COVID, Climate, Canines, and the Cultural Cold Shoulder to Children

Mainstream corporate media have been all over a recent U.S. Census Bureau report noting that Americans identifying as white have declined in numbers for the first time on record, while the Hispanic and Asian populations experienced significant growth in the past decade. Though this has, of course, provoked many predictable commentaries on race in America (because we haven’t had enough of those in the last 18 months), there is also much debate regarding the confluence of factors that are affecting population growth and demographics in this country. And those factors, I would argue, are of far more interest than endless palavers over racial diversity.

The first of those factors is COVID-19, though not the pandemic “baby bust” highlighted by demographers. Rather, I would propose that COVID-19 has underscored the remarkably divergent ways Americans think about children. Consider, for example, a recent op-ed by Stacy Torres, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at San Francisco who frequently travels to New York for work. In this op-ed, Torres, who has Sjögren’s syndrome, shames her sister—a mother of five—for not getting the vaccine. But not just that.

“I don’t know when or if I’ll see my sister again,” she mourns. “Even if we can forgive each other over our recent rift, vaccine refusal may condemn us to a lifetime of social distance, given my autoimmune risks.” Yet Torres makes another telling admission: “It’s one of the many reasons I decided not to have children: Because of my disease, I’m tired all the time.” But not so tired, apparently, that she can’t be a professor and regularly travel across the country, or write op-eds.

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Exhibit B in the factors related to children is climate change. Perhaps you’ve heard of “Birth Strikers,” who declare their decision not to have kids because of “the severity of the ecological crisis.” Among the more famous people to align themselves with this movement is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, in 2019, asked her 3 million Instagram followers: “There’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult…is it still ok to have children?” Singer Miley Cyrus feels similarly: “We’re getting handed a piece-of-s— planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child.” 

Some even blame Christians for over-populating the planet. Author Marlene A. Condon asserted in a recent op-ed: “Humans could have voluntarily limited the size of their families over the past half-century via better family planning, but too many people erringly believed the Bible’s mandate to ‘go forth and multiply’ applied only to mankind.” However, one might explain to Condon, the places where population growth is the highest are not countries with significant fossil fuel emissions but impoverished African countries like South Sudan, Burundi, Niger, Angola, Uganda, Congo, Chad, Mali, Zambia, Tanzania, and Cameroon. Are Ocasio-Cortez, Cyrus, and Condon saying that black Africans are the problem?

Finally, we should consider canines. The Washington Post recently published a “special section” on dogs (following up a similar September 2020 section) that featured articles on the “booming” scientific field of canine cognition, the proliferation of dogs named Fauci (it’s supposed to be a compliment), dogs’ reaction to classical music, and how dogs have become even more important in pandemic America. Dogs, we are constantly reminded by their owners, are their children. Thus, they must be pampered, psychoanalyzed, and placed on a pedestal.

What all of these popular trends have in common is their conception of children. For many, COVID-19 has made it all the more clear why they shouldn’t have children: concerns with their own health and well-being. For others, it’s ostensibly not only their well-being, but that of the planet and its very survival. Moreover, as many Americans now assert, pets (who are closer to nature anyway) are wonderful replacements for children. 

No wonder middle-class and upper-middle-class white Americans—including Catholics—are declining as a segment of the population. Their understanding of families and children (and more broadly what is most important in life) is bizarre, backward, and broken. They propose to be doing themselves and the world a favor, all the while indulging in narcissistic, self-congratulatory behavior. 

A professor publicly reprimands her own sister in an op-ed over her refusal to vaccinate herself or her five children while contending that she herself can’t have kids because she’s “tired.” Woke celebrities and politicians declare their refusal to have children because of how messed up the world is; meanwhile, they are blithely ignorant of their own contributions to its dysfunction and seemingly unaware of how inconsistent (and racist) their messaging on birthrates actually is. And millions of Americans deceive themselves into thinking that their pets—incapable of intellection or true love and driven entirely by their sensitive appetites—are actual substitutes for children. 

It’s enough to make one’s head explode. But marveling at the hypocrisies and incoherency of all this crackpot thinking isn’t enough. Certainly, we should charitably seek to help misguided folk see the contradictions in their thinking. But more is needed to persuade Americans (and especially Catholics)—regardless of their skin color—that children are worth it. 

That requires focusing both on what is gained and what is lost. As for the former, we might consider that children not only carry on their unique genes and familial name but are endless sources of wonder and joy. Far more than bromides about COVID-19 and climate change, kids enable us to make a positive difference in this sinful world, especially if we raise them to be virtuous and self-sacrificing people who love their neighbor. They also humble us, by helping us understand our own weaknesses and limitations in a way that few other things can. 

Moreover, as difficult as raising children can be, it is saddening to think what my life would be like without them. Each of my children is beautiful, unique, and fascinating. They are undoubtedly the products of both my wife’s and my families. I see in my children the great-grandparents they will never meet, though my children carry on, in ways we can only imperfectly appreciate, their ancestors’ physical features and personalities. And despite my forebears’ own imperfections, how terrible would it be for their line to end with me because I was too selfish or afraid to suffer some inconveniences? Yet for many Americans, and even many American Catholics, generation after generation of baby baptisms and child-rearing now come to an end.

We owe our patrimony the blessing of carrying on their familial line. As our memories of them fade into eternity, our children connect us to a distant past and, with God’s grace, make a mark on our future. They are an invaluable and mysterious gift to us from above. We, in turn, can form them to be a gift not only to our country and our Church, but to unknown future generations.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


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