If you spend enough time reading the promoters of contraception — whether for business or the refined pleasure of being moralized to — you’ll come across a common description of a barrier to contraceptive access. “Children are wealth to Africans,” as one poor African sucker put it, destined for the Evidence of Socio-Cultural Barriers section of the study. “Each family must have many children because these children are able to help work in the fields.”
Academics rarely come out and say that such views must be eradicated. A brief glance over many abstracts only culled one with the huevos to say “sociocultural expectations and values attached to marriage, women and child bearing remain an impediment to using family planning methods. The study suggests a need to eradicate the cultural beliefs and practices that hinder people from using contraceptives.”
More often, they say things like “information and educational programmes should be instituted to increase contraceptive knowledge, to emphasise the value of quality of life over traditional reproductive practices and desires.” A traditional desire, of course, being the desire for more children.
Desire must be altered. This has been the standard, evangelical method of contraception promoters, because “substantial declines in desired family size are clearly a prerequisite for fertility to fall to replacement level in Pakistan” — and assumedly, everywhere else. The Overseas Development Institute, seeking to improve the lives of the global poor, points out that “research suggests that most adolescent girls—having internalised powerful socio-cultural values—desire to become pregnant” (their emphasis).
Of course, there is much in their report that a Catholic might agree is sinful motivation for childbirth, and in need of eradication — sexism, polygamy, and the authoritarian household all contribute to the desire for early pregnancy. But the Catholic missionary has the decency to admit that he wants to eradicate the sins of foreign cultures as much as the sins of his own. The farce of the report, and the farce of globalized liberal charity more generally, is the idea that only the underdeveloped have “internalised powerful socio-cultural values,” like the value of a larger family. The liberal would react in horror to the claim that he has internalized the powerful socio-cultural values of his own tribe — the values of liberalism, urbanism, and the none-to-one child family.
In every other field of academic research, great care is devoted to avoid importing Western assumptions into one’s study. Academics do backflips to avoid the insinuation that one’s values and beliefs are better than others — especially if those others happen to be poorer than them. Not so with contraceptive studies, the last living monument to the good old days when you could tramp to some godforsaken jungle, record the myths of the silly natives, and call them names in a journal for a quick buck.
But we can learn something from our cultural evangelists. They point out the extremely obvious fact that people who find children useful tend to have more children. I wonder how much of our cultural antipathy towards reproduction can be explained by this very basic point — we don’t need our kids.
We love our kids, cherish them, perhaps we could even die for them — but these are feelings that prevent us from leaving our kids at the bus stop after they’re born. What inspires us to have them in the first place? Certainly not some definite project that a child could help us with. In fact, many see the African motivation, that “children are able to help work in the fields,” as a kind of barbaric offense against the dignity of the precious child.
Obviously, I do not agree. For the primary fact about children is that they are people with smaller hands and brains. And when I consider men and women, with their larger hands and (sometimes) larger brains, I cannot help but notice that they desire to be useful. Any philosophy that emphasizes that man is of infinite worth apart from any particular use must square itself with the fact that men only seem to recognize this infinite worth when they are put to some useful work.
Intrinsic worth is not some kernel of value that exists apart from the whole man, a secret diamond of value that he keeps locked away within his individuality. To treat people this way withers them. Man has an intrinsic worth but man is also intrinsically social. To speak of his worth without speaking of his worth to and for others is not to speak of a man, but of some other creature. We say “I love you no matter what,” but this expression of unconditional love is not an extraction of the person from their usefulness. Rather, to say it is to affirm an essential usefulness. “You,” we say, “are a good for me, not simply in this or that action, but in your very being.” For if it is a good to be a mother, than the child who renders you “mother” is always a good for you.
How could we speak otherwise? We are social animals, and social animals cannot be happy without other people. Thus every baby, insofar as it is another person, is the principle of our happiness. If it is good to love, to have friends, to live in villages, or to share meals with our neighbor, than every baby born is useful. For how could we attain these or any other goods without our neighbors, who only come to us by being born?
From this perspective, the desire for a child as something useful to oneself is not a dark, overbearing desire. The desire for a child’s particular usefulness “in the field” is the natural means by which we consider the child’s essential usefulness. One need not need to be particularly philosophical to see how the particular reveals the essential. Simply look at what children, free from the machinations of stupid people, want. They do not want adults to endlessly affirm their worth. They want us to evidence it by showing them worthy of particular tasks. A parent can tell a child that he is of infinite importance until he is blue in the face — he’d achieve infinitely more by teaching him to grow tomatoes.
In fact, any affirmation of worth that treats “worth” as some individual nugget of unuseable goodness glowing in some unspecified center of a nine-year-old’s metaphysical innards seems apt to produce a spoiled child rather than a child secure in the love of his parents. I, at least, have known many families who have lavished words of “unconditional love” on their children while fearing and despising the use of their children for the production of goods. Because the child’s worth is not a usefulness, but a kind of divine, inner spark, the recognition of this worth is not an invitation of their child into common work, but a kind of worship. Children become beautiful, precious beings to whom we give things for eighteen years. They do not exist for us, so we begin to exist for them. Daily sacrifices of new video games and allowances become a temptation. We aim to “give them the best” (a phrase the Jews reserved for the gifts we give to God) and so parenting becomes a kind of game in which we search out the best commodities to burn on the altar of childhood — the best schools, the best toys, the best nutrition, the best health care, and so on. Often what we think of as radical Christian parenting is simply an imitation of this idolatry of the child. The child is still a useless consumer, we just make sure that the goods he consumes are Christian goods — a Christian education, Christian toys, Christian friends.
But I wonder whether there is not something far more Christian in the banal observation of the African, that “each family must have many children because these children are able to help work in the fields.” This is the wisdom of the Bible, anyways, which is quick to laugh at man’s posturing to individual, self-contained, intrinsic value: “What is man that you care for him? Mortal man that you keep him in mind?” Instead, where Scripture does speak of the worth of children, it it praises their particular usefulness: “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.” The affirmation of our children’s essential usefulness by the recognition of their particular usefulness seems to be a better fit than all of this vague discussion of the intrinsic worth of the child.
Of course, this runs into the rather obvious problem that, while our ideas might be “pro-child,” our lives are not. When the advocates of contraception look for a solution to the thorny problem of the desire for large families, they always tend to advocate that the culture under scrutiny begin a gradual transition to the forms of Western liberalism. People tend to stop desiring large families under the influence of urbanization, institutional schooling, economic growth, and secularization — in short, under the precise conditions we tend to live.
These solutions to the problem of the large family simply describe a situation in which children are unnecessary. They are unnecessary because the urbanized, middle-class, post-Christian man lives in such a way that his work is not open to the help of a child. It usually involves some repetitive, specialized task which provides him with money which he uses to buy machines that gradually exclude any other work from his life — typically that very work which is gradated, diverse, and thus open to the help of a child, like washing dishes, planting seeds, cooking meals, taking care of animals, entertaining himself, or building physical structures. By reducing his labor to the specialized task, and his home to the laborless shelter, the cosmopolitan adult excludes children from labor, usually by way of daycare, institutional schooling, and digital entertainment. This exclusion is rectified, in principle if not always in fact, by the inclusion of children into an adult’s “free time.” “Free time” is what adults and children need to join into something resembling a community. Adults begin to demand “free time” precisely in order to spend time with their children. What a horror this “free time” can be, as children saved from being useful join adults who don’t need them in the mutual consumption of entertaining products in order to affirm the unconditional love of each for the other.
It’s little wonder that men living in such conditions have no more than two children. The form of modern life does not lend itself to saying “yes” to another child — certainly not after the first one or two, which all but fulfill the need to propagate and make one’s parents into grandparents. Catholics have spent a good amount of energy trying to make the Church’s teaching on contraception amenable to modern life. I wonder whether we should not spend a little more time making modern life amenable to the Church’s teaching on contraception. For while rearing a child always involves sacrifice, it need not be so apocalyptically horrible.
I am no economic materialist, or, to say the same thing, no dunce. It is quite possible to live out a socioeconomic status devoted to the norms of urbanized, liberal existence and still adhere to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. But isn’t this a bleak prospect, for the height of faithful Catholicism to be a moral rectitude developed by digging in our heels, gritting our teeth, and adhering to a dogma despite its utter irrelevance to our lives and our work?
So perhaps I was wrong. There is a reason to read the promoters of contraception besides the joys of being moralized to. Their prescription of the kind of life which reduces the desire for more children can serve as an inverse of our blueprint for building a society in which we are more than urbanites, our children more than cute consumers. Dorothy Day said that the whole goal of her life was “to build that kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.” It would be easier to be good in respect to having children, I think, if we owned our labor in such a way that having more children was a good for us — a practical, particular good revealing the essential goodness of the child.