“Hey Mom have you heard about the new book asking why have children?” My son who’s asking is 47, the youngest of six sons and one daughter, aged 57 to 47. We are helping each other do the dishes after a convivial family dinner.
“If you mean philosopher Christine Overall’s book, Why Have Children? then yes, I’ve read extensive reviews but haven’t read it for myself.” Indeed, over the years I too have grappled with the morality of sex, marriage and reproduction in articles and books. For those of us who married in the fifties, to marry and have children was just assumed to be intrinsic to being an adult.
The questions emerging for Catholics of our Vatican II era focused on the morality of contraception or sterilization to limit births. The eruption of abortion controversies then followed along with arguments over homosexuality and artificially assisted reproduction.
By contrast, my children influenced by their secular milieu have not been so involved in similar soul searching theological concerns. Despite all my efforts they have grown up to be lapsed Catholics, yet of admirably good character. They have been early to sex, slow to marry or free to remain single. If married fertility problems that now afflict this late marrying generation make decisions about adoption and artificially assisted reproduction issues of moral concern. The question of “Why have children?” has been less openly discussed.
So I decided to seize the moment with my son and try to express my moral convictions and commitments in accessible non religious language. I paved the way by mentioning the many arguments for not having children. Obviously no selfish utilitarian arguments should be defended. You ought not to have children to please spouse or parents (like me), or to enhance sexual egos, or provide income or ensure caretaking in old age (nice as it can be.) Nor is there any patriotic or ethnic duty to outbreed the enemy.
Other negative reasons also exist. Dire conditions such as ill health, psychological inability or destitution may inflict too grave a burden on potential offspring. However, in affluent societies it can be morally good and just to have children. We have basic human rights for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Yes, finally and decisively, despite all counter arguments, having children makes you happy. Why? All wisdom agrees that the deepest truest human happiness comes from loving, giving and possessing meaningful goals. Creating and nurturing a family is an experientially proven reliable way to love and be loved. Other paths that produce purpose and love exist, but they are harder to sustain in the long run. Family intimacy, specific shared interests and embodied narratives remain emotionally engaging through time. They remain even if and when good friends, good neighbors and colleagues retire, move on, age out and die.
If and when family disasters, tragedies and ruptures occur, parents and their children still can be committed and engaged in concerned caring. For evidence? See the nearest hospital, Alzheimer’s ward, or prison visiting room.