Last year, the US birthrate experienced its largest single-year drop in nearly 50 years. For years, America’s 2.1 fertility rate made it an outlier to other developed countries. But for the last decade, the number had begun trending downwards, plummeting to last year’s figure of 1.6 children per woman.
These numbers entered the news the same week the New York Times published an essay by columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, “I Became a Mother at 25, and I’m Not Sorry I Didn’t Wait.” Many warmly received and shared the piece, which explores the author’s experience of learning she was pregnant and the many factors that have caused millennial women to delay children including economic concerns, higher education, race, and geography. But for others, it struck a nerve.
One NYT commenter wrote, “There are few things more irresponsible than bringing a child into the world in 2021. I know it's difficult to reject the incredible social and cultural pressure that encourages us to reproduce. The easiest thing to do will always be to have children. But a good rule of thumb is that the easiest option-- the one our current paradigm encourages-- generally causes the most damage and suffering.”
On Twitter, Jill Filipovic wrote, “I would really love to read more essays and op/eds from women (and men, too) who regret having children as early as they did, regret having as many as they did, or regret having children at all. There's not much about motherhood that remains publicly unexplored, but that does.”
Rebecca McLaughlin is the author of Confronting Christianity, named Christianity Today's 2020 Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year, and it's follow-up edition for youth, 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity. Her latest book is The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims. She joined global media manager Morgan Lee and executive editor Ted Olsen to discuss the challenges of talking about babies and motherhood in 2021 in the culture at large but also inside the church.
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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode 264
What do you think the state of ecumenical pro-natalism is in our current culture?
Rebecca McLaughlin: It's certainly the case that religious people tend to have more babies. Whether we're talking about having more babies or not, we are having more babies and that's true in the U.S. and it's true globally as well.
As I read Liz's piece, I was first struck by just how well written it was. And there's a big myth that honestly haunts both our secular liberal friends’ ecosystem and our ecosystem as Christians, and this myth is that women need to choose between having babies, especially having babies early, and achieving excellence in any other sphere of their life. And one of the things that I loved about the article was how she—without making this point explicitly actually—demonstrated to us that this myth of the mommy brain, the idea that having children somehow rots your intelligence as a woman, just isn't true.
One of the struggles that we have as evangelicals is we've felt the need to validate women who stay home and take care of their kids—which is an important thing and something we should be validating—but we've tended to do it at the expense of women who are single and at the expense of women who are mothers and also work outside the home.
And that's kind of where, where we've made some quite unbiblical mistakes, because as we look at the scriptures, that there's an awful lot that can inform how we think about parenting, how we think about having children, and the goodness of having children, or the goodness of being other-person-oriented.
Which is something that I thought Ms. Bruenig brought out beautifully in her piece: how becoming a parent forces you to stop being primarily concerned with yourself and start being primarily concerned with somebody else's. There’s something extraordinarily Christian about that paradigm applied in any sphere of life.
But while we should and must validate women who stay home full-time with their kids—it's something that some of my smartest and my scholarly friends are doing right now—when we start to do that at the expense of all the ways that women are called to serve the Lord, for example, to talk about a woman's highest calling is to be a wife and mother, that becomes quite unbiblical and misleading. Because really a woman's highest calling is to follow Jesus and you can do that as a woman who has children and as a single woman.
Before the advent of birth control, was it possible to be pro-natalist or anti-natalist? Or is this the idea of individuals taking a stance on fertility somewhat new?
Rebecca McLaughlin: Well, it depends how far back we want to go.
Let’s look at the world into which Christianity was born., the era when Jesus was born. It was a world in which people didn't have access to the pill, but babies were routinely abandoned when they weren’t wanted—especially baby girls, who were seen as less valuable than baby boys. And that wasn't seen as morally problematic at that time because babies, in and of themselves, weren't seen as precious humans made in the image of God, they were seen more as possessions.
This is one of the big innovations that Christianity brought to the wider world—which came straight out of Judaism but exploded from Christianity—based on Jesus's interactions with babies. Like Luke said, even infants were brought to him, and when the disciples tried to turn them away, Jesus said, “No, let them come to me; to such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
And this sudden valuing of babies and small children as precious people made in God's image, changed the way that parenting was seen in the early church and still echoes down to us today as we think about conversations around abortion and as we think about parenting in general.
But the development of this model that says a woman's highest calling is to be a wife and mother, and that the biblical way of mothering is for every child to have their mother’s undivided attention through the day—that is actually a very modern concept of what it means to be a mother. It’s very modern to expect a small number of children and a very intensive parenting style. Historically rich women have never talked to their own children and poor women have had seven children and a job to support them.
So we have this mythology that's cropped up that says up until the last couple of generations, every child was carefully looked after all day long by their mother and that there were very few children involved in this process.
It's striking that even Jesus' mother—who presumably was not a neglectful parent—didn't even realize Jesus wasn't with them for 24 hours when he was 12. The reality is at that stage, as a 12-year-old, Jesus would have been as seen as pretty mature and not just a child as we would think of the 12-year-olds these days. And there was a much more expensive role of the general extended family and parenting, et cetera.
So the pro-natalist and anti-natalist conversations we have today are embedded in social realities that are quite different from those that our earlier ancestors lived with. We have very different expectations of what it even looks like to parent and what the responsibilities of the parent are.
What makes the apprehension or ambivalence about bringing children into the world in 2021 a unique conversation?
Rebecca McLaughlin: I think there is a range of factors here.
One is the idea that sexual freedom is more important than commitment, in terms of our happiness, and especially for women. The sexual revolution of the ’60s brought what was seen as this wonderful gift of commitment-free sex to women, and in ways that hadn't been possible. Folks in my generation were brought up, at least in societal terms to think that women of my generation now had the opportunity of commitment-free sex and the opportunity for a career that would be uninhibited by parenting.
Morgan Lee: And I've heard it explained that for women who were put into situations where they might not actually want to have children, or it might not actually be good for their bodies to have children, it also gave them more freedom. So on the one hand, yes, the sexual freedom part, but two, even for women who were in marriages, it gave them a little bit more agency in how that looked like.
Rebecca McLaughlin: Yeah. And so there's a lot of important conversations to be had around contraception of various kinds within marriage. But even before we got into that space—and I'm speaking only for myself as someone who's raised in the UK, and we're going to very secular academic schools where—we were constantly being told, you have opportunities that your parents or grandparents as women didn't have.
There was this paradigm that valued sexual freedom on the one hand and pursuit of a career on the other. And the possibility of having children was a very kind of conflicted idea that was something we recognized that people wanted, but it was seen as very much a detrimental thing to the pursuit of a career.
We are in a situation today where women are having fewer children than they want. It's not just that their desire for children has been diminished, but rather they feel like that's not economically possible for them or they're starting having children much later than previous generations.
So it's a very complex picture, but one of the things that we've forgotten is, as Liz pointed out in her article, is the beautiful life-giving and joy-giving experience of parenthood. It is often left out of the picture as people, especially highly-educated women, are thinking about their futures.
Ted Olsen: Yeah, the joy of parenting is something that kind of gets left out of some of the abstract conversation. How economists talk about it doesn't resonate with me, and how Christians sometimes talk about it doesn't quite resonate with me.
We ran this article by Ken Tanner in a magazine I used to run called The Behemoth. And his main point was like, “I do a lot of good things that have eternal significance, but the children that I have made, that God has made through me, these children are going to exist eternally. These children that I've been entrusted with, and that I had a part in making, that's the most significant thing I'm going to do because they really are eternal. They didn't exist and they're going to exist forever.”
This did not exist and now it exists forever. To me, that's so different than talking about, 2.3 children as an economic value or even when we talk theologically about children as a sign of future hope. They exist forever.
Having babies is part of God's good gift for Christians and non-Christians alike, in the same way, marriage is for Christians and non-Christians. And we're pretty good about talking about what a Christian marriage is, and also how it's the image of Christ’s relationship with his church. But there’s less conversation about what Christian parenting is or how it models a special understanding of who God is. What should we be thinking about when it comes to parenting as Christians? Is there a way babies—even baby-making—tell us something about God?
Rebecca McLaughlin: Yes, absolutely.
It's so interesting to me because marriage, as you mentioned, is fundamentally for Christians about the expression of Jesus's love for his church. It’s this huge biblical metaphor that comes to us, starting in the Old Testament with the prophets comparing God to a faithful husband and Israel, to an unfaithful wife. And it jumps into a new space when Jesus says that he's the bridegroom and Paul says that Christian marriage is like a little scale model of Jesus's love for the church. And then it reaches a full-blown crescendo in the Book of Revelation, when a great voice shouts, “The wedding of the Lamb has come” and Jesus’s marriage to the Church brings heaven and earth back together. We have at least a starting point to get a handle on what all marriages look like.
But whereas in the Bible, God is always pictured as the husband and not as the wife, or Jesus is always the husband and not as the wife, there's something kind of important that the Bible does: it actually gives us maternal metaphors for God.
So clearly, we received God as our father and that's a very strong metaphor, especially one that Jesus gives to us in The Lord’s Prayer. But one of my favorite verses in the Old Testament is Isaiah 49:15, when the Lord says, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.”
And I loved that verse even before I ever became a mother. And in my mind, that verse was saying, God looks at us like we are the cutest little baby. We're so cute in God's eyes. And then I had my first baby and I started breastfeeding and I'm here to tell you, breastfeeding is hard. It a sacrificial painful and physically painful, at least in the early stages. It's something that drags you out of bed in the night. It is an extremely self-sacrificial experience.
Two physical human experiences deeply connect us to somebody else and involve an exchange of bodily fluids, and that’s sex and breastfeeding. Even though they are very different things, there's a kind of connectivity that arises, and that is required by both that is visceral and intense and emotional.
And the experience of breastfeeding helped me to understand that verse in a new way, because it's not just that God looks at us as these cute little babies, it's also an expression of his self-sacrifice for us. And those two go hand-in-hand, as we understand more of God and of how he loves us to the extent of giving up his own son for us.
And they also help us understand what it means to parent, which is to become fundamentally other-person-oriented and to be willing to enter into a love relationship with someone who from the very first, you will be the one who loves more actually. That dynamic can change over time, but there is a very one-directional love that a parent displays upon their infant. So in becoming a parent, I do grasp and glimpse more of how God loves us. It's one of the ways in which God has embedded a metaphor in our lived experience to help us to see how he loves us.
And also, when we think about what the New Testament says about the family of the church, the body of the church, that to me is a really important place where we need to contextualize how we think about Christian parenting.
While I do think there is a great blessing in having children, and from a Christian perspective, we should be embracing birthing and bringing up our children, but the idea that this is only something that is done by the nuclear family misses a lot of what the New Testament is calling us to. Parenting should be something that the church as a whole should be participating in, where single people, grandparents, and extended biological and spiritual family should all be involved in this process of raising children in the Lord.
If you listen to what Jesus says in the gospels, it's hard to land at the prioritization of a nuclear family that we sometimes see as the Christian norm. He's quite disruptive because he is continually expanding what family means. I think he's calling us to something that is expansive and that it’s not just “it takes a village to raise a child,” but also it takes children to bring the village into itself.
It’s not just for the benefit of the children, but also for the benefit of adults investing in the children of the church as a whole.
Let’s talk about biblical motherhood and what the Bible says about how women should mother. Is that something that is actually out there and that the Bible speaks to?
Rebecca McLaughlin: Yes and no.
If you're mining the New Testament for specific verses for mothers and raising children, there's Titus 2:4, where all the women are told to train younger women to love their husbands and children. And that's pretty much it.
And I’m not making that point to say the Bible doesn't value mothering or therefore the Bible has nothing to say about mothering. It actually has an awful lot to say. But sometimes we speak as if there is a very prescribed way and pattern for biblical motherhood that the Bible gives us and anyone who's doing anything different is clearly against the word of the Lord. And we have to be really careful when we start doing that.
In the famous ideal woman of Proverbs 31, her children are mentioned very late in the description of her, and then it’s just that her children rise up and call her blessed. And then in what Paul says about marriage in Ephesians 5.
The idea that the women in the Bible are primarily focused on their children, and that's most of what the Bible says about women, is actually quite unbiblical. Often in the Bible, women are being engaged with and addressed as individuals. And sometimes we don't know whether they're married or not. We don't know whether they have children or not. We don't know, for example, in the Book of Acts what Lydia’s family situation is. We know she has a household, but what does that mean? So we need to be careful when we start to be very prescriptive about what we think the Bible says about what it means to be a Christian mother.
Nut at the same time, the Bible gives us all sorts of relevant commands ranging from the clear picture throughout the Old and New Testament of raising our children in the Lord, which is something that both fathers and mothers need to be involved in. And then in all the commands about how we love others.
Jesus uses strong language about how anyone who wants to come to him must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. I think it’s a strong challenge to any modern assumption that the main point of my life is my fulfillment or my career or whatever.
Morgan Lee: Can I just say, it's interesting that you bring up that particular passage about taking your cross, because the beginning of it starts with, “if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters...” And that's an interesting dichotomy because it specifically names family members.
Rebecca McLaughlin: Yeah, and we know from Jesus’s broader teaching and the teachings of the New Testament that he's not saying that we should hate those people in our lives. He's saying that compared to our love of him, our love of anyone else should be like hatred. And the irony there is actually the more we love Jesus, the more we will love others under him. And we love others most when we love Jesus' best. And that applies in friendship, it applies in marriage, it applies in parenting.
And I hope everything I believe, I believe because it's in the Bible rather than because of the findings of modern psychology or the sociological studies, et cetera. But it's always interesting to me to see how what the Bible says tends to actually align with what's being shown to be aligned with human flourishing—whether it's regular church attendance or sex in the context of very long-term commitment rather than so-called free sex.
And what's interesting to me right now is that women in America who are very religious, married to very religious men, and have broadly-speaking traditional views of marriage are actually the happiest. So this ironic situation whereby the folks most pitied by secular liberal folk turn out to be some of the happiest people in town. And that's not to say that’s the calling on every Christian woman. But it's just interesting how the things most seen by some folks in the secular world as inhibiting to individual flourishing, turn out to be actually quite conducive to it.
You’ve talked about what the example of Christ's sacrifice indicates for mothering, but what about how the person of Christ should inform how we view our babies and how we should view parenting?
Rebecca McLaughlin: One of the interesting things for me in becoming a mother was just how it confronts you with your own in fresh ways. And the reality that your body can do things that you have no real control over.
It's striking to me that Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. He kind of quite specifically claims this, this language of birthing. And then we have Jesus’s embodied self ascending into heaven with the scars still on his hands. So it's not even that Jesus didn't become disembodied when he ascended, but that he actually carried with him the wounds that allowed us to be born again. And it's a metaphor we see again in other parts of the New Testament, this idea of the creation, groaning like a laboring mother, and this idea that the new creation will be a process of delivery, of giving birth. But I think it's all connected.
And one of the shocking things about Christianity was this claim that we are looking forward to the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul. And Jesus’s accession is a powerful reminder to us of that. That the one we worship is an enfleshed human, not a disembodied soul.
And I do think that we encounter that in parenting in quite unique and disruptive ways, especially for those of us who are living in privileged 21st-century Western contexts, where we're less used to being confronted with the realities of our bodies, at least until we grow old.
Let’s talk about some of the secular reactions to Liz's essay and how the church may be able to specifically tailor its message of affirming children and babies to a culture that's skeptical of it. While this is not true of all, there are parts of our culture that believe it’s unethical or irresponsible to have children. How can we engage folks who may believe this in ways that honor their convictions?
Rebecca McLaughlin: Well, honestly, I think it’s a very simplified and rather misleading claim to make the argument that simply having more humans in the world is detrimental to our environment. It’s more about how people will consume environmental things.
We have this idea that there are too many people around, and so having fewer babies would be better. But let's talk about America for a minute. We have an aging society where if the current trends persist, we're not going to have the young workforce required to care for all the retired and elderly people.
And to cross the line into political territory that will offend people both on the right hand and on the left, there are two big problems here or two strange conundrums. For secular folks who believe strongly in abortion and how this is somehow the central plank of women's rights are not recognizing that the large majority of women who have abortions are because they are poor and abandoned, not because they're living their emancipated, feminist, free best life. And we are losing a lot of babies that way. And to the folks on the right, immigration has been what has been propping us up for a while. Both with younger folks moving to America, but especially younger folks from cultures where women tend to have more children. And so policies that have come to us from both sides have actually contributed to this aging society phenomenon that we have.
There's so much that's been sold to us in terms of sexual liberty being the thing that's going to promote our flourishing and happiness and getting married and having children, not so much. And the more studies that come out and show this just isn't the case, the more we're going to have to start reckoning with those realities. And so with some of our secular friends, starting conversations by pointing them to some studies could just change the frameworks somewhat.
But ultimately the most beautiful thing that Christians can model to the world, and this comes straight out of Jesus's own mouth, is the way that we love each other. We should be known as his disciples because of how we love each other. And that will be remarkable to folks outside the church, if it's love that isn't just how we love our immediate family. And isn't just how we love people like us or people who have the same set of demographics as we are. It will be how we include in the single mothers from underprivileged backgrounds who show up at our churches, or how we care for children in the foster system and by bringing them into our communities.
It'll actually be the ways that we show love to those who are often marginalized that would be the most beautiful and powerful apologetic for Christ in this culture.
Morgan Lee: I wanted to add one apologetic of my own. I've mentioned on the show before that I have a good friend who I've gotten to know since moving to Hawaii. And she had a baby last year. So the entire time of our friendship, I have known her with her baby, and she brings her baby everywhere with her, and she goes a lot of places. And she is constantly letting other people hold her baby, take care of her baby, look after her baby.
And I have had friends, who have interacted with her son, who have said they have never held a baby before, or it's been years since they've held a baby. And again, it's not going to be possible for everyone who has children to do so, but often people who have children, especially babies, tend to stay home or only socialize with other people who also have babies. And I’ve just have watched so many of my friends fall in love with my friend's child and feel very endeared to him and close to him.
I have not seen a lot of people who have been that generous with how they let other people love their children in that way. So there are hearts and minds shaping that can come around with those things as well.
There are far more Christian women than there are Christian men. And so for many Christian women who want to marry Christian men and feel like that is part of their convictions, that's not going to be something that feels feasible for them. But there are ways to bring children into your life: IVF is one way, adoption is another way. What would it look like for the church to support these women, especially in their desire to have children?
Rebecca McLaughlin: I've already mentioned this, but it's worth repeating: We need to move away from this lie, which says that a woman's highest calling is to be a wife and a mother, and to remember that for all of us—married or single or otherwise—our highest calling is to follow Jesus.
So often, even by very well-meaning parents, we can bring up our children to think that what we expect of them as the norm is that they will get married and have children. And so that if they grew up and live their lives as a single person that always sends the message that we are somehow dissatisfied with, or that it’s not the best for, them.
I have a community group that is predominantly single people and many of them are single women, and even in the last few weeks, three of my friends in the group have shared how that their mothers have put pressure on them to get married and have children. And it’s always been the case that there have been more Christian women than men from as far as we can tell from the very early church. So it's profoundly damaging if we bring people up with the idea that getting married, especially for women, is the Christian norm and remaining single is somehow second best.
We then need to live in ways that include people who are married and have children so that we are actually living in biblical community ethics rather than just into the nuclear family ideal. So those folks who do live their life as singles aren't excluded. There are multiple different forms in which someone can commit as a single person and often can feel on the fringes in certain church contexts that we need to work against.
And ultimately for all of us, whether we're married or not, whether you have children or not, we need to remember that Jesus is our life. I love and so frequently come back to the conversation Jesus has with Martha after Lazarus's death, before he raises Lazarus. (And we don't know whether Martha or Mary was married or not. It is just not commented on. It's not something that the text tells us.) And Jesus looks into Martha's eyes and says, “I am the resurrection and the life. I am what you need right now. What you mostly need is not your brother back, what you mostly need is me.”
And that's something that, especially for single people, we need to be reminded of and encouraged in. Jesus is both the ideal single person who never married and the ideal husband who will one day welcome us into relationship with him and we would the greatest marriage of all eternity.
So for all of us, whether married or single, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus as our hope, as our life, as our resurrection, giving any disappointments and heartbreak that we have—whether it's wanting to be married and not being married, whether it's wanting children and not having children, whether it's having children and having a very difficult experience of mothering, or whether it's having children who grow up and leave the faith—there all sorts of ways in which we can have our hearts broken in this life, but fixing our eyes on Jesus, who is the one who will wipe every tear from our eyes, is the best for any of us.
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