Where Have All the Children Gone?
COMMENTARY: The baby in the womb too often is sacrificed on the altar of economic and social progress.
Some of the most tender scenes in the Gospels feature Jesus with little children. In one story, a crowd is gathered around him and some children are trying to reach him, but the apostles shoo them away. Jesus says, “Suffer children to come to me, and do not forbid them: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 18:16). This is a remarkable statement linking the innocence and trust of a child with heaven. Another time he said, “Unless you become converted and become like little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
His words certainly present a challenge for grown-ups. He wasn’t saying we should throw tantrums or act childishly, but rather that we must remove the hardened protective cover of our hearts so Jesus can dwell there. This conversion happens through a radical surrender to him and a deep trust.
Unfortunately, many folks today have no desire to “suffer” the little children. In fact, some married people celebrate being childless, a state that would have seemed tragic to our grandparents. This group prefers the title “childfree,” which supposedly downplays the notion of lacking something.
The childfree movement has its roots in radical feminism, which began sweeping the United States in the 1970s. According to Kate Millett, who wrote Sexual Politics, the family was a patriarchal structure that turned women into victims. Liberation for women depended on overturning this structure, which involved destroying the nuclear family. Instead of a joy to be embraced, motherhood was seen as a shackle to be broken. Millett’s book sold 15,000 copies just a month after its publication.
One premise of the childfree movement is that children put a big dent in the parents’ ability to enjoy themselves. After all, parents are faced with many unpleasant tasks like diaper-changing, potty training and quelling tantrums. Add to that the financial burden of having a family, which means fewer luxury items for Mom and Dad. The Christian idea that we love people by sacrificing for them is foreign to the movement. A recent article, “Why Americans Are Having Fewer Babies” (The Wall Street Journal, May 27-28), points out that the plummeting birth rate in our country began 15 years ago and still hasn’t recovered. One reason for this decline is economic but one “childfree” woman explained she didn’t want to give up things that make her happy.
Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique was a study of women’s role in the home, published in 1963. Friedan saw the home as a prison for women, whom she characterized as plagued by boredom and lack of fulfillment. Her solution for women was joining the workforce, an idea that overlooked the obvious fact that boredom is also a part of many jobs. She also failed to mention that, for countless women, spending time at home with their children is life’s greatest joy.
Catholicism celebrates motherhood as a special and beautiful calling, rooted in the feminine genius, but feminism saw it as a trap. Feminists equated mothering with drudgery, boredom and lack of rewards. Activities that had traditionally brought fulfillment to women and helped the family were compared with masculine activities and found lacking. Feminists bewailed the fact that a man could find power in the workforce and wasn’t tied down by childcare and housework. Feminists saw women as terribly mistreated by the patriarchal system, which kept them at home with children.
“Choice” became a sacred word — as long as the choice wasn’t being a stay-at-home mother. Indeed, even the phrase “stay-at-home” would have been considered laughable by earlier generations, since it was assumed mothers would be home with their children. Women devoted to motherhood benefited the whole family, since they gardened, sewed, knitted and provided nourishing meals. They taught children how to read, play the piano and work on math problems. These are all meaningful pursuits, but the feminists devalued them because they didn’t bring in a paycheck.
Since motherhood was seen as a major impediment to liberating women, abortion became the solution to unplanned pregnancies. Although the original suffragettes had been vehemently opposed to abortion, the feminists of the 20th and 21st centuries have enshrined it. The baby in the womb too often is sacrificed on the altar of economic and social progress.
In the 1970s, the childfree movement was bolstered by the theory that overpopulation would lead to worldwide catastrophes, which was the thesis of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich. He predicted hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the following decade — unless people stopped reproducing. His book had a major impact on readers, who took his dire prediction as unshakably true.
One of the worst outcomes of his prediction was the one-child policy in China, which used forced abortions to slow down population growth. By 2016, recognizing that the population was drastically shrinking, the Chinese government began rewarding couples who had two children, and it recently upped the ante to three. Still, there is no way to reverse the tragic damage of all those lost lives.
Folks in the childfree movement during Ehrlich’s time considered themselves virtuous, since they weren’t adding more people to an overcrowded planet. Sadly, people with big families were looked down upon as contributing to the planet’s eventual death. Today, the movement has latched onto climate change and other environmental concerns as a way to “virtue signal” the decision to be childless.
God has been removed from the equation for feminists, so having children is simply a biological phenomenon with no spiritual overtones. Kate Millett had no use for God, but was an ardent supporter of Karl Marx. Germaine Greer, who wrote The Female Eunuch, called herself a Catholic atheist because she had been raised attending a Catholic school before rejecting religion. French feminist Simone de Beauvoir celebrated atheism and found the very thought of childbirth repulsive.
Christians know motherhood is vital to God’s plan for the world. After all, God could have ordained that Jesus just “show up” on earth as an adult, but instead chose that he be conceived in Mary’s womb and born in the usual way. Jesus performed his first miracle when his mother requested it, and as he was dying on the cross, he made sure his beloved mother would be cared for by John.
Let’s pray that people who see children as burdens will have their eyes opened by the light of Christ. Let’s pray they will surrender their hearts to Christ. And as they welcome babies into their lives, may they experience a lovely foretaste of heaven.
Lorraine V. Murray, Ph.D., is the author of “The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey.” She is a columnist with The Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Her other books include “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist” and three church mysteries: “Death in the Choir,” “Death of a Liturgist” and “Death Dons a Mask.” She lives in Decatur, Ga.
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