“I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.”
For many millennials, God’s biblical promise to Abraham would be more threat than blessing.
According to a 2021 Pew survey, 44% of US non-parents aged 18 to 49 say it’s not too or at all likely that they’ll have children. That’s a 7 per cent increase from a previous 2018 survey. As for why, while health, finances, no partner, and age were mentioned by 10 per cent or more of respondents each, the majority (56 per cent) said they simply don’t want to have children.
Obviously, not every adult is in the right position in life to start a family. But for those who are able, what’s the case for having children? For most members of previous generations, there didn’t need to be a “case.” Having children was something you just did, like getting married, moving to the suburbs, and going to church or synagogue. Needless to say, the younger generations aren’t doing those as much, either.
Although I think there’s a strong case to be made for having children (I had one), I also see the appeal of a DINK (double income, no kids) lifestyle. Why not spend your time and money on travel instead of childcare, fine dining instead of formula, personal development instead of someone else’s education? If you’re going to dramatically disrupt your life, you need a better reason than “because that’s what people do.”
But here’s the thing: though the prospect is scary, it can be good to dramatically disrupt your life. The challenges and pleasures of your twenties often become less challenging and pleasurable as you mature into your thirties. As you age, your needs evolve. I wouldn’t want to be the same person now as I was when I was 25. And I wouldn’t want to be the same person when I’m 45 as I am now. If you have children, you are guaranteed to grow along with them for the rest of your life. You may be exhausted at times, but you will rarely be bored.
Of course, you don’t need a kid to keep growing as a person. But having children is a uniquely time-tested way of doing so. When you become a father or a mother, you take on a role that your parents took on, that their parents took on, and so on, going back before the dawn of human history. Those of us alive today are the descendants of an unbroken chain of parents. We are heirs to what anthropologist James Rilling calls “a global parental caregiving system that generalizes not only across mothers and fathers, but also across mammals.” Having a child triggers neural and hormonal changes that biologically prepare us for caregiving. As much as raising a family is a challenge, it’s in us to rise to the occasion.
According to psychologist Paul Bloom, the research is mixed as to whether having children is good for quality of life. In one study, working mothers recalled spending time with their children as less enjoyable than shopping, preparing food, or watching TV. Other studies have found a decrease in parents’ happiness when children are born, which may be influenced by their nation’s child-care policies (or lack thereof). And yet, beyond the day-to-day stressors, “When you ask people about their life’s meaning and purpose, parents say that their lives have more meaning than those of nonparents.”
Quality of life is not just about how much fun you squeeze into a day. It’s about the meaning you feel at the end of it. And to become a link in a chain that preceded you and will outlast you is meaningful. That meaning doesn’t just come from the propagation of genes. It comes from passing down values, stories, and traditions that were passed down to you in turn. It comes from having the opportunity, through your child, to help positively shape the future beyond your own lifespan. That connection to past and future—not to mention the naches—is good reason to postpone travel plans and disrupt your life.
Ben Shragge is the HJN’s digital editor. He lives in Boston with his wife and baby daughter.