to marry or procreate: the consequences go beyond the financial waste of living singly or a staffing shortage in our retirement homes.  A generation that refuses to start families is a generation that refuses to grow up, a generation that lives out self-centered, lonely lives.  Life without marriage and children is a tragedy because family life is where we find the purest, strongest love.  There are some people with exceptional circumstances for whom remaining childless is the responsible choice, and a choice that has its silver lining, but theirs is a life lived on the periphery of human experience.  We are part of the animal world.  Our joy and success is defined by reproduction.   

And now we come to the, “Yes, buts,” to those people who think our age stands alone from all previous ages as the first one in which life has lost its basic mandate of continuation.  “The world is getting too warm!” they warn.  “Our cities are getting too crowded!” they whine.  “And what about the lions and spotted owls?” they worry.  These people remind me of the father of demography, the famed economist Thomas Mathus, who in 1798 argued brilliantly that the world’s food supply could never increase fast enough to feed the Earth’s exploding population.  He warned that if people continued to reproduce with such abandonment, they would experience widespread famine within a few generations.  Of course, he couldn’t have been more wrong.  He failed to predict future changes in the conditions of civilization, most notably the advance of agricultural methods.   

So while the only certain thing about the future is that it holds some surprises, let’s keep in mind that doomsayers are nothing new.  And let’s look at our lives and observe:  we are cleaner, more comfortable, fatter, safer and more entertained than any of our progenitors.  In fact, there may never have been a better age for reproducing.  Ironically, it is the very enormity of our world’s population that has made our unprecendented prosperity possible.  Scientific and technological advancements are not the fruits of a few lonely geniuses; they come from the combined efforts of billions of people.  Modern medicine, modern communications, modern transportation, modern homes, and modern agriculture have come about because innumerable scientists and innovators have built upon one another’s discoveries and ideas with small but significant contributions.  They were supported in their efforts by billions more who were their parents, teachers, farmers, doctors, governors, tradesman, clergymen, businessman, and on and on.  In other words, the advancements that make life so amazing today have only been possible because of the population explosion that worries the likes of Malthus.  If the population continues to grow, assuming we are mostly a peaceful and industrious people, our quality of life will surely continue to improve. Considering what humankind has accomplished so far, we have every reason to believe that our species will find a way to solve our environmental challenges and preserve some lions too. 

I do not mention God in my reasoning because I wish for atheists and agnostics to listen.  But if we believe in a Creator who designed this intricate world, it’s fair to assume he understands Evolution and intended for our planet to be teeming with homo sapiens as it is today.  If, on the other hand, we imagine there is no God, then it’s fair to assume the wisdom of the ages and the cycle of Natural Selection are wiser than you.  You might believe your life is yours and that we are all entitled to our own dreams, but the truth is, your life is not yours.  As we previously established, it was given to you by billions of others through a delicate chain of existence.  And looking into the future, countless lives depend on your reproductive choices today. 

As a mother of four, and as someone who has had ample educational and career opportunities, I can attest there is nothing that compares to family life.  My schooling and employment were good and interesting, but the pangs of joy were so few and far between I am stretched to name one.  On the other hand, I am overcome with love every day as I feed, dress, wash, teach and embrace my children.  I am a female mammal with four healthy babies to nurture, and so my days could not contain more purpose or contentment.  I look at my children and can scarcely believe that some people think careers are an adequate substitute for parenthood.  We can hardly have a sense of what the world is until we’ve been through the process of procreation and parenthood.  Family life is the universal vocation and should be our first vocation. 

Today some of our brightest journalists ask the question, “To breed or not to breed?”  Their befuddlement over an absurdly simple question is symptomatic of our era’s decadence.  I am reminded of a poem by The 14th Dalai Lama called “The Paradox of our Age:”  “We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time: We have  more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems. . . . It’s a time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.”

Come now, my fellow homo sapiens, let us not be so emancipated that we forget who and what we are.  Let us not be so sophisticated that we cannot distinguish prestige from success.  Let us not be so deluded that we consider loneliness to be liberty.  Let us not be so shallow that we cannot recognize self-gratification from love.   

“To breed or not to breed?”  We may as well ask, “To be or not to be?”

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