By Sam Keyes
One of each! You can stop now.
I am not sure how normal it is for dental hygienists to make pronouncements on reproductive habits, but I have at this point lost count of the number of places where this exact comment has been made following a brief get-to-know-you introduction at some place of professional service. The dentist is the one I remember most recently. Yes, I do have a boy and a girl. Yes, that is fun. But “now I can stop”? Stop what? I’m not sure what I’m doing. Do you know something that I don’t?
Now, this is not quite as bad as the comment from one person — I dare not say if it was a relative or a friend, but it was an older person — who said to my wife, when she announced she was pregnant the first time, “They do have ways of preventing that, you know.” Because who would actually want to be pregnant in this day and age? Shouldn’t we take the time to “get to know each other” first? Can we really afford to have a baby?
Whatever you think about Planned Parenthood, I suspect that most of even the most vociferously pro-life conservatives agree with this basic principle, tantamount to one of the core assumptions of modern democratic life, that pregnancies should be, for the most part, with rare and rarely charming exceptions, planned. There are two categories of pregnancy: wanted and unwanted; planned and unplanned. We seem to have forgotten about the existence of a complicated middle ground that probably includes most babies born in history, i.e., pregnancy that is wanted but not precisely planned, expected but still unexpected, welcomed but not precisely wanted, wanted but wanted with fear, trepidation, and a great deal of uncertainty.
I suspect that most of us who engage in sexual relations understand their biological telos, even if the world has tried very hard in the past few decades to help us forget. Even if we take contraception for granted, as the natural baseline, the universal norm, we all do understand on some level that it is not entirely abnormal for pregnancy to follow sex. Surely it must happen sometimes, because we were born. And so theoretically, far from the imagination of most people, there exist these strange people who are neither trying not to get pregnant but who may not particularly intend to get pregnant right at the moment, but who nonetheless welcome pregnancy when it happens as a sort of natural consequence and part of a marital relationship. For such alien personages, an unplanned pregnancy is not an accident requiring deep social sympathy; it is, like any other pregnancy, substantially unrelated to the will of parents — a difficult gift that makes demands on us, whatever we happen to think about it.
I have long tried to avoid passing judgment on other marriages for their lack or surplus of children. I have known couples who have “tried” (not actively prevented) having children for years with no result; some end up adopting, some end up waiting, some end up being surprised with several pregnancies in a row. Of course there are those who try to avoid having children to various degrees, but — putting aside for a moment the various moral distinctions, some of them more convincing than others, about “natural” vs. “artificial” forms of “birth control” — that’s normal too. And there’s quite a range of permissible behavior, such a range that it is really dangerous to assume anything about what prudential judgments couples have and are making. This goes both ways. Just as it’s misguided to assume that a childless couple is hopelessly committed to a contraceptive culture of death, it’s hardly necessary to assume that any couple with more than three children is committed to militant fecundity. (Yes, real people do use that phrase.)
The reason, I suggest, that we find it so easy and so irresistibly necessary to make these snap judgments is that we have accepted the baseline sorting of children into the category of consumer decisions. Some dispute the morality of the consumer decisions of others, but even traditionalists find it very difficult to move children out of the category. While growing up I sometimes heard comments about poor families with lots of kids as being “irresponsible.” I have on occasion heard that same description in a professional context for those whose pregnancies somehow disrupt the all-important work of an institution. Having children, for most of us, is not really all that different from buying a car or a house or a belt: You can “afford” them or not; they’re “expensive”; they’re “an investment”; they’re “worth it.”
It is amazing how much rhetoric about contraception, childbirth, and so on centers on consumer concerns, even among “conservative” people. I love Mollie Hemingway’s post in June reminding us that when most people speak about “affording” to have children they mean affording to give their children everything that middle-class, 21st-century children are supposed to have (most of which probably destroys their development). They mean the college fund, the iPad, the “curated” nursery space, not to mention the unchanged consumer habits of the parents. The reason, maybe, that the poor, as well as the very rich, not to mention certain odd Christian types, don’t worry too much about having children is that they do not worship these consumer necessities in the same way.
I would love to see more pro-family policy in this country. Frankly, it’s hard to think of all the things that we could improve (call me a socialist if you like): the accessibility and affordability of childcare; widely divergent and in many cases inhumane policies on parental leave; the total inadequacy of post-partum care and lactation consultation, not to mention healthcare in general; the educational philosophy that neglects actual human development in favor of training in consumerist goals. I am not sure how else to explain giving elementary-aged kids iPads, homework, and no recess.
There’s a lot that we can and should work on. But no policy change — even a dramatic reversal of Roe v. Wade — is going to make us into a culture of life. Neither will having lots of babies. It has to start with us refusing to put babies next to video games and fur coats on the list of things that we want or don’t want.
Back to planning. My wife and I are expecting our third child this fall. Did this happen on purpose? It’s such a strange question for something that, in the end, no one can control. I know we use the term birth control for a variety of drugs and pieces of equipment and techniques, but it’s a misnomer, as anyone who knows anything about the mysteries of the human body could tell you. When people ask (and, weirdly, they do), I normally refuse to say Yes or No and just remark that I don’t like thinking of my children as consumer objects. Closer friends get a slightly less snippy affirmation that we are in fact aware that sex can lead to pregnancy, so they can draw what conclusions they will. We’re not saving the world with this language, but I like to think that we’re witnessing, in some small way, to a reality that our world seems to have forgotten.