The Decadence of Procreation

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Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI / POOL

It’s no longer news that babies have become a status symbol. We’ve gotten used to judging celebs’ bumps and observed the rise of the baby-centric fashion statement. The excitement this week over Kate Middleton’s royal fetus — and the medical bills already associated with it — serves as another reminder that, like a dressage horse or a third vacation home, children might be covetable, but they’ll certainly cost you.

To be a status symbol, a good must be inaccessible to the masses. And indeed America’s birth rate, as New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat reminds us this week, has plummeted along with our economy. “American fertility plunged with the stock market in 2008, and it hasn’t recovered,” Douthat writes. “This time, the birthrate has fallen fastest among foreign-born Americans, and particularly among Hispanics, who saw huge amounts of wealth evaporate with the housing bust.” But it’s not just the economy, stupid. Douthat has another theory: “The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe.”

I agree that this is a problem with decadence. But the decadent thing is having children, not remaining kid-free.

Last year, the Department of Agriculture estimated a middle-income couple spent $12,290 to $14,320 a year per child. More recently, the Times' Nadia Taha published her calculations of how much it would cost her and her husband to have a child: A safer apartment. A better health-insurance plan. Lost wages. College. Total lifetime tab? $1.8 million.

How is it, again, that not having babies is the decadent choice?

“Part of what I imagine makes parenting so hard is the challenge of making financial compromises, and the emotional fallout from those choices,” Taha writes. “It must be difficult to accept that no matter how you set aside your own interests, you cannot afford the very best of everything for your child.”

No wonder the birth rate is dropping fastest among foreign-born women. Immigrants come to the United States because they seek a better financial future for themselves and their children — a wider range of opportunities than they had back home. When the financial reality is that the United States doesn’t offer these things, it’s no wonder immigrants stop having kids (and stop immigrating here altogether).

Usually, we see the “make more babies!” argument directed at white people. (Headline you never see, despite the steep decline in children born to immigrants: “Numbers of Latino Children Falling Fast.”) Even though he acknowledges the dropping immigrant birth rate, when he talks about the decadence factor, Douthat isn’t referring to the child-free motivations of hardworking newcomers. He’s talking about women like Nadia Taha. Middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans who are loath to relocate to cheaper cities, to take on massive debt, and to prioritize child-rearing above their own professional pursuits. He’s talking about women who realize that having kids is like signing on for a second full-time job from which there is no leave. I recently asked a good friend who has a 2-year-old whether she and her husband were managing to maintain some semblance of a life outside parenting. She replied, “Yeah, we finally found a babysitter we like. But she’s $15 an hour, which means that going out to dinner is like a $200 evening.” The “decadence” factor is inseparable from the economic one.

In a follow-up post on Tuesday, following backlash over his “decadence” argument, Douthat returned to his theory that childless Americans choose “conspicuous consumption” over child-rearing. He asked, don’t we have some sort of collective obligation to procreate? “And if that basic obligation exists in some form, then surely there comes a point when a culture in which it’s crowded out by other goals, other pursuits and yes, other pleasures can be aptly described as … what’s the word I’m looking for … decadent?” I suppose wanting to live in a big city with lots of job opportunities and not sleep in the same bedroom as your child and eventually send that child to college — the expenses that Taha added up arrived at $1.8 million — can be classified as “pleasures.” But mostly they’re about maintaining a lifestyle that few of us would describe as decadent.

Douthat also notes that, in the global scheme of things, we’re in a great position to procreate: “Is there any population better situated to bestow fulfilling, flourishing, opportunity-rich lives on future generations than the inhabitants of rich democracies?”

I’d add one more rich in there: It’s the rich inhabitants of rich democracies who are best-suited to bestow opportunity-rich lives on their children. On some level, even women who live in palaces seem to recognize this. In The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary about Jackie Siegel and her husband David, who set out to build America’s largest private residence, the couple has seven kids and a raft of assistants, drivers, and nannies to help care for them.* After the real estate bubble bursts, and they’re forced to lay off the help, Jackie says, only half-kidding, “I never would have had so many kids if I didn’t have nannies to take care of them.”

* Siegel and her husband have seven children, not five.