You know the Western world is hostile to children when you have them. Couples know this from the looks they get, the comments, the smirks. It’s as if it were illegal, like smoking cigarettes in a public building.
Maria Lopez and her husband, Alex, get more smiles than frowns, more praise than put downs when they head to the grocery store in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, with their four young children. But they are amazed that they also hear from the critics. In a world in which most of us learn that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all, it’s revealing that people will openly denounce families for choosing to have a child because, apparently, you shouldn’t have more than two.
"You can stop now," was the most common comment down at the mall after strangers learned that Lopez had one boy and one girl.
"I’d like to have more children," her husband replied
"Ya, right," said a stranger. "What does your wife say?"
Lopez visited her former workplace when a colleague, who learned she was pregnant for the fourth time, quipped: "Come over here so I can give you a slap." On another occasion, a woman referring to a man with five children told Lopez: "Hasn’t he heard of birth control?" Replied Lopez as sweetly as she could: "I thought you were pro-choice? That’s his choice."
When asked, who has time to love so many? Garcia-Prats replies: "Love is multiplied. They each have nine brothers who love and adore them."
In an era of sound bites in the battle of ideas, moms and dads are on the frontlines in defending the family in about 15 words or less. I am also a father of four and was among a small group of Canadian families, when talk turned to the hostility. Our conversation became an impromptu strategy session on how to reply in a meaningful way. We agreed that after the insult, you had better be quick. The smiling or smirking attackers don’t really want to discuss the philosophy of the unwritten two-child policy while the insulted parents want to offer a pearl of wisdom to ponder later. "I think the best gift you can give a child is siblings," was a favourite response.
Now, imagine if you had, say, 10 kids. A Texas couple of 10 sons say people they meet are mostly in awe. In restaurants the waitress asks what camp or tour group they’re from. But they were once told: "You consider yourself responsible with 10 kids?" Replied the mother, Catherine Musco Garcia-Prats: "We don’t define responsible by the number of kids we have but by what we do with the children. " You can tell she’s had practice in answering the critics. When asked, who has time to love so many? Garcia-Prats replies: "Love is multiplied. They each have nine brothers who love and adore them."
I’ve stopped saying that having children means I have someone to visit me when I am old. Ultimately, it’s a selfish answer. I prefer to say that children evoke sacrifice and encourage people to kindness. Children make the world a better place because they force their parents to grow up by thinking about the needs of others.
Want to scare people into not having children? Tell them how much it will cost. There are enough advocacy groups, which under the guise of promoting families, are quick to point out that it will cost you about US $184,000 to raise a child to the age of 18. Add a second child, education expenses and what if they don’t leave until they’re 25? We’re talking close to half-a-million dollars. With four kids you have to be a millionaire!
"The only people I know with more than three children are white trash," I heard a neighbour say, which is odd because the stats say they have to be millionaires. So, let’s be honest. An American mother of eight was aghast at the so-called official costs (it included daycare and a US $2,900 monthly mortgage payment for a big house). So she did her own calculations and found she would pay US $51,588 per child. Her house is not so big and she’s a stay-at-home mother.
"Having children is not about money but about our priorities," says my wife, Alba. "Is our priority getting rich or raising a family?"
Blow away the smoke and birth rates show how anti-child today's society is. A nation needs a replacement rate of 2.1 births per women – as in the United States — just to survive. A society that wants children doesn’t have a replacement rate of a mere 1.5 births per women, as in Canada, or 1.3 in Spain, Italy and Greece. In fact, all of Europe has imploding populations based on replacement rates.
Until recently, when many Western countries discovered the baby shortage, they offered absolutely no tax breaks to families generating their most valuable resource: the next generation. In almost any Western country, after a woman has had a baby, a nurse gives her a pep talk about contraception. The United Nations gives funding to Planned Parenthood, which spends more money on ending pregnancies than anything else. And when couples have children, they hide them. Kids are sent to daycare. But no adult ever puts up a hand when the question is: Who would have preferred daycare to your mother when you were a child?
In some non-Western countries, being anti-children is more obvious. China recently made the absurd announcement that its one-child policy is responsible for reducing global warming. India’s minister of state for women and child development once advocated that women and men with more than two children be banned from voting.
The Western world has more of a split personality: a blessing to some, burden to others. When the two sides meet, events can take a strange turn. An acquaintance took her five children shopping. When the clerk at the checkout counter learned that all the kids were hers, the clerk observed: "Aren’t we greedy." How odd.
But the derogatory remarks that mothers get are often not about them. They are about the person who said them. They are words of justification for the woman who chose not to have kids and now regrets it or waited too long.
The hostility from men is usually just plain old self-centredness. I encountered this for the first time when my first son was six months old and I brought him to a restaurant where I met acquaintances. The young couple next to me had no plans for a family because of the consequences for her figure, their sex life, his hockey nights and their travel plans. The boyfriend leaned over to make his point. He put two fingers together from each hand to form a cross, held them up to my son’s face as if to ward off evil and announced defiantly that in their lives children were absolutely out of the question. The girlfriend said nothing. In hindsight this scene was probably a message for her, not for me.
But there is an encouraging flipside to this. Families in the culture war have their undercover allies. When strangers suddenly appear from nowhere and say, "you have beautiful children" or "you’re courageous" or "good for you", the spirit of the weary parent soars, like a soldier in the trenches upon hearing that supplies and replacements are on the way. I now go out of my way to compliment mothers and fathers with young children or help them open a door or struggle with a stroller. A knowing smile that says "parenting is not for wimps" is sometimes the elixir a parent needs to get past a child’s meltdown.
Due to complicated circumstances my wife ended up going to church alone with our infant daughter recently. By the time Mass ended, little Catalina was shrieking so loudly many heads turned. My wife’s face went red and she couldn’t get out the door fast enough. But the punch line in this anecdote was that a stranger walked up to her, congratulated her for coming and said he knew her job was a difficult one. Despite the mortifying ordeal, in retelling the story to me later, my wife was beaming.
Encouragement is never lost. In today’s world, parents need it more than ever.
Patrick Meagher is MercatorNet's contributing editor in Canada.