The need to breed

As birth rates fall in the recession, one young woman decries the pressure to spawn

Published August 10, 2009 2:11PM (EDT)

Some girls make a smooth transition from cradling baby dolls to fantasizing about their own parenting days. Others -- like me -- enter adulthood without ever having caught the mommy bug. So, on the face of it, I have plenty in common with Lilit Marcus, author of the New York Post op-ed "I Don't Want Kids." We're roughly the same age, we both live in Brooklyn and raising children has never been a part of our life plans. The big difference? While kid culture and the childbearing imperative seem to be driving Marcus to distraction, I can't say that either is particularly affecting me.

Marcus, who grew up in North Carolina, expected New York to be a veritable paradise for the childless. But what she found when she moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn five years ago was a neighborhood "overgrown with strollers as thick as kudzu, many pushed by young, fashionable parents balancing a BlackBerry in one hand and a fair-trade coffee in the other." (Funny, whenever I'm in Williamsburg -- even in 2009 -- I have to constantly sidestep drunk, post-collegiate trustafarians just to get where I'm going.) Marcus has since come to the conclusion that New York parents are just like parents everywhere else, but with fancier strollers and the nerve to bring their babies into adults-only spaces, where they stare you down for uttering so much as a single curse word in front of their bundle of joy. 

The other criticisms Marcus cycles through are equally valid -- and equally unoriginal: Interesting people can become boring and self-absorbed when they spawn; just being a mother shouldn't place someone above reproach; the mania for parenting affects women more than men; American culture is oddly obsessed with huge families.

But none of this is what's really bothering Marcus. What she really wants is for people to just leave her alone about her decision to remain childless:

Even some people I know, adamant leftist atheists who consider the mainstream to be evil, can't believe I'm planning not to have kids -- "Who's going to take care of you when you're old?" one asked. You know who's going to take care of me when I'm old? Employees at a nursing home. The same one where your progeny are going to send you.

Marcus also brings up the flap surrounding celebrities like Marisa Tomei and Cameron Diaz announcing that they don't want to be mommies. And according to Marcus, her own point of view is so unpopular that she's sought refuge in a message board called Bratfree, "where the unburdened can connect with each other ... while not having breakdowns when little Bryden refuses to eat his edamame." She's also taking solace in humor blogs like STFU, Parents and Why the Fuck Do You Have a Kid? (a site that is wallpapered with photos of condoms and birth control pills).

I find these blogs funny, too. But I don't consider them -- or Bratfree, which doesn't interest me at all -- a rare respite from an all-consuming parenting culture that is constantly threatening to devour me. Maybe that's because I (like Marcus) am still relatively young to have kids -- at least in New York. In fact, in the days of IVF and surrogacy, the real deviation in certain circles may be a young woman just out of college who does get married and have a baby. I don't know many people my age who aren't at least somewhat ambivalent about whether or when they'll have children. And while I've been honest with friends, co-workers and even my parents about my disinclination to breed, virtually no one has used the discussion as an excuse to judge my choice.

But regardless of the realities of Brooklyn-based, 20-something life, this seems like a strange moment to complain that everyone wants you to breed. Even in pop culture, the American family is changing: Sarah Jessica Parker elected to have a surrogate carry her twins, and celebrities like Mary-Louise Parker and (who could forget?) Madonna have adopted children as single moms by choice. Although these women may seem to be perpetuating mommy-mania, they -- like Diaz and Tomei -- are also complicating cultural ideas of who should and shouldn't have kids and when.

And it turns out that America's mini-baby boom, which reached its peak in 2007, is also subsiding. Last week, every major news outlet was reporting that the current economic crisis -- like the Great Depression and the major recession in the '70s -- has significantly lowered the U.S. birth rate. Two percent fewer babies were born in 2008 than in the previous year, and all but 10 states experienced the decline. We don't even have statistics yet for this year, which should bear the brunt of the September '08 market crash's impact on birth rates. "Children are the most expensive item in every family’s budget, especially given all the gear kids expect today," sociologist Andrew Hacker told The New York Times. "So it’s a good place to cut back when you’re uncertain about the future." His statement strikes me as a particularly sane, pragmatic response to economic reality, far from the pro-parenting hysteria Marcus denounces.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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