In 204 B.C., the Romans imported a new foreign cult. When the barge bringing the cult statue to Rome got stuck in the shallow waters of the Tiber, an aristocratic young woman, Claudia Quinta, miraculously pulled the rope to draw it in single-handedly. As her name tells us, she was the fifth daughter in her family.

The reason this story first stood out to me years ago is the same reason it came to mind while reading journalist Timothy P. Carney’s new book, Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be: Fifth kids are rare. Not coincidentally, they’re hard. “Comedian Jim Gaffigan has offered a vivid description of having a fifth child,” Carney writes. “Imagine you’re drowning. And someone hands you a baby.”

Fifth daughters were rare in ancient Rome for a different reason than they are in modern America, where we no longer have to provide good dowries to contract marriages for each girl (though college tuition might be a comparable expense). Rather, the contemporary US has joined the rest of the West—and a rising share of the Global South—in an unprecedented, apparently unrelenting baby bust. Not only are fifth kids uncommon these days, even second kids are increasingly rare, and the number of childless singles and couples is at a record high. Economics are just one factor here. We’re looking at a major cultural shift.

Just how bad are things? “The average thirty-five-year-old American woman in 2020 had just above 1.5 kids, which is the lowest number on record,” Carney notes. This is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children, and it’s bad news for everyone—though many don’t realize it yet. A family-unfriendly society is a miserable society and, in the long run, an economically precarious one too. Just look at any country where retirees outnumber the working-age young.

What would a family-friendly society look like? Well, we could know it by its fruit and its fruitfulness: more marriages, more marital stability, and more children. Maybe not a lot of fifth babies, but certainly more second and third ones. But before we consider Carney’s recommendations for how to be more family friendly, let’s consider his explanation for how America became such an unfriendly place for parents and kids.

In a move that signals the target audience of the book, Carney opens with a polemic against travel sports. For many middle-class families, having children now comes with unrealistic expectations of excellence. Sports and other extracurricular activities aren’t for fun anymore—children are expected to start thinking about the Olympics (or at least college scholarships) by the middle of kindergarten.

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Does this sound extreme and more than a little ridiculous? Of course, but that’s the increasingly common mindset. It’s an arms race. Moms and dads alike spend more time with our kids than did our counterparts a generation or two ago, but it’s not quality time. It’s stressful time, time spent chauffeuring, supervising, and worrying about which college Junior will attend even before potty-training begins. For some, Carney argues, the overwhelming expectations around getting parenting right leads to a decision to have no children or just one, who will be given every opportunity, every resource, every parental attention.

And these expectations are only the tip of the iceberg, Carney says. He considers how modern neighborhoods are built for cars, not people. There are fewer sidewalks, reducing or eliminating walkability. Fewer public spaces where families can gather at leisure. Neighbors often don’t know each other; many kids don’t play on the block; and indeed, the mere idea of children playing unsupervised outside is deemed dangerous—in some states, enough to incur the scrutiny of the law.

Add to this the growing distance between middle-class professionals and their parents and extended family, and raising kids comes to feel lonely and exhausting, because it is. When parents are this tired, they end up having fewer children, often fewer children than they wish they could have.

Carney also highlights recent technological shifts, especially smartphones, for their role in warping kids’ brains, increasing isolation, and revolutionizing dating so that achieving marriage becomes more difficult. Meanwhile, the technology of the pill has allowed people to postpone childbearing, often in service to the religion of “workism.” The pill (and, as Leah Libresco Sargeant has argued, the pump) allows newer strains of secular feminism that encourage women to choose careers over children to promote this vision while denigrating stay-at-home mothers or even motherhood itself. The message appears to be sinking in.

It’s a compounding problem too: A society with fewer kids naturally becomes less kid-friendly over time—less willing to accommodate children and families in public spaces, less kind, less joyful, more selfish. And a culture hostile to kids is a culture of sterility, a culture increasingly hostile to people in general. Our view of children reflects our larger anthropology: People are bad—not in the hyper-Calvinist sense, which at least offers hope and salvation in Jesus, but in a humans are a plague on this planetkind of way, which is utterly hopeless. We are living, Carney concludes, in a profound “civilizational sadness.”

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Carney’s analysis is the result of a decade’s worth of research and a lifetime’s worth of observations of his own family. I found it convincing. But there’s a component I suspect plays a larger role than Carney indicated—and I think he knows it, because he gives it more emphasis in his previous book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. This component is the role of the church in creating a family-friendly culture and the corresponding role of dechurching in making a culture that doesn’t have kids.

In Alienated America, Carney argues that the decline of church attendance was a significant factor in the erosion of our social ties. This shift is upstream from how we build our neighborhoods and write our tax codes. Healthy theology, robust church life, and communal support for young families are upstream from good policies pertaining to children and fertility too. In one of Family Unfriendly’s most poignant theological statements, Carney notes:

Babies aren’t objects. Babies are subjects. Objects—electric cars, homes, coffeemakers—are contingent goods. They are good insofar as they improve the lives of humans. Babies are the opposite of consumer goods. They are that for the sake of which we build societies, and thus governments, and thus tax codes. A tax code should favor toddlers over terriers or Teslas, because man-made law should favor people over nonpeople. A government should be partial toward children, because a government should be partial toward humans. Ours is a government for the people, not for the puppies.

This is powerful, and so are the rest of the solutions for which Carney advocates for creating an America that is more family friendly: more parental leave, a pro-marriage and pro-child tax code, a built environment that allows kids to roam free, a culture that is more supportive of homemakers and resists workism, a society in which we put people first.

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These are all good ideas, and I would love to see them materialize. And yet, I found myself thinking, a stronger culture of local church membership would organically resolve many of the problems Carney identifies.

Consider emergencies. Let’s say you’re in labor, to use a directly relevant example. What trustworthy friends can you call to come watch your kids—however many there are—at a moment’s notice? If you’re involved at church, you likely have many such people in your life, and you can be that person for others. If you’re irreligious or otherwise unchurched, you almost certainly have a far smaller group on whom you can call.

For the (very not fun) two weeks that I went over my due date with my third child, a friend from church went everywhere with a packed overnight bag in her car. If she needed to get to my house quickly, she could. When I finally called her around midnight, she came right away. She took care of my older two children that January night, allowing me and Dan to focus on welcoming our youngest.

No policy can make that kind of emergency support possible. In early parenting, maybe more than any other season of life, you need real people—flesh and blood, friends and family, people who come because they love you, not because someone is paying them—to be right there, eager to help. (I’ve semi-joked that I’d have another baby just to get another meal of the lasagna one elder’s wife at our previous church dutifully took to all new moms. It was that good.)

More than any possible government program, this kind of network will encourage people to have more babies. And Carney would most certainly agree—indeed, the introduction to his book involves just such an emergency for his own family. They came through it relatively smoothly because of the beautiful support of their relatives, colleagues, and, most of all, the church.

The bride of Christ is not flawless in the here and now. Yet it is churches that have the capacity to create, at least in microcosm, a culture that is family friendly in a world that is not.

Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church (Zondervan Academic, 2023) and the forthcoming Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity (IVP Academic, 2024).