A lot has been written about China’s one-child-policy, a draconian government edict that has, as entirely anticipated decades ago by wise people (like my husband), led to a demographic crisis. First, China is about to have the oldest population in the industrialized world. Second, there are shortly going to be over twenty million single men desperately seeking wives they can’t find because they were never born. National and international implications notwithstanding, in an article on the subject in the Wall Street Journal, one simple idea jumped out at me.
It seems that when Beijing changed its policy in 2016 to allow a second child, it did not result in a rash of new babies. One person quoted said that even if all restrictions on family size were lifted, “China will learn what many other countries have learned—that it is much more difficult to get people to have more babies,” (than the other way around).
What struck me is how our complex world has transformed what used to be a fact of life – married couples have children – into a controversy. Scientific advances allow men and women both to avoid pregnancy without embracing celibacy and to imagine, often wrongly, that they can have pregnancy on demand. Social trends present children both as parental trophies and as impediments to living a fulfilling life. Having children, like marriage itself, is no longer a normal step on the road of life.
Government interference in family life takes many forms. In China, it was harnessed to lower the birth rate, a fact the government may now be ruing. In Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia having children was seen as doing one’s civic duty by producing future soldiers. Both Hitler and Stalin awarded medals to mothers of large families. In the United States, misguided governmental policies encourage having children outside of marriage.
What, for centuries, had been the natural order of things has ceased to be so. While health and economic issues may have presented problems with having unlimited-sized families, children generally used to be seen as expected, needed and positive additions in a married couple’s life.
Today, manipulation of the natural order is the norm, though not without consequences as China and the rest of the world are discovering. Whether the culture is encouraging or discouraging pregnancy, providing government support to have or not have babies, or socially lauding or stigmatizing marriage and family, one of the most intimate of activities is being directed by public voices.
Outside of religious communities, large families are increasingly rare. There is little reason to assume that without family or cultural ties, unrelated citizens will, economically, emotionally and physically, care for the generation that preceded it. Looking at China’s looming problems head on may not be pleasant, but it is instructive.