Wednesday, 11 May 2011


.familiesWhy do we have children?
The answer to this question seems simple but when you think about it - really think about it - it isn't. If one is to argue that the need to have children is imprinted in us by design then, in effect, one is arguing against the prevailing notion of us doing what we do because we will it so. If instead one argues for having children in order to be happy then one is simply ignoring objective research that tells us bringing children to this world reduces the parents' happiness; happiness only makes a recovery when the children leave home.
If you didn't know about this reduced happiness before having your first child, surely you would know about it by the time you bring your second one along; yet the majority of parents have more than one child.
In this post I will offer a new explanation to why parents bring a second child to the world: status anxiety.
In other words, parents are pressured to bring the second child to this world not because they really want to, not because they thought it out, but rather because everybody does it and they don't want to be the ones who are "different"; they want to keep up with the Joneses.
The anecdotal evidence at my disposal is as follows:
  1. Virtually every pair of parents from our age group we have been in touch with in Australia has had two children. This includes workmates as well as mothers' group members. The only exceptions I am aware of come from those who have problems conceiving (and then there's us).
  2. Those parents that had the two children don't just have two randomly spread births. They all have them, or aspire to have them, within two years of one another. Surely not all of them have pondered the ideal number of children and their timing and arrived at exactly the same answer by accident; I suspect a lot of them are merely copying one another. In other words, they are following a trend, doing what society expects them to do.
  3. Society does expect them to do exactly that. Becoming a parent is the best way to reduce a person's productivity, so once you become a parent work applies significant pressures to reduce your parental demands as much as possible. On the other hand you get signals telling you what's expected of you whenever you go to places like zoos or museums and are told that a "Family Ticket" is a ticket for two parents + two children. Not one child, and usually not three; just 2+2.
My take from this is that the portion of people who actually think for themselves and make their own choices in the general population is too low for comfort. When we ponder why humanity is slowly sinking into climate change mire without even trying to rescue itself it is exactly this inability of people to weigh the evidence and think for themselves that we should be looking at.

Image by bass_nroll, Creative Commons license


Sarah said...

I think it is much more complicated than simply having 2 kids because everyone else does. Given the ability to choose I think people do think about having more than 1 child even if they can’t fathom the impact on their lives or the planet.

Women start thinking about their children when they are girls. We play with our dolls imagining our own babies and even going so far as to name our future children (which comes as a rude shock when the fathers hate our names which we have loved forever!). From very early on we are contemplating the shape our family will take. We may “copy” in so far as looking at our family of origin and either wanting to replicate it as it worked so well or do something completely different. If you were 1 of 2 and you got along well you might want that for your children or maybe you were 1 of 3 and some one was always left out or picked on you won’t have an odd number of children even though 3 does seem to be the norm these days. Would be interesting to see the stats on how many people have the same number of children as in their family of origin because that is just the norm for them.

I have had many discussions with girlfriends after their first baby about subsequent babies. People do spend time thinking about the pros and cons of adding additional members to family. Issues like giving their kids someone to play, learn and grow up with, to learn to share with, look after and share family history with . These weighed up with taking attention and quality time away from the first child and changing options financially for things like housing, cars, schooling and holidays.

While it may seem like people all choose a standard 2 year age gap I think they are in fact affected by so many individual factors. You might aim for a similar age gap as what happened in your family (my kids have the same age gap as my brother and I had). There is also the perception the bigger the gap, the less likely it is the kids will get along as they will always be at different stages of their lives until they can establish an adult relationship.

The difficulty of the first baby also plays a part if you had an easy baby you probably feel more capable of going again quickly where as with a difficult baby you may need to get over the trauma before you go again. There is also the school of thought that while you are still in the swing of nappies and night feeding it would be easier to keep going than waiting until every one has been sleeping through for years and then starting again.

I know women do spend time thinking about the impact the number of children will have on their bodies, careers, their marriage and their life. Maybe men just don’t discuss it, so you haven’t been aware of these conversations? Maybe if you were privy to a few more Mother’s groups or could hear a few more chick chats it might change your perception. Of course there are always going to be people that breed like rabbits and have no care factor for the outcomes of their kids. However, most people I know are serious about being good responsible parents which involves working out just how big your family can be before it becomes detrimental for everyone.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I'm still digesting your feedback. What I will say at this stage, without directly relating to your feedback, is:
1. When I wrote this post I was afraid of offending people that did pay attention to the question and happened to decide this particular parenting plan suits them. I know there are many of those, and your feedback clearly indicates you belong in that group.
2. As I have indicated myself at the beginning of the post, there are no simple answers here. There is an optimal plan for raising children, I’m sure of that, but I won't pretend to know it. I do suspect that optimal plan has a lot to do with there being way too many humans for earth to sustain, though.
3. As far as my main claim in this post is concerned, the one about parents following a certain prescription because of status anxiety, I still stand behind it. It only takes one look at our mothers' group to convince me: they're so alike in looks (hair, dressing, behavior), it is very unlikely their similar parenting plans are not the result of the same pressures.

Sarah said...

I spend ALOT of time reflecting on parenthood and the impact it has had on my life so just assumed other people think about it too. What I know I have collected from discussions with friends, reading blogs and books about motherhood. I also know I am somewhat skewed as our parenting experience has been rather challenging so we have good reason to think carefully about bringing more children into the situation.

It may well be you are quite correct that people don't spend time thinking about it as much as the quality of their life has not been affected to the same extent as ours. It seems like 3 kids is the new black and that is definitely not a path we will be following.

It is just hard for me to think people will just have kids without thinking about the consequences just because that is what everyone else does but then not everyone thinks the way I do.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I keep thinking about your feedback and my conclusion is always obvious: we are in total agreement as to the complexity of the question.
We can argue about nuances if we like. I, for example, would not regard an argument such as "I wanted to have kids since I was a child and I even named them" like a particularly good one, but then again I am the last person to pretend to act entirely on a rational basis.
I am, however, far from being convinced that people do not bring children to the world merely due to status anxiety simply because it is clear that other people like you and I ponder these questions a lot before making our decisions. For example, it is clear that with numerous celebrities a child is more like a fashion accessory. More to the case of our own Mothers' Group, the need to belong to a group - not necessarily the Mothers' Group but rather the general demographic of the area we live in, which is spectacularly more homogenous than the rest of Australia - is probably so strong that it affects people's child rearing decisions.