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“What Should it Take” to Be a Mother?

© 2012, Davd

Mother’s Day is coming soon, and the advertising has already begun. This essay is about the seriousness of motherhood, about the social conditions required to do it with excellence, and about the ecological-demographic reasons not to enter motherhood “lightly.” If present custom is to honour all mothers as if they were the best, our population predicament calls for allowing only those worthy of special honour to “mother”.

In his 2011 review of a book for men about the dangers of sexual-connection in the 21st Century, Robert Vibert quoted author Hendrick as saying, “Some women will deliberately trick a man into conceiving a baby and then being on the hook for 18 years of child support, using means ranging from the simple deception of lying about birth control to the extreme of poking holes in condoms.” That, plus the annual fuss and commercial excess of Mother’s Day, got me asking a question that many people asked in less wealthy but wiser times: Should all women be blessed—even allowed—to bear children?

The usual answer, historically, was No. Women who were able to achieve, with the support of their community, a marriage that included a family homestead, trade, or business—they were allowed to be mothers. The rest were spinsters, or occasionally childless wives1—or a few became prostitutes, but that was disreputable to an extent most “moderns” can hardly imagine.

Planet Earth is now overcrowded with people to an extent most people who lived before the Industrial Revolution could hardly imagine. Were they living now, they would be more than amazed. The size and density of modern cities, the lack of open space in many rural areas, the devastation of forests—bring someone here from 250-500 years ago, never-mind from the time of Muhammad or Christ or the Buddha or Moses—and [s]he would likely say that the situation is impossible, that it must be on the verge of collapse.

An agronomist told me much the same thing in May 2011. Food production is faltering, partly due to the cost of oil [a major feedstock for fertilizers as well as fuel for tractors and for transporting food]; partly because of soil degradation; partly because crop pests are increasingly pesticide-resistant—and of course, partly because populations continue to grow. It’s imaginable that in the coming years food production will decline rather than increase.

As a prudent quantitative estimate, the human population of this planet should be one thousand million or less. Possibly, two thousand million humans could share the Earth in reasonable comfort—but possibly, that many would degrade the Earth’s carrying capacity. There are presently about four times that many people—eight times the number that i’d call a prudent target population—and Earth’s carrying capacity is being degraded as i write these words.

Many of us know that there are hundreds of millions of people living in poverty—in need, meaning without enough to live decently. I lived decently as a single father in the 1990s, with less than the Canadian “poverty line” income. We ate a lot of home-grown, fished, and foraged food; we wore a lot of marked-down clothing; and we built our own shelter—a bigger house than we needed, because the Building Code imposed a minimum size—and heated that house with firewood we cut and hauled ourselves. We had much more, living “below the Canadian poverty line”, than the bottom quarter of the earth’s population had at the same time.

Even before then, the earth’s overall population was consuming much more than the Earth was producing. The difference was taken from “fossil deposits” of coal, petroleum, and uranium; from deposits of metals; and by deforestation. Consuming even at 1980 and 1970 rates damaged the planet’s productivity. This has been known for 30-60 years and anticipated for a century (Catton, 1980; Ehrlich, 1968; Ehrlich, Ehrlich and Holdren, 1973; Brown, 1974, 1981; Sumner, 1913) and still the overconsumption continues. It cannot continue much longer. Fuel prices triggered a global recession in 2008 and may be in the process of choking a faltering recovery as i write these words.

Sooner or later, the human population must decrease to a sustainable level. There are two ways for that to happen: A great drop in birth rates, or a great rise in death rates. The birth-rate way of population decrease is far gentler, far less horrible than the death-rate way. Obviously, we should take the gentler path. Doing so implies that many women should not have children. Since women and not men have pregnancies, what follows is written as addressed to women readers, especially young ones. Men are encouraged to read it, knowing why it’s not addressed to us.

If you take your proportional share of the Earth’s renewable resource production, young woman, you won’t have enough to raise a family decently. Reversing the focus, to raise a family decently, you need to confiscate some other women’s share of the resources. To paraphrase a famous American-Revolution slogan: Procreation without confiscation is cruel to your children. Procreation with confiscation is cruel to other women’s children… Unless a majority of women have no children.

There is no need for women who have reasons not to embark on motherhood, to feel they ought to have babies anyway. Suppose we are going to bring the Earth’s population down to what it should be, during the remainder of this century—almost 90 years, and noticeably longer than the average human lifespan. That calls for “birth cohorts”—the number of children born in a specified time interval, such as one year—to decrease to what a sustainable population requires, in less than two generations. There’s no necessary reason to decrease birth cohort size even that slowly—we might be wise to try to reach sustainable cohort size within one generation—but social inertia (including the fact that women are naturally motivated to have babies, e.g. Morgan, 1973) will be resisting the change.

Before we proceed to the qualities a mother ought to have, though, we should add a little sociology to the demographic predicament sketched above. It is again being recognized, and was widely accepted several decades ago, that growing up with two or more siblings is healthier and more efficient than growing up an only child or even with only one sibling. “It is in the best interests of the children”, for them to grow up in families that have three or more, preferably five or more children. Likewise, it is beginning to be recognized, as was widely accepted several decades ago, that growing up in a home with a father in it is much better for children than growing up fatherless (cf. Finley, 2010).

Where most children born live to maturity, as is the case in Canada, Europe, Japan, and the USA, population replacement calls for barely more than two children per woman. If the women who do become mothers have an average of five or more—which is good sociology and is efficient—and birth cohorts are aimed to replace not the current population size but only a quarter or less of it—then a tenth or fewer of all women, is the right proportion of mothers.

The “if you really want to be a mother” advice below, is written in that context:

  • The Earth’s population is 4-8 times as large as it sustainably should be;

  • The faster it comes back down to a sustainable size, the better (at least if a gentle, birth-reduction path is assumed); and

  • Families with mother, father, and three or more children, likely with five or more, are “best for the children”.

For the rest of this century, probably; for the next generation or two2, definitely; motherhood should be only for those women who are especially well qualified and motivated to be mothers. When i ask if you have the qualities that mothers should have at these times, i am asking if you are one of the women most qualified and motivated to bear and rear children. Those who aren’t, serve the Earth well by remaining childless: This century is one in which motherhood should be a special calling3.

As you read what follows, consider the parallels between what i have to say to prospective mothers, and what might be said to prospective artists, clergy, teachers—and research-scientists in fields that are out of the spotlight. Much of what makes a society and a culture appealing, great, and worth-living-in come from such unusually able, well-disciplined, hard-working, honest, patient, underpaid people—people of special calling.

Mothers in a time of great overpopulation should be of the same kind. This implies that only a minority of all women should become mothers. When death rates were high, more mothers were needed; and humanity has yet to adapt its philosophy of motherhood to its high childhood survival rates.

So If You Want to Be a Mother, examine yourself and see if you have the qualities to be among the best women in your generation to bear and rear children. The general life-planning “guidelines” below are not for everyone, not even for every healthy or every decent, capable and healthy woman. If you honestly find doing these things appeals to you, then not only are you likely to be a good mother—you are likely to be a joyful one.

Here are the “Three General To-Do’s and Two Dont’s”. Be truthful.

Set aside at least 25 years for the work of motherhood: You will not have to spend all of your time at mothering during those years, but motherhood will have priority over any other things you do—from arts to cooking to “making money” to socializing to sex with your husband. You can never predict in advance, a time when a child will not need you—and when you’re really needed, motherhood is a lot like being an ambulance attendant or a firefighter: You go. (With luck, your husband will go on many occasions when breastfeeding isn’t what’s needed. Think twice about being a mother who is married to a man who works away from home.)

While your children are in your [and their father's] custody, you both have a duty to them that trumps everything else. If you choose to become a mother, you choose to serve those children—and the better you serve them, the more you will enjoy them. A key part of serving them, is sharing that service with a lifetime husband who loves fathering and will make the same commitments [starting at weaning rather than conception] that you do.

Commit yourself to a monogamous relationship with one man for those 25 years, and preferably for life. Children need fathers. They need us less during the non-walking, nursing-at-the-breast year [two years at the longest], than they need you—but they need us more when you have the next baby and are rightly absorbed in and giving top priority to, that infant. You who are mothers need us fathers so that you are not the only responder when children have emergencies. You need us so the children have both adult gender perspectives to draw on, so the children experience the asexual love of both kinds of adults. The children and you need us for “the second opinion”, so that far fewer errors in judgment are made; and for the second emergency responder when the emergency is too big for one adult alone. (Cf. Stannard, 1970; Morgan, 1973)

It is a “correctional truism” that very few boys with good fathers go to prison. It is a “social work truism” that fewer girls with good fathers get pregnant in their teens, go on drugs, or catch STDs. What good mother wants her children on drugs, catching STDs, pregnant while in school, or in prison? (Yes, that was a rhetorical question.)

In your grandmothers’ time, marriage was the usual and a rather effective way for a man and woman to commit themselves to a monogamous lifetime relationship. In modern-day Canada, civil marriage is far too easily dissolved, and high divorce rates show that many women “take the easy way out” of marital strain. In general, divorce today is easier on mothers than on children or fathers. Part of your and his service to your children, is staying together. Unlike forty years ago and before, the law of civil marriage by itself won’t help much. You should design and effectuate a commitment beyond “family law” [a phrase in which “family” has become a misnomer]. My main suggestions are that you have the witnesses at your marriage take roles analogous to those of godparents, in support of your marriage; and that you enter into contract commitments that will make divorce disadvantageous4.

Plan to have at least three children and preferably 5-10. Children are good for children. Multiple children are good for parents. Many things children enjoy doing, and benefit from doing—are childish! If you’re a healthy grown-up influence for your children, that implies you will not have some of the childish qualities that at times, make a good playmate. Children, to grow up at their best, need both adult examples and supervision, and child company.

Many things parents do for children can be done for three or five or more than five, with little if any more effort than for one. Consider cooking and sewing [and buying children's clothing]. It is not five times as much work to make gingerbread or pancakes for five, as to make them for one. You simply make a bigger batch and cook more panfuls at a time. And many children’s clothes do not wear out, they are outgrown. Clothing five children in succession costs much less than five times the cost of clothing one, whether in time or in money.

Mentioning food and clothing naturally reminds us of shelter. A house for two adults and five children is less than twice the size of an equally generous house for two adults and one child—probably less than twice the size of an equally generous house for two childless adults.

Don’t become a mother unless you really love children: I’m not going to formally define love here. I am going to say that parental love isn’t erotic, rather “charis and philios and sometimes agape” in terms of the four Biblical Greek words that all can wind up translated into English as “love”. I am going to say that a good operational test for whether you have a strong natural love for children, is to take reflective notice whether you really enjoy the presence and social company of children of all ages; if you really care about how happy and healthy they are and about their learning processes, if you really delight in their progress and their enjoyment of life.

There are some women who love babies, who delight in caring for babies, but don’t enjoy older children as much. They should look for work helping with orphans, with babies whose mothers are ill or must be away for some reason, rather than take responsibility for babies “until the age of majority.” It is not fair to a baby, to refuse her or him the normal process of growing up. So my “second don’t” is:

Don’t become a mother unless you can enjoy seeing your children grow up: Watching them as they are little, and helping them see the special capabilities, interests and weaknesses each of them has. Talking with them about the possible adult lifestyles for which they are suited, and among which they can choose—and about the “impossible” [for them] adult lifestyles for which they are unsuited, and which they ought to avoid.

Fathers can be very helpful for mothers when it comes to “letting them grow up”; both with advice and as someone to hug and cuddle when the children need much less of it.

If you naturally agree with those “Three Do’s and Two Don’ts”, if they sketch an appealing young adult life for you—and i mean more appealing than getting rich, than having many sexual partners, than travelling all over the world5, than wearing fancy fashionable clothes and seeing all the fashionable arts events—then you’re a good prospect for motherhood in the generations when only a few should be chosen.

Good luck. May you have a well chosen husband and marriage witnesses, healthy lively happy children, and great-grandchildren to brighten your old age together.

References:

Brown, Lester R. 1974a In the Human Interest. NY: Norton
Brown, Lester R. 1974b “Population strategy for a finite planet” Communique #25, Overseas Development Council
Brown, Lester R. 1974c By Bread Alone. NY: Norton.
Brown, Lester R. 1981 Building a Sustainable Society. NY:Norton.
Catton, William R., Jr. 1980 Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana, London, and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Paperback 1982.
Ehrlich, Paul R. 1968 The Population Bomb. NY: Ballantine.
Ehrlich, Paul; Anne H. Ehrlich, and John P Holdren 1973 Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions. SFO: Freeman.
Finley, Gordon E., 2010. “On Fatherhood.” Men’s News Daily, June 16. Prof. Finley has published considerable research on fatherhood, and this text has more authority than many.
Morgan, Elaine 1973 >The Descent of Woman. NY: Bantam.
Morgan, Elaine 1977 Falling Apart: The Rise and Decline of Urban Civilization. NYC: Stein and Day; London, UK: Sphere Books.
Stannard, Una 1970 “Adam’s Rib, or the woman within” Trans-action 8:24-25.
Sumner, William G. (1913) Earth Hunger and Other Essays. Yale University Press.

Notes:

1. Let’s remember that reliable low-cost contraception first became available in the 1930s.

2. Most women love babies and want to have babies of their own (Morgan, 1973). It is far more likely than not, that more children than the ideal number will be born each year, even if a great effort to reduce population begins immediately. Therefore, i estimate that more than one generation and very possibly more than two, will be needed to do what in principle could be done in a generation’s time.

3. If a qualification should be made, it is to say “provided death rates remain relatively low.” If the Earth’s human population were reduced below 1000 million by a disaster—a plague, a famine, a war, an astronomical incident such as a large asteroid striking the Earth—then the need for human population reduction would be met. We should keep in mind that the kind of disaster that would reduce the population that much, would be far worse than the bubonic plague of medieval Europe, which killed perhaps 30% of the population: To bring the Earth’s population into balance with planetary productivity would entail 80%-90% reduction, and world-wide rather than in one continent.

4. Perhaps one should add “unless one party commits grievous wrongdoing”.

5. Extensive travel is much more expensive, in time, money, and hassle, than it was when i was a young adult. That is likely to “get more-so” rather than less-so. Abundant Travel may not be available to even half the non-mothers who want it. It will be available to vanishingly few mothers who have young children and are really giving them optimum care.

 

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