Imaginary infants as beacons of hope

Once again, Americans have conjured a baby boom out of a national tragedy. What better way to create a happy ending?

Published September 3, 2002 7:08PM (EDT)

The nation is alive with the sound of crying infants and cooing parents. It's been nearly a year since the Sept. 11 attacks, and according to the New York Times Magazine, CBS News, and the Tulsa World, among others, we are in the midst of a correspondent baby boom. Obstetricians have their hands full; maternity wards are jammed with tiny new customers. Americans all over the country -- suffering from what Newsweek calls "post-traumatic sex syndrome" -- have created life as a response to death. They've given birth to babies who constitute nothing less than a salve for our sorrow --"signs of hope in a city devastated by loss and grief," in the words of one New York Daily News report.

But this baby boom, as healing and heartwarming as it may seem, doesn't appear to exist. It's true that there are couples who decided to conceive as a result of the attacks. People like Stacey Stapleton and her husband Paul -- who successfully conceived after hearing fighter jets fly over their Manhattan apartment, according to an Associated Press report in November -- are not exactly unique. They can be found in cities and towns all over the country. But for every couple who decided to have children in the wake of the disaster, there seems to be one or more who decided not to bring new life into an uncertain post-9/11 world, or, even more likely, simply did not see the attacks as an impetus for parenthood.

Preliminary reports from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) suggest that the birthrate was essentially flat in 2001 and most demographers expect 2002 to follow a similar trajectory. If there is any change at all, history suggests that today's teetering economy will likely lead to a slide in the birthrate as potential parents wait for rosier financial fortunes.

And even if the statistics eventually reveal that a population spike has occurred (the final figures won't be tallied until after the end of the year), 9/11 may not be the cause. Americans have been birthing a larger collective brood for most of the last decade. The children of baby boomers in particular -- as they reach childbearing age in increasingly large numbers -- have led an incremental wave of family growth, with birthrates increasing by about 2 percent every year since 1994, according to NCHS statistics. Some studies done before 9/11 even predict that this so-called "echo boom" will outpace its predecessor, with more children being born in 2010 than in 1957, the peak year of the original baby boom.

Most news accounts of a post 9/11 baby boom have ignored this long-term upward trend and the argument that a weak economy leads to fewer births. Instead, hundreds of feel-good stories revolve around burgeoning bellies and fresh-faced newborns as beacons of hope. In lieu of data and its skeptical analysis, the dominant formula has relied on cheery anecdotes -- a phenomenon that is timeworn in the wake of crisis.

"It's a cultural habit," says Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University. "[Birthrates] are watched like the stock market."

Ever since the 1930s, in fact, Americans have conjured baby booms and busts in the wake of recessions, wars, blizzards and blackouts. Disaster, we reason with amateur zeal, begets increased intimacy, which in turn begets sex, which, with luck, yields children -- innocent, untainted vessels of everything that is right with the world. And simple laws of cause and effect guarantee: The more significant the disaster, the larger the baby boom will be.

So far, no evidence seems strong enough to undercut our faith in this baby logic. Neither history, nor data, nor the efforts of a few media realists -- the Chicago Tribune among the most recent -- have significantly shaken our stubborn belief that babies grow like new branches from a painfully pruned nation. We are as in love with the idea of children as healers as we once were with the idea of the Internet as a money machine. It's a birthing bubble -- as fragile and subject to bursting as its cyber counterpart.

Why do we shun the truth to fuel a fantasy? Are Americans simply scrambling to create a silver lining where none exists? Or, does our abiding faith in the 9/11 baby boom reveal that we cling to the idea of national renewal out of fear that the terrorist attacks, as devastating as they were, failed to shake us out of our day-to-day melodramas? Are we reluctant to accept that seemingly life-changing attacks have failed to produce permanent change in our lives and culture?

Baby booms and busts are generally related to distinct, long-lasting changes in national fortunes. During periods of growth and employment, more babies are born; during recessions, the birthrate and fertility rate (how many babies each woman has in her lifetime) decline. During the Depression, for example, the fertility rate dropped precipitously. With unemployment around 25 percent and no sign of a recovery in sight, many families simply decided not to have children, or to postpone their family plans until the economy turned around.

"It was a very deep trough," says John Haaga, director of domestic programs at the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit demographic research institute. "The birthrate dipped below the replacement rate (2.1 children per family) for the first time ever."

That shift in the birthrate struck demographers and policymakers at the time as a sign of serious trouble. The idea that all cultures follow the same cycles of growth and decline had already entered the culture, largely through German historian Oswald Spengler and his 1918 book "The Decline of the West." And according to Haaga, many social scientists saw a drop in fertility as proof of America's imminent collapse into obsolescence. Fewer babies meant fewer soldiers, fewer scientists, fewer businessmen -- and a more feeble nation.

After World War II, demographers and economists predicted that the slump would continue, but the economy rebounded and Americans began to give birth more often and at younger ages. In 1946, for example, more than 1 million babies were born to women between the ages of 20 and 24, an increase of nearly 30 percent from the previous year, which dwarfed growth in other age categories. In total, from 1946-1964, Americans gave birth to more than 76 million babies -- the biggest baby boom in American history.

At first, the reason for the massive increase seemed obvious: Returning GIs were acting on their deferred hunger for love, sex and family. But as the boom extended into the '50s, it was interpreted as something more significant. If a slipping birthrate pointed to a declining civilization, then, according to Spengler's logic -- which had become conventional wisdom by the '50s -- a baby boom must herald a rise to power.

In the minds of politicians, the press and the public, the boom became yet another symbol of America's ever-expanding influence. And when historians like Arthur Schlesinger wrapped the boom into the larger story of America's rise to superpower status, few journalists or scholars questioned -- or could resist -- the good news.

Haaga and other demographers, like Ron Rindfuss at the University of North Carolina, believe that the post-World-War II baby boom and the attendant fascination created a false cause-and-effect expectation: Every significant societal event, the public came to believe, would be reflected in the number of babies born. The form and length of the event hardly mattered. Earthquakes, blackouts, snowstorms and even strikes by professional athletes have all been accorded the same attention as extended wars, recessions and periods of extreme economic growth.

The idea of birthrates tracking history isn't entirely without merit. Along with the Depression's baby bust, and the boom after World War II, a few other examples can be used to prove that fertile Americans are not oblivious the their surrounding circumstances. One study, for example, conducted by Rindfuss in the '70s, found that Southern white families limited their childbearing after 1954, when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation. It was, he says, a matter of fear for their childrens' future. Whites felt threatened by the prospect of a newly integrated South, Rindfuss argued, so they reduced the size of their families in order to minimize the perceived damage.

More recently, Catherine Cohan, a sociologist at Penn State, completed a study showing the population effects of Hurricane Hugo. The 1989 storm ripped through many areas of the East Coast but Cohan focused exclusively on South Carolina, and found that that birthrates increased in the areas of the state that were most damaged by Hugo's crushing wrath. The families who experienced the greatest degree of tragedy and displacement made friends and family more of a priority, Cohan reasoned in her report, and as a result, they had more children.

But these baby boom and bust examples stand out in the historical landscape like a set of septuplets in the hospital nursery. They are anomalies, freaks of sociological nature, say demographers. And more importantly, they are localized, not national in scope. While it may be true that a handful of events have led to localized changes in birthrates, there is no evidence that these traumas prompted national epidemics of conception.

Nonetheless, the public has taken a rarity and made it commonplace; Americans, aided and abetted by the media, have taken a small-scale event and projected it on the nation. The truth of the matter, say experts, is that long-term cultural shifts caused by things like war or immigration lead to changes in the birthrate. Most other events do not.

"I don't know of a single documented case of a blackout or something like 9/11 leading to a baby boom," says Rindfuss. "It's something we can all relate to, but if you look at fertility trends for the past 25 years, there's been very little fluctuation. We're at about 2.1 [children per family] right now; the low was 1.7 or 1.8. If we were trading stocks, we'd say that the numbers are in a very narrow band."

The media has generally argued that the 9/11 baby boom is a done deal. Most stories written about the alleged phenomenon have chosen to spread the rumor as if it were true. Some editors and writers have used headlines like "Out of terror, come bundles of joy," (from the Philadelphia Daily News) or "Baby boom in terror wake" (from London's The Mirror) to get the point across. Others, like the Washington Post, simply relied on Cohan and her Hurricane Hugo study.

To those who have been watching baby booms for years, the attention and the sloppy approach look familiar. Several other events, from hurricanes to blizzards to strikes by professional athletes, have spawned similar media reactions. And while birth statistics -- which come out after the stories -- typically debunk the sentimental speculation about a baby boom, few column inches or TV minutes are dedicated to setting the record straight. The myths are generally left intact; they course continuously through the culture.

The best example of this hype-infested pattern lies with the most enduring alleged baby boom of the past 50 years -- the "blackout baby boom" of the mid '60s. This pearl of a story, like the supposed baby boom of Sept. 11, centers on a one-day event in New York's history -- Nov. 9, 1965. On this day, starting at rush hour, New York and several other northeast cities lost electricity for 10 hours -- more than enough time for bored or creative or sex-starved couples to conceive. And according to a series of three August 1966 articles in the New York Times -- which reported a larger-than-average number of births at several area hospitals nine months after the blackout -- that's exactly what people did.

Except that they didn't.

A comprehensive study done in 1970 by J. Richard Udry, a respected University of North Carolina demographer, revealed that the blackout caused no increase in the affected area's birthrate. The New York Times' reliance on doctors' accounts -- "it's not unreasonable to assume that a lot of sex life went on" quipped one physician -- proved hollow. What Udry found was that the doctors' perceived boom was a localized deviation, not a reflection of the national, or even regional, birthrate.

And yet, despite the efforts of Haaga, Udry and others, the myth of the "blackout baby boom" continues to thrive. It's been more than 30 years since Udry's landmark study was published in the journal Demography. Other reports like "Babies and the Blackout: The Genesis of a Misconception" (from the September 1981 issue of Social Science Research) have confirmed Udry's findings. But, as the New York Times noted April 7, 2002, "doctors and nurses still exchange stories of past baby boomlets after citywide blackouts, blizzards and earthquakes." Some sociologists continue to cite the blackout boom as fact rather than fiction.

Will the alleged baby boom related to Sept. 11 also be debunked, only to remain in circulation? Or, if a boom does occur, how will it be explained? Will it be the result of gradual demographic changes or a flurry of terrorism-inspired conception?

The definitive answers to these questions won't appear for several months -- or years. But in the meantime, Cohan, for one, stands firm in the belief that at least the areas most affected by the terrorist attacks will experience a pronounced birthing bump. There's a link, she argues, between births and geographical proximity to disaster.

"In the Hurricane Hugo study, we found an increase in births in the eastern half of South Carolina that was declared a federal disaster site, but not in the western half of the state that was not so affected," she says. "It's my hunch that there will be an increase in births in New York City and Washington, D.C."

A rise in the national birthrate, Cohan argues, is less likely because those who live miles away from the disaster site suffered no disruption of their daily lives. But, she maintains, a national boom is not outside the realm of possibility. Other factors, like emotional proximity -- feeling close to the event in mind rather than body -- could make the boom national. "If an increase in births is related to feeling as though one's life was threatened by the event, then we might see an increase in births elsewhere," she says.

Other demographers aren't convinced. They argue that one study about a hurricane can't be relied upon for proof that a 9/11 baby boom is on the way. "Sept. 11 was a watershed event for our sense of security about the world -- but not for births," says Gerson at NYU. No one-day event, including Sept. 11, she argues, is likely to affect the birthrate.

Others experts, like Kathleen Tierney, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, see the 9/11 baby boom as part of American myth-making, yet another urban legend wrought by wishful thinking. We need evidence of our ability to perpetuate the species, to survive, grow, and to move on, regardless of the adversity we face. Celebration of conception and birth is a life-affirming reaction to death.

"We want to think that death is accompanied by the renewal of life, that the grave is not in the end victorious," says John Lachs, a philosopher at Vanderbilt University. "This is the native optimism of the living, energetic animal."

In Americans, this buoyant optimism is especially pronounced, Lachs says, "because we have powerful drives and have attained greater control over disease and death than perhaps any other nation in history."

A baby boom also satisfies our desire for closure -- and a happy ending. It invites us, or our family members or friends -- anyone who is pregnant -- to become part of the 9/11 story. We've already made family angst and social stigma the tickets to fame and fortune. Now, with the myth of the baby boom, we're making terrorism and its effects a desirable commodity, a lock on collective immortality. We want to be hurt, affected, altered down to our sexual souls -- and warmly remembered -- forever. This will make us, we believe perhaps correctly, more interesting -- and if the facts don't cooperate, we ignore them.

Of course there may be nothing wrong or harmful in all of this self-centered spin. What's wrong with wanting to be involved in a pivotal moment of our nation's history? Isn't belief in a baby boom, as experts like Rindfuss argue, a harmless form of comfort?


But if we falsely trust that we've already changed, that the outcome of the attacks is literal renewal and replacement, we are less willing to admit or believe that more needs to be done. The government, we stress, ought to crack down on terrorism, and do a better job protecting its citizens. Find Osama. Make the world a safer place. We have already responded, we have done our part, we say. We've changed! We're better! Haven't you been to the nursery? Didn't you see all the beautiful, perfect babies?

Gerson, for one, fears that a form of complacent logic has already taken root. We don't want to bother with the heavy lifting of political or social change, she argues. And by focusing on the sheer quantity of children born, we're giving ourselves a pass -- the freedom to overlook the quality of the world they are entering.

Especially silly and sad, she argues, is the belief that the baby boom is somehow a measure of Sept. 11's significance. Even if there are no more babies born, in New York or elsewhere in the wake of 9/11, the disaster will be remembered as meaningful, and in many ways, life-changing. We're mistaken when we forget that "[Sept. 11] is important without overestimating its consequences," Gerson says. The day is horrific, tragic and significant no matter what -- "even if it doesn't necessarily change everything."

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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