Harold Gilman, Mother and Child, 1918 (Auckland Art Gallery/Wikimedia Commons).

Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman are the authors of What Are Children For?: On Ambivalence and Choice (St. Martin’s Press, 2024), in which they lay out a modern argument grounded in philosophy and cultural criticism about childbearing ambivalence and how to overcome it. Berg is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, and an editor of the magazine the Point, where Wiseman is the managing editor. They spoke recently with editor Dominic Preziosi for the Commonweal Podcast. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Listen to the whole conversation here: 

Dominic Preziosi: This book engages serious readers seeking something more substantive than how questions of children and parenthood are treated in popular culture and in mainstream media. You examine the issues from multiple angles and perspectives—economics, feminism, philosophy, literature—and through big moral and religious questions about good and evil. Why did you decide to come at the topic this way? And what is your hope for how readers will respond?

Rachel Wiseman: For people wondering about the changing attitudes toward having children and why people are having fewer kids today, there tend to be two narrative frameworks. On the one hand are the hyper-subjective narratives written in the first person—the motherhood ambivalence novels, for instance, but also the polemical op-eds in the popular press where people say, “Oh, I’m not gonna have kids because of climate change, or because of the economy, or because there are no eligible men.” And then, on the other hand, there are grand historical narratives about how people aren’t having kids today because women are more educated and entering the workforce, because of secularization, because the economy isn’t set up for them, or even because of declining sperm counts.

But, we felt that in trying to understand ambivalence, you have to start with the actual considerations, worries, and concerns that are salient in people’s lives. That’s why we decided to start with the real, material concerns about financial affordability and the feminist concerns about how motherhood can and cannot fit into the life of an empowered, intellectual woman. And then, of course, climate change, which isn’t just about the environment, but actually tends to point beyond itself to bigger philosophical questions about how to justify bringing more people into existence today, given the suffering and the harm that they’ll inevitably encounter and possibly even perpetuate.

DP: You note that people who are ambivalent about having children often speak of their concern about the financial viability of doing so. But you also think the issue goes deeper. You write that “not only is having kids no longer a necessary part of human life, but having children is steadily becoming an unintelligible practice of questionable worth.” I found this a startling line. What led you to characterize it this way?

Anastasia Berg: When people think about the way in which the role of children in human life, especially in the West, has changed, they often think in terms of children no longer conferring the same advantages. They’re not useful in the same way that they used to be, say, economically. And people talk about the rising cost or sacrifices that they demand. On this model, having children is a possible choice that was more advantageous before and has become less so now. But we think there’s been a far more radical shift in the role of children in our lives. In the past, children were understood as an essential part of a well-lived human life. Human life was understood, essentially, to be intergenerational. It wasn’t just that an individual happened to be related to people, it was essential to who you were. What’s new is not that people find kids are less advantageous, but that they’re considered one possible project among many that one can choose. And once they’ve taken on this framing, compared to the other things one can pursue in life, and considering the costs and sacrifices and risks that, historically, children almost always implied, it’s not surprising that people are finding it hard to justify.

DP: You speak specifically about a societal evolution that you call the end of “the motherhood mandate.” And you quote a pair of sociologists who say that the “oughtness” that used to be associated with parenthood has been removed for a substantial number of people. Can you talk about the factors that have contributed to this and the implications?

AB: Children no longer play the same self-evident role for society in general and for women in particular. Feminists used to take the question of motherhood as a live one. The 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s were characterized by debates about the role motherhood should play in the life of a woman. Anti-motherhood feminists would emphasize the way in which motherhood has been the seed of oppression for women. It kept women tied to the home and prevented them from being able to take serious part in the economic, political, intellectual, and ethical life of their communities. Pro-motherhood feminists emphasized the significant role that motherhood can play for women, and even tried to think about how the values inherent to motherhood could be universalized. But what we’re left with today is a consensus on something quite minimal: every woman has a right to choose for herself. Feminists today don’t want to say that women shouldn’t have children, and certainly not that anybody should have children. So the choice is deferred to each woman. 

We think that this has various repercussions, including the fact that women are ultimately isolated in the decision. They don’t have a public sphere in which to discuss it. But even in their personal lives, there’s almost a taboo on the involvement of men in the conversation. So this idea that we have to leave individual women to make the choice has translated into a sense that women must decide for themselves with their partners as passive observers. And this serves neither men nor women.

Children no longer play the same self-evident role for society in general and for women in particular.

DP: You note that what we believe to be a contemporary trend of anti-natalism actually has a long history, dating continuously from the ancient Greeks and the foundational texts of the Abrahamic faiths, right up to now. What are some of the arguments that our predecessors put forward? 

AB: From the early days, when people asked any philosophical questions, they asked whether human life is so miserable and so full of harm and tribulation that perhaps it is better not to perpetuate it. This argument took two guises. The first is the argument from suffering: human life is full of unhappiness, whether actual or potential, and of so many risks that from the standpoint of the individual, it’s better to never have been born. And from the standpoint of a prospective parent, it is outright irresponsible, maybe morally negligent, to subject another human being to such a fate. There is also the argument from evil. This starts not with the premise of human suffering, but of human character: human beings are bad and evil and harmful. In a theological register, we talk about fallenness and essential corruption of the human heart. And from this, we’re led to the conclusion that it would be morally irresponsible to have more of these beings—whether because we’re perpetuating evil in the world or, in the environmental register of today, because we’re harming the planet. 

We bring this up not just to historicize our present moment. We want to show that what is experienced as a contemporary concern is, in fact, pointing to a deep philosophical question: that of the value of human life in the present and future. We also want to point to what is unique about our moment today. While this question was raised historically, it was raised theoretically, abstractly, as an intellectual exercise. What’s different today is that people feel they need to justify that choice in the face of these arguments.

DP: Near the end of the book, you write that “having children might still be the most basic way to affirm our existence. This is not only because bringing forth and nurturing life is the most literal way of doing so. Nor is it simply because parenting is the greatest responsibility an individual human being can assume for another. Having children is the most basic way of affirming life, above all, because the fact of human life is the condition for all others.” Where do you stand with that assessment? Is it something you’ve come around to in understanding your own choices about having children? 

AB: So we see, especially on the Left, a tendency to be very tolerant toward anti-natalism, if not to fully embrace it. But there is actually a very important contradiction. The value of many of the projects that all of us embrace—things like the creation and appreciation of art, the pursuit of human knowledge, political activism and reform—depends on there being a human future. Maybe you’re very sincere about your concerns about a human future. But you’re contradicting yourself. If you’re invested in a human future, you are invested in the legitimacy of people having children, even if you yourself decide not to have them, or can’t.

DP: The question of having children has become very politicized in this country. How can we try to rescue the issue from politicization?

AB: We strongly lament the fact that the question of whether or not to have children, and attitudes about children and family in general, have fallen victim to the culture wars. This has not always been the case. In the not-so-distant past, Republicans and Democrats were fighting for the title of the family-values party or the family-friendly party. And historically, leftist and progressive intellectuals—from feminists to Marxists to radical Black feminists—have all pointed to the ways that we must be able to find room for the embrace of children as a way of both affirming a human future and recognizing that the family could be, to quote Christopher Lasch, “a haven in a heartless world.” 

There are political implications to children and families. But at its heart, this is a deeply human ethical question. Our hope is that by raising these points, we can free people on the Left and on the Right to recognize the common ground between them, have public conversations about children, maybe enact certain kinds of policies, and help people think about the subject much earlier than many of us are encouraged to today. People today are afraid to ask questions. They’re afraid of thinking about questions like women’s fertility or the ways in which we date and whether or not we are aiming for having a family at the right time. Our hope is that by depoliticizing it, we can really make it much less of a taboo and allow people to make free, authentic choices.

The value of many of the projects that all of us embrace depends on there being a human future.

DP: The book opens with a personal essay from Rachel and closes with a personal essay from Anastasia. In your closing essay, Anastasia, you describe an overheard conversation between two elderly men who are both complaining about their adult children using the phrase, “We didn’t want to worry you” when they apologize for not sharing information about health issues or other matters. “That awful phrase,” one of the men calls it, and then exclaims, “What do I get up for in the morning? What do I live for, if not for these worries?” Why did you choose to include this anecdote? I’m glad you did, because I found it quite moving. But what did you hear in it?

AB: In researching this book, I was interested in people’s responses to the question of what it is that parents get out of having children. Happy parents are very keen to share how there are a lot of advantages to having children: you get to experience the world through the eyes of a child, you get to have a special loving relationship with another human being, you get to be in touch with a younger generation. I think all these things are beautiful. I wish them upon myself, and I wish them upon anyone who chooses to have children. But I was always concerned with the fact that these aren’t universal, because in having children, we open ourselves up to the possibility not just of joy, but of tragedy—in fact, tragedy of such a proportion that these kinds of joys may be made impossible.

But then, in trying to think of what is universal to parenthood, I realized that it was what I just named: complete vulnerability. In nurturing a child, you are doubling up your vulnerability in the form of another human being. You’re taking responsibility for preparing them to face all the pains and tragedies that the world may bring about. What I’ve realized, and what I’ve heard, is that the hardest thing about parenthood is this almost infinite vulnerability—where the harm that may befall your child will worry you more than the harm that will befall you. In a secular context, I think this is the closest we get to a certain kind of transcendence. In that vulnerability, you are opening yourself radically to a human future. And when I say “future,” I don’t mean your own future, but a future that will outlive you. Aristotle famously says, “We cannot know if a man is happy until we know what happened to his children,” and by implication also to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. No one would call themselves happy if they knew that a terrible tragedy befell their children. That thing that is the most terrible and most awesome about parenthood is also the thing that is most ethically significant.

RW: As a reader myself of Anastasia’s conclusion, I also found that section super poignant. It made me realize just how shallow and paltry most of the attempts today of justifying the choice to become a parent in terms of happiness are. They end up being debates on Twitter where people will say parents are happier than non-parents, and then they try to quantify this somehow. Then you read about these two old men saying “I get up in the morning to worry, to care for you.” It really strikes one just how illimitable that relationship is, how deep, and how meaningful it is in a true sense. 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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