Yesterday, I told BreakPoint listeners about a recent New Republic cover story on the impact of older parenthood on American society.
I emphasized the health risks associated with giving birth after the age of thirty-five. Simply put, delaying childbirth places your unborn children at a significantly greater risk of genetic, developmental and mental disorders.
But the impact goes far beyond possible medical issues. As author Judith Shulevitz points out, the longer we postpone having children, the less time we're likely to be around to help them. It's simple math: While a "35-year-old new father can hope to live to see his child turn 42," a "45-year-old one has until the child is 33."
It's the kind of math people don't want to be reminded of. When researchers, at a meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, made the "fairly obvious point that older parents die earlier in their children's lives," the response from the audience was hostility. As one of the researchers told Shulevitz, "We got a lot of blowback in terms of reproductive rights and all that."
Someone else who experienced "blowback" was New York Times columnist Ross Douthat who noted recently the decline in American birthrates since 2008.
Douthat rightly pointed out that historically birth rates go down during tough economic times like these. But declining birth rates are about more than economics: They are, according to Douthat, "a symptom of late-modern exhaustion," which he characterized as "decadence."
You can imagine how that went over. More than one critic invoked the old "barefoot and pregnant" trope. Mind you, very few disputed the data underlying Douthat's column or its implications, just as few people dispute the data Shulevitz cited in her article.
And when emergent church author Phyllis Tickle suggested something similar at a conference of emergents recently, many left angry and disillusioned that she would dare encourage things that smacked of old, outdated versions of motherhood and parenting.
At the root of this is the belief our right to determine our own lives in whatever way we please trumps any sense of responsibility. With that is a complete denial of the idea that facts about consequences should in any way inform the way we choose to live our lives. Being reminded of things, such as the downside of postponing childbirth, becomes a kind of "oppression."
But demonizing facts by calling them "oppressive" doesn't make them less true. As Flannery O'Connor once said, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."
What can we do about it? As Douthat pointed out, the trends we're witnessing are the products of "cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change." Sure, we can tweak incentives in areas such as tax policy to encourage family formation and childbirth.
But ultimately, postponing childbirth or foregoing it altogether is a response to a cultural narrative about what it means to live the "good life" – education, followed by professional advancement and then, when the time is "right," starting a family.
The Christian response involves telling and, more importantly, acting out, a different story. It begins with the worship of the Father "from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named" (Ephesians 3:15). In this story, the measure of the "good life" consists of our willingness to serve others, postponing, even foregoing personal gratification – including that next career move – in pursuit of that service.
When you look at life this way, children are ends in and of themselves. Participating in their procreation and rearing is an enormous blessing precisely because they're made in the image of God, and as Jesus said, "their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father" (Matthew 18:10). They're not something to get around to once all of our other life goals have been achieved. And they're certainly not a means to achieving our own personal happiness, an exercise of our reproductive rights, or one more item to check off the bucket list.
Can Christians reverse the trends Shulevitz and Douthat wrote about? Perhaps. But our calling is to be the alternative to decadence, even at the risk of blowback.