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Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part series on Family Size and Making Decisions on having Children. The second article in the series will appear here in a week.
Don’t we all want someone to take care of, someone to love, someone who is dependent on us, someone who we can adore and who adores us, someone who loves us unconditionally and who we love back in the same way? Don’t most of us feel the need for someone we can teach, someone we can watch as they grow, someone who delights us?
As you read those questions, who are you thinking of? A spouse? A good friend? A sister? A special student or someone you mentor? Perhaps. But most of you are thinking of a child.
But that is not the case everywhere. More and more people in more and more places are thinking of a DOG.
We were in Manhattan recently where there was a whole aisle at the neighborhood grocery store for pet food and one tiny obscure corner for baby food and diapers. We happen to be at Laguna Beach right now as we write this piece, and we have a couple of observations: First, a surprising number of people think a dog is the answer to all of the needs and wants in the first paragraph of this article. And second, many of them devote about as much time and expense and worry to that dog as they would to a child.
Some couples feel that a dog is good preparation for the child they might have someday. Some individuals think a dog can meet their emotional needs without the commitment and sacrifice and loss of options that comes with marriage or with a child. Still others, who have decided to live alone to maximize their independence, feel that a dog can be their source of companionship. And, to be fair, others who wish they were married or that they had a child, find a dog to be the next best thing.
But go back to that opening paragraph, and let’s add some more questions. Don’t we also want someone we can teach values to, someone we can set the example for, someone who will teach us by their innocence and awareness, someone who will someday take care of us, someone who will carry on our work and our beliefs, someone who will become our legacy, someone who will one day give us grandchildren?
The comparison with dogs ends pretty quickly when we get to these deeper questions. The conundrum of whether to get a dog or a baby become a bit shallow, and seem to run out when we think more seriously and more long term. And the idea that dogs are the same kind of responsibility and require the same kind of sacrifice is laughable. You don’t have to put a dog through college or find ways to control his screen time, or even help with his homework.
Don’t get us wrong. We love dogs. We’ve had a half-dozen of them and they made our lives more full and complete. They were a beloved part of our family. But we didn’t have them in place of kids—in fact we had them for our kids. And they did help teach our children responsibility (on most days) and the rudiments of caring for those that can’t fully take care of themselves. And dogs are sometimes great companions for older people whose kids have gone but who love to see the dog when they come to visit.
So, we are pro-dog! But we do worry on Saturdays like today in Laguna, when we have counted dozens of people walking on the beach and the sidewalks with their dogs, and have yet to see a single parent with a child.
Someone pointed out that the first admonition or commandment that God gave to mankind was to “multiply and replenish the earth.” He didn’t say it would be easy. And He didn’t say “avoid responsibility and keep all your options open.” And He didn’t say that the commandment would no longer apply or be relevant in 2018.
And perhaps God could have said “Multiply and replenish the earth and have joy in your children.” Actually, He did say that and does say it in several places including 3 John 1:4, and that is the point: With the greatest responsibility and sacrifice comes the greatest happiness and joy. As New York Times columnist David Brooks said, “people are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice – commitments to family, God, craft and country.”* And by the way, Brooks also reported, in that same column, that “There are now more American houses with dogs than with children.”
As birth rates decline, many “macro” economic problems result from the declining workforce and the “inverted pyramid” of more and more old people and less and less young people to take care of them and to pay the taxes and social security that support them.
But the real problem is the micro problem of more and more adults who have no children and live apart from children; and who thus miss the greatest joy and learning experiences of life—not to mention not doing their part to create and build the next generation, and to keep the world vital and alive.
Dogs don’t do that.
We were in Singapore not long ago, and were interested to learn that the government now pays a $10,000 bonus to each woman who gives birth to a child. Why would they do this? Because their fertility rate is less than one birth per woman. The replacement rate is 2.1. They are running out of people and they must rely on in-migration to keep an adequate workforce.
And Singapore is not the only one! Of the 224 countries in the world, more than half, 116, now report a negative birth rate (a fertility rate that is below the replacement level.)**
In most of the world, gone are the days when we worried about overpopulation. The opposite is the problem. People are not having babies.
Even more disturbingly, the trends in the Church are going in the same direction as the trends in the world. We are a little behind, but the downward trajectory of our birth rate is following closely that of the larger society.
It could be argued that, with our understanding of the Pre-mortal life and the need for all of God’s children to experience a mortal existence, we have a compelling additional reason to bring children into the world. We believe in a heaven that is family-centric and we grasp, better than most, that children are our most precious stewardship and that family life and experience is key to our Eternal Progression. Yet we are experiencing the same trends as the world.
Why is “two or three” the new “five or six”? Why do so many Church members who come from large families now plan to have small families?
Of course, there are well-thought out and prayed over decisions among many of the young married partnerships in the church. That is a most sacred, unique and personal for everyone, and there is no one-size-fits all correct answer. And of course, there are many, many members of the Church who would love to have more children or to have a child and who cannot. And there are considerations concerning the physical and mental health of each spouse that can only be directed by the Lord.
Our concern though, is for those who choose not to have a child, or choose not to have an additional child for their own convenience or because they are attracted to the family-planning rationale of the world.
We would like to see the trends within the Church going in an opposite direction of the larger society—having more babies as the world has less—increasing our family-orientation and priority as the world’s decreases.
When we ask young married couples in the Church how many children they would like to have, we get a lot of “twos” and “threes” and even some “ones” and the occasional “none.” We get fewer “fours” or “fives” and still fewer “as many as the Lord wants to send me.”
And when couples say they are done, they give some interesting reasons:
- Not enough seat belts in our car.
- We can’t afford another child.
- We wouldn’t have enough love to go around (it would dilute the amount of love we have for each child).
Are these reasons or excuses? After all, it possible to get a bigger car. And an additional child (despite the ridiculous articles that claim it costs a quarter of a million dollars to raise a child) actually adds very little to most families’ expenses. And love is not a finite entity that has to be divided, it is something that can grow forever.
Perhaps what worries us most is how many young couples in the Church today seem to have their family switches set on the default position of “off.” What we mean by this is that when we ask couples if they want a child, or another child, many say “Yes, if the Lord tells us we should.” In other words, their default position is “off” unless they are specifically inspired to turn it “on.”
But with the commandment to multiply and replenish, and with our understanding of the eternal ramifications, shouldn’t our default switch, at least in cases when we are young and able, be set to “on” unless inspiration tells us to stop or to wait?
Again, let us back off and repeat that we know this is a very individual matter, between a couple and the Lord, and no one should judge anyone else’s decision in this area. But we are talking in the collective here, not in the individual, and we are looking at the trends throughout the broader Church and posing some general questions about why we are following the same trends as the world and whether we should, as a people, be more different and more unique than we are in this regard.
There is a fourth reason we sometimes hear within the Church for not wanting to have an additional child, and it is a more thoughtful reason than the other three mentioned earlier. It is the concern that many fathers have that they are now expected to (and many want to) do much more around the house and share more equally in parenting responsibilities than dads in earlier generations; and they simply don’t feel that they have the capacity to really be an equal parent to yet another child and still earn the money required to give that child and his or her siblings all that they need. Many couples feel that in a time of earlier specialization, where the dad was the sole or the main wage earner and the mom was the main child care giver, there was more efficiency and it was easier to have a larger family.
While that is an understandable feeling, is it really logical or legitimate? Isn’t there actually more synergy and efficiency in a family where spouses share more and do more together and share burdens more harmoniously and equally? Of course, specialization can be important, and the best parents we know sit down and decide who does what best and find equality not in sameness but in the unity of each doing what their gifts and abilities and temperaments suggest while still being fully equal and vested in every part of the family and the support of that family. This kind of thinking often also leads to the development of a kind of “middle management” in the family where the older children take more responsibility for the care and teaching of the younger children.
And something else has occurred to us lately. As we talk to mid-life and older couples we run into many who say that they wish they had had more children, or another child, and we have yet to meet a single one who says they wish they had had less.
The answer of course, as it is for faithful Church members on every decision, is personal prayer and the seeking of personal answers. No Bishop or other Church leader can make this decision for us, and on family matters such as this, there is no link in the Priesthood or inspiration chain between the couple and the Lord. The stewardship is direct, and the prayer and the answer are direct.
All we would suggest is that the default switch, except for couples with particular limitations or problems, ought to be “on” until inspiration comes to turn it “off” for a while or for good.
And let us end with two words that we used earlier but want to re-emphasize. One is “replenish.” Children not only replenish the earth. They replenish us—they refresh us and teach us and challenge us and worry us and thrill us to our core. They teach us to love in ways that are otherwise not even imagined. They refine us. And all of that is well summarized in the word “replenish.”
The other word is “Joy”. The joy we find and will continue eternally to find in our children, in our posterity, is the very joy that Nephi said we became mortal that we might have (2 Ne.2:25)
It is the joy of responsibility and of sacrifice, of loving irrationally and unconditionally, of doing everything for those too small to do anything for us, of seeing new and improved versions of ourselves, of sharing small triumphs and small heartaches that seem very big, of raising them until they leave home and then continuing to love them and care for them until the inevitable day when they start caring for you. It is the joy that the Psalmist compared to arrows and hoped for a full quiver, the joy of having a role that until mortality belonged only to God, the joy of having the end for which everything else we do is the means.
**“Country Comparison: Total Fertility Rate,” e World Fact Book, Central Intelligence Agency, 2014.
WAApril 9, 2018
I think it is false and perhaps even damaging to put forth the idea that more children = more righteous or that a small family = selfish. God put us on this Earth to be wise stewards and to create goodness. Would it be wise or good for a family to invite more children into a marriage that's already on the brink? Would it be wise to have a baby when the mother is emotionally tapped out after having "just" 2 kids? What if the family already has a child with special needs? In fact, in many circumstances, I feel like having a large family can actually be an act of selfishness and for self-fulfillment rather than making a wise choice for what is actually right and good for the marriage and the existing children in the family. Shaming small Mormon families does nothing to help them flourish. This article leaves me feeling empty and shamed rather than uplifted.
KristenApril 8, 2018
While I love seeing large families, and admittedly, have felt just a twinge of jealousy, I'm grateful for the three daughters and five grandchildren we've been blessed with. I'm sure Brother and Sister Eyre would be among those sympathetic to the 9 miscarriages and years of infertility my daughters have all experienced. Despite extensive genetic testing, reasons remain unclear. It's painful to see three righteous families willing to add to their families, but having such difficulties while trying to do it. I've learned that our desires matter more than numbers, I know the Eyres would agree with this. To Paulette, your remarks are sobering and, I believe, one of the plagues of the last days.