Large families will not save humanity
In a recent issue of Plough Quarterly, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that “large families will save humanity.” Plough is published by an intentional Anabaptist community, where no member owns personal property and none receives a paycheck, and Douthat’s article is illustrated with tastefully somber still-lives of vintage toys. We are to sense how good it would be if a child were there to animate the toys with imagination and motion.
The magazine is fringe, but the ideas are not; many of its tropes are familiar to me from the evangelicalism I grew up in, and neither is the America Douthat envisions fringe—at least not since Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Douthat names Barrett and her large family as an aspirational example of what women’s lives and careers could be if America would “take family formation seriously as a policy goal.”
Douthat begins by invoking “scenes of large-family life from early in the automobile era, with three or four kids jammed happily in the back seat of a jalopy”; children “packed into the family automobile, overflowing like flowers from a vase.”
Where have all the flowers gone? Car-seat laws seem to be the culprit. Three don’t easily fit in the average family car. Having a third kid = getting a new ride. Douthat cites a paper arguing that while car-seat laws “prevented only fifty-seven car crash fatalities of children nationwide in 2017,” the constraints of these laws also caused “a permanent reduction of approximately 8,000 births in the same year.” Douthat sees in this “a tacit hostility to merely potential children . . . who, for all kinds of reasons, are never conceived or born.” Douthat is worried about America’s declining birthrate for practical reasons, but mostly he thinks we are failing the unconceived. He wants us to consider the “moral claims” of “potential children” and ask ourselves “what does it mean to fail someone who doesn’t yet exist?”
I think that means not wrecking democracy and the planet while we’re here, but Douthat mentions climate change only to dismiss its legitimacy: “In most cases, invoking climate anxieties seems more like an excuse, a gesture to ideological fashion, than a compelling explanation of low fertility.” For him, the “hardness of our modern hearts” is the real problem and large families are part of the solution—they’re useful for one’s own spiritual growth. “Having a bunch of kids is the form of life most likely to force you toward kenosis, self-emptying, the experience of what it means to live entirely for someone other than yourself.”
Picture a child you know, any child, and picture fifty-six more children: being held in a parent’s arms, taking a first step, getting on the school bus, grinning over a birthday cake. Assume that most of these children have a fair number of people who know and love them. Picture these fifty-seven children snuffed out in a moment because a sleepy driver crossed a line, or someone was texting and ran a red light, and let your mind take in the survivors: those whose mourning will never really be comforted, because they have lost a particular irreplaceable someone. Is it humane to suggest that the car seat requirements that saved these fifty-seven children in 2017 are somehow an impediment to America’s greater flourishing? To suggest that the preserved lives of these fifty-seven children are somehow unfairly coddled by seatbelt laws, because their survival meant that unconceived children never existed?
In Douthat’s scenario, we, the unwilling fertile, are sinning against children who don’t, according to most of us, actually exist. Traditional mother-guilt is, apparently, not heavy enough; we must now feel responsible for the children we have failed to call into being.
Douthat writes about welcoming his fourth child, a daughter named Rosemary, in late April of this past year, when deaths from COVID peaked in their home state of Connecticut. Of course he couldn’t have imagined the world she was born into. Of course he and his wife are so glad she came when she did. This is the miracle of being human, of existence itself: Life is beautiful, and we cling to it and cherish it, even through plague and war. It is also the nature of things that we experience the astonishing consistency of this miracle through vehicles as particular and myriad as we are—which is to say that the sense Douthat has of Rosemary being predestined for his family is as true as truth can be, as true as my own sense that my two sons are the two sons I am meant to have.
I am happy for those who wish to raise larger than average families to do so. But must Douthat take up his laptop and urge us all to do the same? Must he insist that public policy and public opinion laud the choices he and Amy Coney Barrett have made?
If having more children really does call forth greater self-sacrifice in parents, I have seen no evidence. There are large, happy families where gatherings are warm, creative, and genuine, and there are large, unhappy families who barely speak to one another. Some children from large families are close with their siblings; some (especially older) children from large families resent younger siblings, having had to take on too much responsibility for them in what should have been their own childhoods. There are women who flourish and thrive as the mothers of many, and there are women who are hollowed-out in body and soul from bearing child after child in obedience to desires and mandates not entirely their own. There are people who feel their parents’ love and know them as individuals, and there are many who feel that, to their parents, they are either a disappointment or indistinguishable from the familial herd.
All happy families are alike in this sense: In happy families, love wins over fear. Not that there are never voices raised in tension or anger, but in happy families, what wins the day—the year, the childhood overall—is love. This can be present in a family of two—one parent, say, and one child—and absent in a family of dozens. Anyone who quarantined this year with at least one other person knows that it only takes one other human to create a community of love or one of strife. To bear children in the hope that the whole exercise will make you less selfish is selfish, and it is also unnecessary. And to bemoan the nonexistence of children never conceived by other fertile but selfish people is not love but a frivolous distraction. It is the sentimental worship of an idol of fecundity at whose feet particular children, such as the hundreds of children separated at the border by our government whose parents still cannot be found, are sacrificed. These children are capable of crying for parents they once had, now lost to them, in ways that the unborn—the unconceived— are not.
Large families will not save humanity. Humanity, acting out of love, will save humanity.
Rachel Stone is the author of the memoir Birthing Hope and the revised 40th anniversary edition of the cookbook More-With-Less, among other writings. She teaches composition and rhetoric at a boarding school in New York.