Wednesday, October 30, 2013
The ChildFREE Life
TIME Magazine's August 12 cover story was called The Childfree Life - When having it all means not having children. The story has generated a good no shortage of conversation, controversy, and commentary. The cover photo says it all. You see a good looking, young, couple laying comfortably upon a beach, gazing up at the world with a satisfied look that says "we have it all." But what is conspicuously missing are a wedding ring and children.
The point of the cover and the article is not only that this is an option but that is more and more the preferred option among young people and that it is a completely morally acceptable choice. There was a time when having it all meant having it all, literally, with a spouse, children, career, and personal life. This was the initial focus of the feminist movement with its judgement that women had been deprived of having it all and therefore a revolution in society was necessary to make it possible for women to have what men presumably already had. Now the mature movement has gone well beyond the limitations of the past and marriage has been replaced by friends with benefits or hook up relationships designed to satisfy the need for affection and sex without real intimacy and children have become more an impediment to personal pleasure and achievement than an ingredient in the mix.
There is no denial that marriage is increasingly optional or, at best, a delayed choice in America. Statistics tell us the birth rate in America is the lowest it has ever been (not as low as in many European countries but certainly following the European trend). In addition the reasons for NOT having children have expanded. The traditional reasons of career, economics (high cost of child rearing), and fear of the responsibility have been supplemented with more subjective reasons of dislike of children, belief that it is not smart to bring children into the world in which we live, and the idea that they would not make good parents. Interestingly, the more highly educated you are, the less likely you are to have a child!
In the past children were not merely integral to marriage and family, they were integral to society, culture, and community. We lived around good schools, in homes designed for family needs, in a neighborhood with other children, and our lives connected through our children's activities (from school to sports to music to scouts to hobbies, etc...). Now, schools are often viewed as expensive burdens resented by those without children. Our experiences at restaurants, movie theaters, and shopping are better off when children are not present. We live more in more densely populated areas in which access to adult recreational choices are more significant than anything else in the choice of where to live. Now, the choice to have or not to have a child has less to do with a choice to marry or not to marry and everything to do with the freedom desired by the individual to pursue individual desire unimpeded and unencumbered by the excess baggage of a child.
In the past marriage and children were the marks of adulthood but today we live in a world in which adulthood, marriage, and children are not the highest of goals for a generation that worships youth, freedom, and a lack of strings attached to life. In short, who wants to grow up if growing up means accepting responsibility for more than yourself, carrying the burden for others, and sacrificing personal desires for the sake of another? This is, perhaps, only one more evolution of the "me" generation -- a generation far removed from what many have called the "greatest generation".
So what should the Church do? There are many who believe that it is too late to do anything. There are many who have taken a sort of refuge mentality in which the Church is sanctuary for those who have retreated from what is happening in our culture. There are many who insist that we cannot change the push for gay marriage nor can we undo what has been done to the ideas of marriage, family, and children. I think that there is something we can do. But in order for us to do it, we will have to abandon the constraint of culture and act and speak as distinctly as we are in Christ.
A personal example. Not long ago a family in our parish with two little ones announced that they were expecting a third and some, many in fact, sighed the knowing sign of disapproval. You already have your hands full and children are costly and your resources are already spread thin and you have no family locally to help you out... and so on... In other words, in the very church where this choice should be celebrated, a young couple often finds folks whose views have been so shaped by the world around them that they also think enough is enough. A child. Maybe two. But why anymore? We have for too long allowed the world to shape not only our values about life and success but about marriage and family. What we can do is to begin talking again about children as gifts and blessings, about the nature of love which delights in sacrifice, and of the noble vocation of being a father and mother. What we can do is change the minds of those within the congregation and then, just maybe, we can begin to challenge the false images of a full and happy life outside the church.