Is Having Children a Political Choice?
How culture is making childrearing a mark of conservatism
If you haven’t seen it yet, you probably will today — this pretty incredible footage of Kim Jong Un wiping away tears as he asks for North Korean women to have more children.
“Preventing a decline in birthrates and good child care are all of our housekeeping duties we need to handle while working with mothers,” Kim said at the event.
The United Nations Population Fund estimates that as of 2023 the fertility rate, or the average number of children being born to a woman in North Korea, stood at 1.8, amid an extended fall in the rate during recent decades.
The fertility rate remains higher than in some of North Korea’s neighbors, which have been grappling with a similar downward trend. South Korea saw its fertility rate drop to a record low of 0.78 last year, while Japan saw its figure drop to 1.26.
Perhaps Kim has a subscription to the Times, because Ross Douthat had a column in the NYT this week about the declining birthrate in South Korea:
For some time now, South Korea has been a striking case study in the depopulation problem that hangs over the developed world. Almost all rich countries have seen their birthrates settle below replacement level, but usually that means somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 children per woman. For instance, in 2021, the United States stood at 1.7, France at 1.8, Italy at 1.3 and Canada at 1.4.
But South Korea is distinctive in that it slipped into below-replacement territory in the 1980s but lately has been falling even more — dropping below one child per woman in 2018, to 0.8 after the pandemic, and now, in provisional data for both the second and third quarters of 2023, to just 0.7 children per woman.
It’s worth unpacking what that means. A country that sustained a birthrate at that level would have, for every 200 people in one generation, 70 people in the next one, a depopulation exceeding what the Black Death delivered to Europe in the 14th century. Run the experiment through a second generational turnover, and your original 200-person population falls below 25. Run it again, and you’re nearing the kind of population crash caused by the fictional superflu in Stephen King’s “The Stand.”
He closes with a comparison to our own experience:
We too have an exhausting meritocracy. We too have a growing ideological division between men and women in Generation Z. We too are secularizing and forging a cultural conservatism that’s anti-liberal but not necessarily pious, a spiritual but not religious right. We too are struggling to master the temptations and pathologies of virtual existence.
So the current trend in South Korea is more than just a grim surprise. It’s a warning about what’s possible for us.
This is all true, of course, but it’s also possible that different societies have different factors that come front of mind — and different policies that undermine family formation as far down as the local level (we’ll have more on that when Tim Carney’s book comes out in the spring). Despite the fact that 2022 showed an uptick in the U.S. birthrate, there has been a spate of articles of late highlighting worries about bringing children into a world fraught with chaos, economic uncertainty, climate change, and all the other things that worry many well-educated center-left readers.
Some of these are just predictable and sad — here’s Jill Filipovic’s contribution at Slate. But some of them seem to really be grappling with motherhood on the edge of it becoming an impossibility. Perhaps the best example is this, from Rachel Cohen in Vox:
I’m not alone in struggling with the prospect of motherhood. Birthrates in America have declined across racial and ethnic groups over the past 15 years, decreases driven not only by people having fewer children but also by those waiting to have any children at all, many deeply torn about the idea. The animated Fencesitter Reddit stirs daily with prospective parents stressed over what they really want. One of the most viral TikTok videos last year, with millions of views and some 800,000 likes, is known simply as “The List,” featuring hundreds of reasons to not have children. (Reasons included: urinary tract infections during and after pregnancy, back pain, nosebleeds, and #89, “could be the most miserable experience of your life.”)
Uncertainty is normal. Becoming a parent is a life-changing decision, after all. But this moment is unlike any women have faced before. Today, the question of whether to have kids generates anxiety far more intense than your garden-variety ambivalence. For too many, it inspires dread.
I know some women who have decided to forgo motherhood altogether — not out of an empowered certainty that they want to remain child-free, but because the alternative seems impossibly daunting. Others are still choosing motherhood, but with profound apprehension that it will require them to sacrifice everything that brings them pleasure.
Meanwhile, the very idea of becoming a parent has grown more politically fraught. Republican politicians are doubling down on explicit endorsements of childbearing, the kind that Democrats increasingly see as at odds with reproductive freedom and valuing families of all kinds.
On top of this, there is the well-documented aversion many millennials feel about making any sort of commitment, so conditioned are we to leave our personal and professional options open. One need not squint to see the connections to having kids — it’s the ultimate pledge, more enduring even than many marriages.
Does this pressure to stay nimble and untethered explain millennial mom dread? It certainly offers some insight. Yet clearly, something more is going on. How to explain why, in survey after survey, it is women with the most financial resources, and the highest levels of education, who report the most stress and unhappiness with motherhood?
We hear often that the US is the least family-friendly country in the industrialized world, but American women who describe the most dissatisfaction are also those most likely to work in jobs that do offer maternity leave, paid sick days, and remote-work flexibility. They’re most likely to have decent health insurance and the least likely to be raising a child on their own. Understanding what’s driving these feelings might be key to changing it — for me and millions of others…
She goes on to highlight just some of the cultural drivers of this phenomenon:
When Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2019 novel Fleishman Is in Trouble was made into a popular Hulu miniseries, critics noted the deep resonance women felt for the show’s two leading moms. (“Fleishman Is in Trouble Knows Motherhood Is a Drag,” read one New York magazine headline.) Meanwhile, Olivia Colman received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the 2021 film Lost Daughter, playing a professor who abandons her kids when the weight of motherhood overwhelms her. (Vulture later dubbed that year “the year of sad moms at the movies.” )
Or survey recent titles of mainstream nonfiction on the topic: Mom Rage: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood; Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood; Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America; All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership. (These are also almost always written by white, middle-class authors.) And then there are the anxiety-inducing news stories, like “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (2012), “The Costs of Motherhood Are Rising, and Catching Women Off Guard” (2018), “Mothers All Over Are Losing It” (2021), and, of course, “These Mothers Were Exhausted, So They Met on a Field to Scream” (2022).
Should we stumble across moms on Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok who do seem to be enjoying the experience of child-rearing, we’re taught to be very, very suspicious. Assume they’re “pitchwomen.” Assume they’re ridiculously wealthy. Assume, as Times columnist Jessica Grose put it, that they’re mostly peddling “pernicious expectations.”
Something that seems like background noise to all of this is the lived experience — the very different lived experience — of left-leaning and right-leaning households when it comes to childrearing. For more on that, let’s turn to findings from the Institute for Family Studies and Gallup:
Children who grow up in politically liberal households are more likely to suffer mental health problems than their conservative peers, according to a new study.
An Institute for Family Studies-Gallup report found that "political ideology is one of the strongest predictors" of which caregiving styles a parent adopts, and conservative parents are associated with the best mental health outcomes for their children.
"Conservative and very conservative parents are the most likely to adopt the parenting practices associated with adolescent mental health," study author Jonathan Rothwell, who is also the principal economist at Gallup and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote . "Liberal parents score the lowest, even worse than very liberal parents, largely because they are the least likely to successfully discipline their children."
Conservative parents have several key distinctions in their relationships with their children that inform mental health outcomes, Rothwell explained, including being able to "effectively discipline their children, while also displaying affection and responding to their needs." The right-leaning parents also have better quality relationships with their children, "characterized by fewer arguments, more warmth, and a stronger bond."
“Are all exchanges with women negotiations? Yes. If this seems like an inappropriate response, it is just that I do not know a stronger one then ‘yes.’ Women, it seems to me, like to know who's in charge. And if it's not going to be them, they would like it to be you. The problem is that "in charge" in this instance may be defined as ‘leading the two of you toward that goal which they have elected is correct.’”
— David Mamet