According to an article in the latest issue of the National Catholic Register,* the U.S. birthrate has now fallen to 1.8 children per woman over the course of her lifetime. Our birth rate has been falling most noticeably since the recession of 2007 and is now at its lowest level ever, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The current figure is well below the accepted replacement value of 2.1 children per woman.
Many reasons contribute to this bleak picture, of course. Life is expensive and incomes are not keeping pace. Especially for younger adults, it often takes both spouses working to pay the rent or mortgage, making carving out the time and money to parent some children appear daunting. Many have college debt to pay off for many years to come. The traditional value ascribed to having a family has weakened dramatically, with heavy emphasis now on "personal fulfillment." And couples who do want to start a family can feel frightened at doing it all on their own since they find themselves far away from parents and other siblings who might help.
But we cannot ignore a fundamental phenomenon that strikes me every day: The media and the public education system have made it uncool to be "just a mother." Take a recent TV ad that showed clips of a dozen or so children saying what they wanted to be when they grew up. Firefighter, astronaut, marine biologist--these were allowable answers. In these types of scenarios, no little girl is ever shown saying "I want to be a mommy."
Men and women must now be interchangeable in every way. Each week I see previews for new movies with female heroines who kick and slash burly opponents even better than their male co-fighters (even though these women are built with the delicacy of dragonflies). To contribute to the noble cause, the girl has to fight like the guys and live like the guys.
The idea that mommy-ing is not nearly enough to justify a woman's existence took hold in the feminism of the 1970s, as many of us remember. By now this idea is engraved on nearly every girl's consciousness.
How ironic that the feminists pushed women to live meaningful lives by urging them to do what men had been doing since time immemorial: Go out and get a job and bring home as much money as you can. The feminists could have, instead, drawn attention and honor to the profession of mothering and household management, critical jobs that women have excelled in throughout history. They could have lauded the home arts. Great skill and stamina are needed to manage a house full of busy children, take care of one's husband (they really need that), and ensure that everyone is fed and has laces in their shoes. Now that you mention it, the job of an oil-spill remediation director sounds simple by comparison.
Instead, the idea that women should "pull their weight" economically in a household is now deeply ingrained among both men and women. I cannot count the stories I have heard from women who would like to stay home but their husbands demand that they contribute to the budget and do their fiscal "fair share." Faced with having to hold down an outside job and care for the house and a child in her off-hours, who could blame a woman for not finding the energy to add more children to the family?
The truth is that being a professional wife and mother is a whole lot harder than most other careers, and the pay in actual dollars is zero. The benefits in health and stability for one's family, however, are priceless. And our society is now paying the price of not having such captains in the home, with a firm hand on the wheel. Part of that price is a fertility rate of 1.8.
*"Whither the Culture of Life?" by Peter J. Smith, National Catholic Register, September 4, 2016.