The last few months have been particularly eventful here at Demography is Destiny. As you may know from our previous post, we welcomed our third child (and first girl) Lucy into our family. She is now nearly twelve weeks old and doing all the fun things babies do at that age like looking at you, smiling, laughing, and not moving from the spot where you put them last. The boys are still enamoured of her, although our middle child Henry can’t be trusted not to crush her when giving her a hug! The last few weeks have been very busy, but the house feels full now with five people in it and the chaos is not quite all-encompassing. We are trying to be more deliberate in our enjoying Lucy, which we can a bit more since we are far more relaxed about the mechanical things about having a baby: feeding; sleeping; bathing etc.
On top of that, we have had some fantastic news last week. Our second son, Henry (who is three years’ old now) was given the medical all-clear. For the last few months he has been receiving treatment for a cancerous tumour in his head which had eaten away a hole in his skull. He had borne the hospital visits, operation, needles and steroids very well, but we were extremely nervous about the scan last week which would tell us how successful the last six-months of treatment had been. Well, it was so successful that he is no longer having drugs pumped into him. It is not the end of the road (he will need regular check-ups for a number of years) but we are feeling much more positive about things than we have for a number of months.
The shock, surprise and sheer bizarreness of having a child diagnosed with cancer was with me while I was recently reading Mark Helprin’s latest novel Paris in the Present Tense (a much more digestible and much less formless read than his Winter’s Tale). Helprin notes that in the technologically advanced, relatively peaceful and wealthy western nations, people are largely oblivious to, and immune from death, hunger, disease and other catastrophes that every other human being had hanging over them until about five minutes ago. And then sometimes the veneer of impregnability and immortality slips, and one is confronted with something that brings us back to our senses: a terrorist attack, a plane crash, a child getting cancer reminds us that we are mortal and that our best endeavours to forget that fact count for naught. (Helprin expounded this idea much better than I have just done; the book is returned to the library and my memory is scattered due to night time bottle feeds of Lucy.)
A child getting cancer. Yes, it certainly reminds us that we are vulnerable and that we can’t protect those that we love all the time from everything. It certainly reminds us that we are not in control and that our best laid plans can be dashed in an instance. It is true that all parents are reminded to some extent by their children of these truths. We want nothing to hurt them but they will inevitably be bullied, hurt, heartbroken, fired. We want to control and plan our lives, our work, our leisure and our families, but then they spill something, have a tantrum, want to do something else, get sick. And even if a child does not get cancer, we still worry that something horrific like that might happen to them. In short, having a child tends to take you out of yourself and open you up to vulnerabilities which you never had before.
One potential reason that fertility rates in many countries are so low is that young people today are less willing to put themselves into a position of vulnerability by having children. They do not want to be hurt, they do not want their plans to be disrupted by beings that are incessantly demanding. Perhaps this is true. Parenting is hard. Before one is a parent one can weigh the cost: sleepless nights; money outflow; mess; noise; pain. But before one is a parent, one cannot weigh the benefit. Not really. Not until one is in the midst of the costly pain. Not until one is actually a parent, and is actually holding that little being in their arms can one appreciate the benefits. And perhaps that is the problem.