The Baby Bust is here and millennials are in the spotlight again. It appears that everyone is obsessed with whether or not twenty-somethings are interested in procreating, from The New York Times Motherlode to The Wall Street Journal, the topic of discussion is millennial parenting-or the lack there-of.
Take this from a twenty-something parent: the once-normal and banal move into parenting is now fraught with questions of timing, maturity, choice, and whether parenting will contribute to the elusive gain of that sought-after ideal: happiness.
Even secular sources are concerned that "happiness" has become the idol of the masses, and one of the causes of the decline in Americans' desire to have children. The Wall Street article on America's Baby Bust argues that happiness is the American equivalent of "the lodestar of a life well-lived." The article cautions that, in regards to the trend of having fewer children, "If we're going to reverse this decline, we'll need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness."
Of course, as Christians, our flourishing is not reliant on the gain of something as fleeting as happiness, but is worth noting that, even among Christian circles, it's common to counsel young people to have all their ducks in a row prior to baby-rearing. It's worth wondering whether our treatment of young people is contributing to the message that children are a difficult and demanding (which they can be), but also exposing our underlying ethos that the "hard things" should be postponed or avoided. In the meantime, "travel," "graduate school," and "career success," are rarely examined in the same probing light.
When I first announced my pregnancy to close colleagues, a year after I had graduated from college, I was met with blank stares and a few astonished declarations of "I'm so glad it's not me." They were so glad it wasn't them because no one wants to be a parent young, right? It eliminates choices, narrows your life down, makes it difficult to move jobs or attend graduate school, etc. A lack of choice and the reduction of self is automatic to parenting. Children don't allow for hobbies and activities, self-actualization, and achieving your potential in the same way that a single or married lifestyle does. They become the prime activity and sap our ability to choose what makes us "happy."
Rachel Jankovic in her blog at Desiring God Ministries, identifies this societal ethos that children are at the bottom of the list. She writes:
"The truth is that years ago, before this generation of mothers was even born, our society decided where children rank in the list of important things. When abortion was legalized, we wrote it into law. Children rank way below college. Below world travel for sure. Below the ability to go out at night at your leisure. Below honing your body at the gym. Below any job you may have or hope to get. In fact, children rate below your desire to sit around and pick your toes, if that is what you want to do. Below everything. Children are the last thing you should ever spend your time doing."
Rachel is using hyperbole to convey her message, but she makes a good point. This is the generational message that millennials have heard, loud and clear-children are the last thing you should be doing. The fact is, the numbers clearly evidence that something has changed. Stew Friedman, again in his interview says, "What just popped off the screen as we were looking at the initial findings. 'Do you plan to have or adopt children?' In 1992, 78% said, 'Yes.' In 2012, 42% said, 'Yes.'"
Statistically, that's a dramatic drop in the desire to have children, and worth parsing out the details and possible causes for such a sharp decline in the plan to raise children. If the secular world is correct, this drop could be a result of the declining view of motherhood, period. Stew Friedman says,
"In every generation prior to the current one, women have been normatively sanctioned to think of themselves as mothers. There's almost a mindless march into motherhood throughout history. That question hasn't really been raised. Today, young women are saying, 'I don't feel a need to do that.'"
It's no wonder millennials aren't interested in children. With the opportunity to fulfill your dreams, and a limitless supply and demand for choices, why would millennials decide to engage in the "mindless march into motherhood?" Motherhood is no longer a possible calling for women, of many potential callings-it is a distraction and a thoughtless endeavor. Even the use of the word "mindless" implies that motherhood is the lack of choice that is made when you don't make a better choice. That is, when you refuse to pursue success and happiness, you'll find yourself stuck in the doldrums that is, according to Friedman, motherhood.
But is motherhood really a "mindless march"? Is that what the Christian believes about bringing up children?
As Americans, our search for happiness is one facet of the reticence to have kids. In order to circumvent this, we need to go beyond happiness to a theology of calling. We need to see motherhood as one, of many, pictures of the gospel. In the same blog post, Rachel Jankovic creates a beautiful defense of motherhood's calling and measure. She sums up the destructive nature of the cultural message, while importing meaning from the metaphor of motherhood's relation to death and resurrection:
"Christian mothers carry their children in hostile territory. When you are in public with them, you are standing with, and defending, the objects of cultural dislike. You are publicly testifying that you value what God values, and that you refuse to value what the world values. You stand with the defenseless and in front of the needy. You represent everything that our culture hates, because you represent laying down your life for another-and laying down your life for another represents the gospel.
Our culture is simply afraid of death. Laying down your own life, in any way, is terrifying. Strangely, it is that fear that drives the abortion industry: fear that your dreams will die, that your future will die, that your freedom will die-and trying to escape that death by running into the arms of death."
It's not too hard to figure out what Jesus thought about children. In Matthew 19: 14 "Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.'" Guiding those to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs is certainly a worthy endeavor.
Thus, while parenting, in itself, is a single calling (of many other worthy callings) for Christians, it's worth considering whether the messages we send as Christians evidence that we believe it is such. For millennials, who are grasping for life-meaning in a decade where they will be interpreting what holds value, parenting is a valid choice that displays the beauty of the gospel.
In parenting, we admit our weaknesses and failures, even our lack of control over the life circumstances that portend to provide "happiness." Though not a prescription for life success, millennials should be encouraged to pursue parenting as one aspect of a larger picture of death and resurrection, and the meaning that comes from laying down your life for another.