Babies and Bourgeois Decadence

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The baby issue (i.e. if I’ll ever have one) has been on my mind a lot lately – ever since I found out that my most fabulous and glamorous friend from my high school/university days is expecting. Most of my other female peers from this time are married and have already spawned one (or two). Another one bites the dust…

I brought this up when chatting with two childless friends (both single, one female, aged 29 and one male, aged 36) over traditional Korean tea recently. We bandied around the reasons for why we don’t have children – a kind of ‘if it happens, it happens’ consensus emerged from us. I admitted that although I was ambivalent, I had just purchased a memoir about one single woman’s journey to have a baby through using assisted reproductive technology (it hasn’t arrived yet, but I’ll keep you posted on what it says).

My male friend from that talk then sent me a link to an article from The Atlantic about the reasons for the declining birth rate in the United States. It is such a complex and multi-faceted issue that my head was spinning after reading it. It considers an array of thorny issues in much more depth and more eloquently than I’m doing here. Although, I thought I would attempt to relate it to my own experience as outlined below.

In essence, it is a rebuttal to the social conservative position which argues that the declining birthrate is due to a kind of decadence – those of us of child-rearing age and capability are embracing the here and now by indulging in comfort, pleasure and hedonism at the cost of contributing to and investing in the future.

Then, in comes right-leaning-but-not-conservative journalist Conor Friedersdorf and rips apart this argument by putting forward the notion that these days, women can invest in the future in a myriad of ways as they have so many more opportunities. Back in the day, motherhood was almost the only option. Also, social conservatives misunderstand American culture, he argues, quoting traditionalist Eve Tushnet who says that:

Nobody likes to be told that they’re not doing life right, but I think we especially feel indignant and even self-pityingly resentful when we’re working very, very hard to follow the rules and somebody comes along and tells us we’re just out for our own pleasure. We don’t have a marriage crisis in this country because everybody has stopped following the rules. We have a marriage crisis because the rules don’t work. There are all kinds of strict rules: Don’t marry before you’re “economically stable” (an endlessly-retreating horizon), don’t wait until you’re married to have sex, don’t wait until you’re married to live together, don’t move back in with your parents…I want to emphasize how the rules rely on completely bourgeois impulses to achieve and preserve. They’re based on fear-primarily fear of divorce, but also fear of loneliness-but also on the intense, poignant desire to do the right thing.

I feel that Tushnet has a good grasp on the reality of the situation – on the outdated rules we’re supposed to follow. Most rational people want to ‘do it right’, whatever that means these days: find a suitable life partner, have some financial stability and feel mentally prepared to take on the huge commitment and responsibility that is raising a child. This is particularly difficult in an economically tumultuous society that keeps moving the goal posts and encouraging the pursuit of more and better (education, jobs, money, status, partners).

In my own experience in talking to other women about their decision to have or not have children, I don’t think the financial piece can be underestimated.

Women in the west have more opportunities and freedom now than in any other time in history. However, that comes with a cost. It basically means that women are burdened with the double shift – work a full-time job AND take care of the child-rearing and household duties. Some want to work and have a career, others HAVE to work in order to survive in the harsh economic climate.

Even relatively privileged, well-off women have a hard time with this: one high-flying friend who has a five year old daughter from a previous marriage and is now living with a new (wealthy-but-less-wealthy-than-her-ex) partner, and who values economic independence, still has to work to support herself and her daughter. She thinks that staying home to raise children these days is a real luxury, so imagine what it’s like for the less fortunate (i.e. most people).

Another couple I know who want children are getting their ducks in a row as much as they can first, trying to ‘do it right’ – he’s starting a business, she’s going back to school to head in a more fulfilling and lucrative direction. These pursuits would be impossible to pursue with the time, energy and financial resources it takes to raise a child. So, they want to a have a child, but now is not the right time. They rationalize that they will be better parents and be able to provide a better upbringing to their child in the future than they could be now.

Similarly, another couple I know want to have children, and although both work full-time, they cannot afford to have them. They are waiting until they have a solid financial base which will take time.

Here, in South Korea, which has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, women have less choice and are forced into more of an either/or situation – most are expected to stay at home and raise their children or else they follow a career trajectory and remain childless. Slowly, the society is changing and offering more alternatives as more women juggle a career and children. For example, my doctor, who is a woman, has three children. She is probably the exception though – she can afford day care. The main cited reason for the low birthrate is economic. University admission (pretty much a prerequisite for any job above being a cleaner) relies heavily on private tutoring, which is expensive, but essential if you want to give your child any chance in this hyper-competitive society. That deters many couples from having more than one child.

At the end of the day, our planet is home to 7 billion people. This begs the question, what is decadent about not adding to that? Maybe less is more.




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