Emily Yoffe writes the "Dear Prudence" column for Slate magazine. In her latest installment, she talks about how she received a letter from a woman in her mid-30s who was about to marry a wonderful man. Neither of them wanted children, and wanted to know how to fend off inevitable questions. After offering some advice, Yoffe made a mild suggestion--rooted in her own experience--that the couple may want to reconsider that decision not to have children. What followed was a flood of vituperative e-mails applying a range of adjectives to Yoffe's advice: "hurtful," "offensive," "appalling," "shocking." Yoffe reflects:
The majority of letter-writers were not single but happily married and professionally successfulthe people you'd expect would make wonderful parents, and in a previous generation probably would have. Many didn't just write about the adult pleasures of their childless (or "childfree") lifetravel, restaurants, undamaged upholstery, sex in the living roombut expressed contempt for those deluded enough to want to reproduce. As one woman wrote: "My husband and I are childless by choice and I heartily encourage all younger friends to consider it. It is the most wonderful lifestyle, free of whining and sniveling and mini-vans."
What is going on when there is so much scorn for parenthoodthe way a society perpetuates itself? Fertility rates are much in the news these days. The United States is rare among developed nations in that it is still producing children at a replacement rate. But many countries collectively agree with the people who wrote to methat children are a tantrum wrapped in a diaper and not worth the trouble. So, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain, among others, are going down the demographic tubes, with shrinking pools of young workers to support growing masses of seemingly immortal retirees.
One of the achievements of Catholic theology in the 20th century was a recovery of the importance of the unitive dimension of marital sexuality. For quite a few centuries, that dimension had been seen as secondary to the "primary end" of marriage, i.e. children. The idea that both of these dimensions have equal importance was recognized at Vatican II and is--some might be surprised to learn--also contained in Paul VI's Humanae Vitae.
But in our present age, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, toward an understanding of marriage that sees the unitive dimension as primary and the procreative dimension as secondary. As Yoffe's correspondents make clear, in some cases it's a very far second, if it hasn't been abandoned entirely. This, too, is an imbalance that needs to be corrected.