Kate Middleton and Prince William on their wedding day
I know you can hardly stand the excitement: Princess Kate is preggers! Finally, the QEII can step out of service, passing off the baton—er, scepter—in a way that skips right past her reprobate son. Finally, she has a new generation in line that understands the royal job: Get married, reproduce, and stay honorably married.
Which, as you may have noticed over the weekend, is just what The New York Times's Ross Douthat wants us reprobate Americans to start doing. In what began as an almost sensible column, Douthat noted that public policy can help encourage working people to have families. But then Douthat ran right off the rails, chiding us for our lack of character, our selfish decadence, our end-of-empire exhaustion, and for preferring the comforts of—oh, I don’t know, maybe paying the mortgage?—to the sacrifices of raising more children. Herewith:
The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
You can't see my eyes rolling from where you’re sitting, but Douthat goes off on this character rant even though his column accurately notes that the birthrate dropped precipitously as the Great Recession began. How incredibly irresponsible of people to hold off on having children they fear they might not be able to afford to raise!
The problem: For most of us, making babies is not our job in the way it quite literally is for Kate Middleton, who has understood all along what she was being hired to do. Oh, yes, the princess surely loves her prince, and yes, I’m sure there are plenty of perks (and downsides) to being a royal. But we all know that making babies is what she gets the big bonus for. I'd wager that there were even secret fertility tests before the knot was tied so publicly. Unlike so many of us, Princess Kate can be absolutely sure that she will have outstanding prenatal, postnatal, and infant health care. She knows she will have plenty of time to recuperate physically, to bond with the baby, to feed and play; she’ll have staff to cook and clean, nurses and nannies and governesses to make sure she can sleep if the heir is colicky, and no worries whatsoever about paying the bills.
That's not the case with the rest of us. Not only is having babies not our job; raising them directly interferes with doing our jobs. The National Partnership for Women & Families just released an exit poll showing that three-quarters of voters struggle to meet both work and family responsibilities. Nearly four in ten said it's a hardship "all the time" or "very often"—shockingly high. Most relevant:
[N]early three-quarters of voters (72 percent) said they and their families would be likely to face significant financial hardships if they had a serious illness, had to care for a family member with a serious illness, or had a new child.
That's why the birthrate is low: Having another child is hard financially. "Hardship" isn't the difference between a new car and a new child; "hardship" means clothing, housing, schooling, and transporting their children. It’s nearly impossible for middle-class families to stay middle class on just one income—has Douthat seen any of those statistics about middle-class wage stagnation compared to the skyrocketing income for the 1 percent? Yet work and school are set up on precisely contrasting schedules, with workers expected to be wired in endlessly while their children still go to school in the dark, right after milking time, get home in time to work in the fields, and are off all summer to help with the harvest. When the vast majority of children are growing up in families where all adults are in the workforce, why does our country leave every working family to figure that mismatch out alone?
As Karen Kornbluh noted at The Atlantic last week, across the developed world, the gender wage gap is in large part a mommy tax. Women’s wages plateau or drop if they have children. Is that because women “choose” to drop out? Hardly. It’s because jobs and children are in direct conflict. As Kornbluh writes:
Parents have far too few options to work flexibly or leave kids in safe after-school or childcare to call it a choice—and mothers are the ones who sacrifice by interrupting their careers or going part-time….Countries with more childcare facilities have a lower gender wage gap.
In the US, it's clear that as long as higher-paying jobs demand 24-7 availability, we lack affordable, quality childcare, and we remain the only developed nation without paid maternity leave, many families will decide that one parent needs to take a less demanding job, go part-time, become a contingent worker, or refuse a promotion—often at a substantial permanent sacrifice to earnings and security.
That's a real cost to families: If one earner takes a hit, the whole family does. So what happens? Women—families—can't afford to have more kids. So they don't have more kids. I know that's true in my house. Our nine-year-old has long begged for a sibling. By now he's heard "I wish we could, but we can't afford it" so many times that when he sees families with three or more children, he comments, "They must really be rich."
Here’s the only good thing about Douthat’s attention to the question of dropping birthrates: If our country truly believed this were a social issue, we might consider passing some social policies that support working families. Right now, the U.S. treats parenthood as a personal lifestyle choice akin to deciding to run a marathon or raise cats—a choice whose costs must be borne entirely by the parents. Families will continue to go on strike against having more children if the costs remain so impossibly high: months out of work, lost wages, thousands and thousands in child care, the stress of paying for a house in a decent school district, the anxiety of saving for both college and retirement.
But the truth is raising children is not a personal quirk like having dogs or being a cycling fanatic—it’s a net social good, a contribution to our economic future, an investment in everyone else’s retirement. By no means do I believe that everyone should be required to raise children—please!—but everyone should be investing in those children. Good education shouldn't require you to pay 20 percent more in housing costs. Everyone's child should have quality pre-K and Pell grants. Every new parent should be able to take a long parental leave, whether they gave birth or stood by. Every worker should be able to afford to stay home when sick or when a loved one is sick. All of us should be paying to extend the school day, to subsidize family leave, to pay for vaccinations and new-mother nurse visits. Pro-family policies are as essential an investment in our communal future as building highways and airports.
Ross Douthat understands that, even if he feels obligated to have his odd little rant about moral exhaustion. Here's what he got right:
America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment, and the evidence from countries like Sweden and France suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound. Whether this means a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college, there’s clearly room for creative policy to make some difference. More broadly, a more secure economic foundation beneath working-class Americans would presumably help promote childbearing as well. Stable families are crucial to prosperity and mobility, but the reverse is also true, and policies that made it easier to climb the economic ladder would make it easier to raise a family as well.
Since that's the part our nation can do something about, why do conservatives focus on the moral ranting instead of on passing family policies that the vast majority of the country supports and that would help every family care for their children? So many of conservatives' aims could be furthered through social policies that progressives would be happy to support as well. Wider access to contraception has been shown to result in fewer abortions. Stronger working-family policies can increase the birthrate and improve our nation's economic stability and competitiveness. Why focus on ranting about morals when reality-based policies could actually have an effect? But understanding that is above my pay grade. For today, what's clear is this: It’s Princess Kate’s job to deliver her infant while the rest of the world ooohs and aahhhs. For the rest of us, the issue is whether we can keep our jobs and still raise our kids.